BEIRUT: Last month, as people across the Lebanon huddled under their covers trying to keep warm during a brutal winter storm, Barbara Abdeni Massaad was at home in Beirut thinking of those who must be suffering even more from the cold – Syrian refugees in makeshift tents in the Bekaa Valley. She had to act. “It was very cold that week. I thought: What about the people in the Syrian camps? I couldn’t sleep. I had to do something. Everyone has to do something,” she says, sitting at her booth at the farmers market in Hamra where she runs the Slow Food Foundation, which aims to promote wholesome and traditional food.
This is where she sells her cookbooks every Tuesday morning and where she also collects clothing donations which she distributes to Syrian refugees. It is also where at the end of the year she will be selling a new self-published book of soup recipes whose proceeds will go to Syrian refugees, whose plight she says is the worst she has seen in her 25 years of living in Lebanon after having moved here from the U.S.
“If I were a barber, I would go and cut their hair for free. But I write cookbooks, so I did a book. I decided to do soup,” says Massaad, who has been a serious cook since the age of 15. “The most important thing is empathy. We can’t be indifferent.”
On her book’s Facebook page, Soup for Syria, she quotes Matt Flannery, founder of the micro-finance group Kiva: “Whatever your skill, whatever your expertise, there’s a way to apply that to help people you care about.” She also quotes he 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi as saying, “If you have much, give of your wealth. If you have little, give of your heart.”
With this book, which she believes could generate thousands of dollars, her goal is to raise money to build a temporary pop-up kitchen in the Bekaa town of Zahleh, where Syrian refugees can have wholesome hot soups such as lentil and vegetable – the same recipes likely to make it into the book. Other proceeds would go directly to refugees to pay for their needs. And while the book will be in English, she might have it translated to Arabic to distribute among interested Syrians depending on the project’s success.
“My dream is to give them a kitchen where they can have healthy meals,” she says. “There’s a war and people shouldn’t go without food.”
So far, the response to her endeavor has been enthusiastic, with people eager to give their time and skills in the printing and recipe contributions. She has already started getting contributions from Lebanese farmers who sell their goods at the market. She is expecting more submissions from local chefs, restaurateurs and foodies. The soups will all be regional dishes that can be made with local ingredients so that Syrians themselves can make them.
“The book won’t be too sophisticated. I want the Syrians to be able to make the soups,” she says.
Massaad also wants the project to be a message to everyone that they can use their time and skills to help Syrian refugees.
“I want the world to see what’s happening here and I want to show rich countries that this is not permissible in 2014,” she says.
Massaad’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.