A former architect, Majeda now shares her cultural identity with communities by teaching Syrian cuisine.
Majeda Khouri’s passion for cooking has helped her integrate into London, where she founded The Syrian Sunflower, a social enterprise that unites people through the universal language of food. A former architect, Majeda now shares her cultural identity with communities by teaching Syrian cuisine. Working with charity Migrateful, she supported hundreds of vulnerable adults and children by providing free meals. She continues to dispel negative stereotypes of refugees through her cooking classes.
Later this month, she will be running a vegan cookery class with Made in Hackney, as part of the Syrian Arts and Culture Festival.
We caught up with Majeda ahead of the event.
How did the idea of The Syrian Sunflower come about?
“I came to London in 2017, after being forced to leave Syria, and I wanted to meet people. Sharing food is a huge part of my culture. I have a passion for cooking and have always cooked for friends. I was an architect for five years until my children were born. But when I first came to London, I was depressed. I hadn’t seen my children for two years and it was hard for me. Then I met Jessica (Jessica Thompson, founder of Migrateful). Through Migrateful, I was able to start teaching women how to cook. This helped me integrate into communities in London. The classes were a place to speak to people and doing this gave me peace because I was able to contribute something. I started with small groups of Syrian ladies and as my English improved I worked with other nationalities. I wanted to break the negative stereotypes of refugees, to challenge what is portrayed in the media.
When I came here, I needed help with accommodation. I had two choices. One was to rent, and that was expensive because at that point I didn’t have a working permit. The other option was to live in a hostel. Then through a friend, I met a couple who kindly let me live in their house for two months, rent free. In time, I was also able to help others. With Migrateful, I cooked 100 free meals every month for homeless people. We fed children who had no food. I believe everyone has to do something.
I held a supper club, once a month for eight months, at Darjeeling Express, an Indian restaurant in Covent Garden, with its founder Asma Khan (the restaurant was the focus of the first episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table).
Around that time, through the organisation TERN (The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network), I met experts in sales and marketing, and accessed the support I needed to create my own social enterprise.
“I teach people about the history of traditional Syrian cuisine and how it is influenced by different countries.”
I cook traditional Syrian food for various occasions, depending on the event. Finger food menus, vegetarian, vegan. It’s flexible. You can make the same dishes without meat. Syrian food uses a lot of yoghurt, but we can substitute this for tomato sauce, for example. I teach people about the history of traditional Syrian cuisine, how it is influenced by different countries. One of the traditional Middle Eastern ingredients is freekeh, durum wheat which is cooked and prepared to reveal a fresh green grain. It has a lovely smokiness when it is roasted.
During lockdown a lot of my cooking classes were cancelled. It was tough but I needed to find a solution, so I started cooking online. I set up two cameras and one chopping board. I could teach 100 people at a time.
Last year I cooked for a wedding in the south of Italy, it was a beautiful place. And last month, I catered for 2,000 people. It was a huge corporate event with the financial company Bloomberg. I worked for three days without sleeping. It was a challenge, but I did it.
You’ve done so much in the short space of time you have been in London. What next?
I’m currently working on a marketing plan for another project based on the keto diet. Syrian cuisine has a lot of dishes that are healthy and related to keto, and there is a market for it. With catering, I didn’t need a place other than my home, which is where I’d prepare the food to take to a venue, but with the keto project I would need a kitchen. So I’m doing more training for that and looking for investors to fund the project.”
Interview by Rebecca Shahoud