The immigrants are cooking
Arab refugees in São Paulo earn a living with their native cuisine and increase the variety of typical restaurants in the city.
São Paulo – Ever since Brazil saw a new batch of Arab immigrants arrive, mostly from Syria, finding typical Arab food in the city of São Paulo became an easier task. Unable to find employment in their own fields due to subpar Portuguese-speaking skills, these outlanders turned to gastronomic entrepreneurship to earn a living in the land that welcomed them.
Syrians make up the bulk of Brazil’s refugee population, according to the National Committee for Refugees (Conare): 2,298 of them found shelter in Brazilian cities after fleeing the civil war that broke out back home in March 2011. The second biggest Arab refugee population in Brazil is Palestine, in a historical conflict with Israel, followed by Iraq and Lebanon. There are 376 Palestinians, 360 Lebanese and 275 Iraqis in Brazil.
Arab food is very well known in Brazil, since many a immigrant in past centuries chose food for their business, they take advantage of the internet to advertise the new spots to get kibbeh and tabbouleh in São Paulo. Most are small and plain places, and not all of them are run by seasoned chefs. Some are engineers, physicians, dentists, professors. But they all know the recipes from back home.
In the bustling Canindé neighborhood, Syria’s Aiman Al Masry dons on the apron to cook up shawarma and falafel. Though Ogarett is a small place, the food is successful. It’s owned by Tarek Massarami, a Syrian who settled in Brazil a while back and got Al Masry to take care of the place two months ago. The refugee worked in the food business in Syria and Egypt, the last country he lived in before Brazil, but he also served as head of operations for a billboard ad company in Saudi Arabia. “But I enjoy working with cuisine,” he concedes.
Always smiling, happy to be in Brazil, he traces back his journeys until he knocked on the Pari Mosque door two years ago. He went there straight from the airport seeking help. Masry left his country in 2004 for political reasons, spent ten years in Saudi Arabia and two more years in Egypt. Unable to stay in each, go back to Syria, or go to Europe, he found out about Brazil in an online search. The visas came out in a week and the Masrys set out travelling again.
The family spent the first week in a hotel. “But if we’d stayed longer my money would run out,” he says. He went to a friend’s place, and a few months to a Caritas shelter. He then managed to rent out a place. At first he’d make sweets to sell at the mosque, on order, at street fairs. But then he found a chance in Ogarett. His brother also moved to Brazil and helps him run the place, along with two female employees. Although he doesn’t speak much Portuguese, Masry can say he found a home in Brazil. “I want to stay here,” he says.
Basma El Halabi, of Morocco, is another Arab immigrant making a living out of food in São Paulo. Her country’s not at war, but she couldn’t stay due to personal problems, and she’s in Brazil under refugee status. Holding degrees in Hospitality and Gastronomy, Basma drew on her knowledge and rented out a space in São Paulo’s Itaim Bibi neighborhood, at food park O Quintal de Casa, along with her husband, whom she met in Brazil – the Syrian refugee Nawras Halabim, a journalist by trade.
At their stall they sell Moroccan couscous, Moroccan chicken tagine, kafta, chicken shawarma, hummus, labneh, babaganoush and assorted sweets, as well as other types of foods and snacks. They also cook for events. “I have great hopes in God. I enjoy what I’m doing, I love getting down to business, Cooking is like sharing love and emotion with other people,” she says.
But Basma also had her struggles before she found her space, and she still worries about the loan she and her husband got from the bank to open their stall. “We need to make the payments each month,” she says. When she left her country in 2015, Basma didn’t know anyone in Brazil. On the plane, she spoke with a woman who invited her to work at her home. But the pay would never come and the work kept piling up. She quit the household and relied on NGO Adus to set up a stall in a food park that no longer exists. Only after that did she open her current business.
In Morocco, Basma had worked for major luxury hotels, both in reception duties and food. In good Portuguese, she claims her dream is not to open her own restaurant, but a cooperative where women Arab refugees can work and look after their kids at once. The plan is to have the cooperative supply its products to supermarkets and snack bars.
Muna Darwesh, of Syria, another refugee in Brazil, also relies on cooking for her sustenance. An English literature professor, she arrived in São Paulo with her husband and their four children three years ago. At first she’d sell her delicacies out of a stand facing mosque Mesquita Brasil. Now, she cooks to order and sells food at bazaar sales and fairs. Muna also teaches cooking workshops hosted by the NGO Adus on occasion.
She makes all sort of Arab recipes, but claims the best ones are kibbeh, sfiha, grape leaf rolls and Moroccan rice, which Brazilians are the most familiar with. Her dream is to open an Arab-themed place offering not only food, but dances and other elements of Arab culture. She explains that Brazil was the only country she was allowed to enter legally as a refugee, and that’s why she decided to come.
In the Pinheiros district, another family of former self-employed professionals from Syria runs a typical restaurant whose fame is spreading: the Damascus. Its patrons will tell you that the sweets are exactly the same as in Syria. The business is helmed by orthopedist Said Mourad and his two sons, dentist Mohamad Mourad and accountant Khaldoun Mourad.
The three of them also fled their country with their families to get away from the war. The first to arrive was the accountant, who opened a pastry shop. As soon as the other family members came, they decided to expand by adding meals. The income from the pastry wasn’t enough to make ends meet. Now, apart from the sweet stuff, they also offer an Arab buffet for lunch, as well as snacks. Each weekend they cook a different Arab dish.
And that’s not all. Another newly-arrived immigrant, Syria’s Talal Altinawi gained fame in the city after an online crowdfunding campaign assisted by the NGO Adus to open his restaurant. An engineer, he even tried his hand at lines of work other than cuisine, but it didn’t pan out. In April this year, after raising BRL 71,000 in donations, he opened Talal Culinária Síria in the Jardim das Acácias area of São Paulo’s Brooklin neighborhood.
In Vila Madalena, Adoomy Restaurante is also owned by a Syrian immigrant. Adam Hamwia arrived in Brazil in 2013 as a refugee. A business administrator by trade, he used to cook as a hobby until he decided to open his business. Hamwia put his own money into the venture, and his place serves both Arab recipes, like hummus and falafel, and western options like fried chicken.
OgarettRua Doutor Ornelas, 150
Canindé – São Paulo
Phone and WhatsApp: +55 (11) 951091040
Basma Cozinha e Cultura do Oriente Médio
Rua Doutor Renato Paes de Barros, 484
Itaim Bibi – São Paulo
Phone and WhatsApp: +55 (11) 95865 5026
Muna – Sabores & Memórias Árabes
Phone and WhatsApp: +55 (11) 954370682
Damascus Doce & Restaurante Árabe
Rua Cônego Eugênio Leite, 764
Pinheiros – São Paulo
Phone: +55 (11) 4883-0429
Talal Culinária Síria
Rua das Margaridas, 59
Jardim Acácia – São Paulo
Phone: +55 (11) 3360-2595
Rua Rodésia, 150
Vila Madalena – São Paulo
Phone: +55 (11) 98540-5789
*Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum