Lonely Planet Writer

Refugees wow Parisians with their culinary skills at a special food festival

The Refugee Food Festival is currently taking in its founding city of Paris, France. Until 24 June, refugee chefs from Syria, Georgia and Chad will be cooking in 14 restaurants across the city of lights and beyond. They’re expanding the festival to 14 cities across the globe, from San Francisco to Cape Town, to coincide with the celebration of World Refugee Day on 20 June.

People participate in the food festival. Image by © Studio Avocadi RFF LYON 2017

Parisian foodie Louis Martin co-founded the festival with Marine Mandrila in 2016. “It’s to discover the world through food,” he says. “It’s something we all share in common and it can bridge gaps between cultures.” Martin was inspired to start the festival after seeing negative media coverage about Syrian refugees. “Before refugees faced persecutions, they were people who had lives, work, talents, culture, many things on top of being refugees,” he said. “Our goal was to change the way people look at refugees.”

The Refugee Food Festival was held in Lyon in 2017. Image by © Studio Avocadi – RFF Lyon 2017

After starting out with just eight refugee chefs in a handful of venues that ranged from restaurants to street food vendors, it quickly grew. “We got calls from people in Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada saying ‘we like this idea, can you bring it to my city?’” The festival is a project of the Food Sweet Food non-profit in partnership with UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency) and now has organizers in several countries to help connect over 100 refugee chefs from 25 countries (including Iran, Afghanistan, Albania, Sri Lanka and Syria) with local restaurants.

There is a variety of foods to sample from around the world. Image by ©Camille Hispard

The participating restaurants, who host the refugee chefs and their individualised menus, cover the cost of ingredients, pay the refugee chefs and donate parts of the profits to a local refugee organization of their choice. Over 65m refugees fled their home countries since 2016. “It’s a positive initiative that brings together citizens and refugees,” said one Syrian refugee chef, Hussam Khodary, whose signature dish is samosas. “Thanks to the experience I’ve had here, I was able to meet beautiful people and to find the confidence to rebuild my life with my family here in France.”

People take part in the food festival. Image by ©Bea Uhart_UNHCR

Another Syrian refugee chef Mohammad El Khaldy worked as a chef for 20 years in Damascus before the bombings began. He has lived in Paris since 2014. This year, he’ll be cooking a French-Syrian brunch with “meze” (Syrian appetisers) including hummus, baba ganouj and Fatteh, a Damascus dish with grilled almonds, flatbread and chickpeas. “For me to work in France, it’s all above discovering French culture and gastronomy and I am delighted to share the gastronomy of my country,” he said. “This festival has changed my life,” said Elkhaldy. “It gave me the opportunity to collaborate with the greatest chefs and it allowed me to become an ambassador of my Syrian culinary heritage.”