A Culinary Approach To Raise Funds For Victims of the Crisis in Syria
In this episode of Listen, Ladies, host Maryalice Aymong talks to Rose Lucas, managing director of the UK- based Hands Up Foundation, an organization that raises money and brings awareness of the violence in Syria through events that celebrate Syrian culture. The Syrian Supper Club is one of them where people across the world host fundraiser/dinners for friends/family/strangers, learn about Syrian culture and food, and hopefully carry this knowledge with them out into the rest of the world. Syrian Suppers now take place around the world from Singapore and Istanbul to Washington D.C. and Wales.
Below is an excerpt from her interview. To listen to the whole episode, download Listen, Ladies in iTunes.
LL: I wanted to start out by asking you how you came to experience Syria firsthand. When were you living there and what were the circumstances?
Rose Lucas (RL): I was lucky enough to be there for about eight months from September 2010 to June 2011. I went there to try and study Arabic at least. My Arabic is terrible, but I got to live in Damascus, the old city, for that time, and it’s a really incredible place, or it certainly was. It’s pretty different now. It was the most magical place to live: I was incredibly lucky. You have such fabulous access to all of the things that go on there, and one of the biggest things about Syria and its people is their generosity, particularly around food. The fruit and vegetable markets are incredible, the Sook’s full of color and noise, and they’re the most the most amazing places, really. Damascus for me was a real delight to live in, and the people we met were incredibly generous, kind, interesting, and gentle, so it was a really fabulous introduction to the Middle East, where I hadn’t been before.
LL: Once the civil war broke out what went through your mind? What were your biggest concerns, and where were you at that point in your life?
RL: The very beginnings of it were in March 2011, so I was still actually in Damascus. That’s when things started happening not in earnest, but that was the very beginning of the crisis as part of the Arab Spring. I certainly remember being there and thinking what on earth is going on, this feels very unusual. But it was also kind of exciting because there was a push from people in a very peaceful way that made us think maybe there is some kind of change that could be made to a country under an authoritarian regime. Initially there was some real excitement around that, and it kind of gained momentum, but very quickly it did begin to turn violent, and you saw the true colors of the regime. That was incredibly sad, and it’s the reason that I had to leave Syria. I didn’t want to go at all. I remember calling my mum in tears because I had to come home. She was watching the news—this was in May/June 2011—and she was seeing scenes on the news of protests and God knows what and thinking, “Oh my God, I know you must come home now.” So I found myself back in London with one of my housemates from Syria who’s also from the UK, and we felt so miserable partly because we’d been torn away from a country that we absolutely didn’t want to leave and that had looked after us so well. We just felt so far removed from the people we knew and the Syria we knew, so we really wanted to do something. It wasn’t until July 2012, but we thought we’d try and raise some money for the relief efforts that were beginning to be needed.
RL: We started out not setting out to establish a charity. I think that would have been a horrifying thought at the time. All we wanted to do was remind our friends in Syria that we hadn’t forgotten about them and hadn’t left in a hurry never to return. We decided to raise some money, and what we did was ask some people over, about 20 people, and got them around our kitchen table. We cooked them a Syria-inspired feast and asked them to give a donation. It was really simple and easy, and we raised around 200 pounds. Not a massive amount of money but something, and afterwards we just saw that, a) that was so nice and easy for us to do; and b), the people who came were so thrilled to be able to do something however small it was. Because we’d been to Syria and knew Damascus, I think people were engaged quite quickly, and so we started doing the dinners again, and we began doing them every month. Slowly that began to grow, and then we started inviting friends of friends and then people we didn’t know so well. We’d get a speaker in or a Syrian or someone who worked in Syria or who knew the situation on the ground. It was a chance for us not just to raise awareness of the crisis but also introduce people to Syrian food and the concept of the whole sharing thing wether it’s meze or other plates. It was so much fun, and people really, really enjoyed it, which is the best part, I think. Then slowly we realized this is a really great idea that seems to be working, and eventually we ended up getting a much bigger venue and a chef, and it’s grown and grown and grown. Syrian Supper Clubs have now happened all over the world because as much as we’ve continued doing them ourselves, we’ve also encouraged others to take up the fundraising mantle and go home and do one whether it’s for five people or 10 people or 50. And that’s really taken off, which is amazing to see. I think one of the things that is so encouraging is that there’s such a desire from people to do something to help, but they don’t necessarily know how. Of course there are masses of big charities that are doing incredibly valuable work in Syria, but there’s a bit of mistrust, certainly in the UK, about larger organizations and where your money goes, so for people to be able to do something directly, I think it’s quite a powerful thing, and food is such a good way of bringing people together because everyone needs food, and getting people around a table you’re all on the same level. There’s no hierarchy, and it’s such a great way of introducing people to a different culture.