Vancouver’s Tayybeh Empowers Syrian Female Chefs While Celebrating Delicious Syrian Cuisine

Photo: Tayybeh (Nihal Elwan third from right)

In 2015, when Nihal Elwan saw Syrian families fleeing to Vancouver to start new lives, she felt impelled to do something to help out.

Elwan saw a need that she wanted to address. “The need was to help Syrian newcomers, specifically what was, in my opinion, the most vulnerable group: Syrian newcomer women who don’t speak the [English] language and who might not have avenues to access a social life or employment opportunities,” Elwan explains. With her native fluency in Arabic and her professional background in gender empowerment and international development, she was uniquely suited to support recently arrived Syrian women.

But what would be the best way to do so? After giving it some thought, Elwan decided that food would be the ideal medium for uplifting Syrian women. “Syrian food is known to be the jewel of Middle Eastern food,” she says, continuing, “It’s synonymous with absolutely delicious food made with care. It’s also synonymous with incredible hospitality, generosity, and communal dining.” Elwan says every Syrian woman she has met is a phenomenal cook. Many of them are also very used to cooking regularly for large familial groups, making them highly skilled in the kitchen. “It seemed like a natural fit for them, instead of cooking at home, to be cooking for work,” Elwan says.

Photo: Tayybeh

With a Neighbourhood Small Grant from the Vancouver Foundation, Elwan set about founding Tayybeh, which means “kind” and “delicious” in Arabic. The initial plan was modest: Syrian women would host a small dinner for people in the area where Elwan lived. However, “it really snowballed from there,” she says.

The reception was overwhelmingly positive. For over two years, the chefs of Tayybeh held ticketed pop-up dinners around town. And even though many guests were unfamiliar with Syrian cuisine, they eagerly bought tickets for the dinners, which quickly sold out every time. “There was an incredible level of warmth and enthusiasm from Vancouverites who were so excited to attend the dinners,” she says. A hundred to two hundred people would gather at a venue, sit at communal tables together, and joyfully feast on a wide range of Syrian specialties, such as kibbeh saniyeh (a layered ground beef and bulgur dish) and riz bel shareyyeh (white rice with golden vermicelli).

Elwan attributes much of the goodwill to the profound emotional impact that the plight of Syrian refugees had on people in Vancouver. At the dinners, she would see guests hugging the Syrian chefs, crying with them in empathy. “It was really beautiful, very moving, and really a testament to this city and the values of this city. I don’t know if Tayybeh and its model, especially early on, would have been successful were we elsewhere,” Elwan says. This success allowed Tayybeh to transition into a highly sought-after catering service for conferences, weddings, office lunches, and other gatherings.

Photo: Tayybeh

The widespread support of the city had profound effects on the Syrian female newcomers, who developed a sense of community, as well as equipped themselves with a variety of personal and professional skills. At first, some of the women didn’t know how to take public transit because they were so isolated. They also couldn’t speak or understand English, which made accessing the city and its resources exceedingly difficult.

But through employment at Tayybeh, the Syrian chefs made friends, learned English, and started earning money—in some cases, for the first time in their lives. “I remember distinctly the moment when one of them was telling me about how her son came to ask her for money. She opened her purse, and she took out money from her own earnings to give to him. And she said that feeling was indescribable,” Elwan says. Many of the Tayybeh chefs have come to see themselves as equal partners within the household; as well, other women, who are widowed, for example, have been able to support themselves in an active, empowered way. “They came here, they started working, they bought cars, and now they drive them, and do all these things that were impossible for them before,” Elwan says.

Excitingly, the Tayybeh chefs have introduced Syrian food to the city. According to Elwan, the previous lack of Syrian cuisine in Vancouver compared to Lebanese or Persian food, for instance, is related to different immigration patterns. “Up until the war, you didn’t see that exodus from Syria. In the Middle East, you could find Syrian restaurants but it wasn’t exported to the West as much as Lebanese or Moroccan food—and that’s a function of the diasporic experience,” she says. But now, she points out, due to the forced migration to other countries, Syrian restaurants are popping up all over the world.

Syrian cuisine is so richly multifaceted due to Syria’s unique location in relation to various regions of the world, its historical significance on the famed Silk Road, and its diverse and fertile land, which allows for the cultivation of a range of fruits and vegetables. Cooking is fresh, vibrant, and meant for sharing. Some of Tayybeh’s most popular items include their hummus, chicken sheesh tawook (chicken breast skewers), kibbeh (croquettes of ground beef, bulgur, ground nuts, and spices), and hand-rolled vine leaves filled with rice, herbs, and spices. All dishes are halal, with options for various dietary requirements (e.g., dairy free, vegan, gluten free).

Photo: Tayybeh

While the values and mission of Tayybeh have not changed since its launch, the pandemic did cause a shift in their social enterprise model. Due to event cancellations, Tayybeh had to quickly pivot to packaging their products, such as dips, frozen meals, and frozen “grillz,” for selling to online and brick-and-mortar retailers, as well as meal prep companies. “We discovered capacities within us that we had no idea we had because we were busy with the catering and had no time to think about anything else,” Elwan says.

The initial four women culinary team has now grown to fifteen strong. Elwan acknowledges that keeping Tayybeh going has been a significant amount of work, especially during these last couple of years, but feels inspired every day by the amazing women she works with. “What keeps me going is feeling that we have a good formula, that we have an amazing team, and that these women deserve to continue to do well. I feel like Tayybeh is going to go places,” she says.

Tayybeh has plans to expand the distribution and availability of their products. No matter how big the business gets though, Elwan feels that Tayybeh’s identity will be forever intertwined with the city where it was born and was embraced. “I would love this city to be synonymous with the story of the success of these women who started new lives here, and it’s thanks to this city that their lives continued on a beautiful trajectory,” she says, adding, “My dream is for people to come to Vancouver and know about Tayybeh, and for these two to be linked in people’s imagination.”

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