Work and Money
This Refugee-Run Catering Company Offers Syrian Women a Better Life
Starting over in a new place is a part of every refugee’s story, and it requires a lot of resiliency and support. Nihal Elwan understood this as she began assisting Syrian refugees arriving in Vancouver, British Columbia, where Elwan was living and working in 2015. “Without prior work experience, a source of income, or language skills, many of the Syrian women needed the assistance to get on their feet in a new society and culture,” she tells CircleAround. In an effort to assist these women, Elwan founded Tayybeh.
The initial idea for Tayybeh was simple — and effective: Elwan helped organize pop-up dining events led by Syrian women who brought their customs, recipes, and more to their new Canadian communities. The proceeds helped support the staff. Eventually, Tayybeh expanded into a full-fledged catering business and Syrian food product distribution company, always with a focus on social enterprise, gender equity, and bringing awareness to the refugee experience.
“The whole operation of Tayybeh was conceived to support and empower newcomer Syrian women who were the most vulnerable of the refugee communities arriving in Canada,” Elwan explains. “Tayybeh has employed up to 25 women since its inception, and continues to focus its energy on hiring as many Syrian women staff members as possible while ensuring they have financial sustainability and opportunities to grow and find community in their new homes.”
These opportunities are vital for refugees, who often have a hard time finding employment no matter how skilled or educated they are considered in their home country. It’s not just about picking up where they left off — refugees oftentimes have to learn an entirely new language, and without the benefits that come with citizenship (such as the ability to easily interview for a job without sponsorship), many struggle to find consistent employment where they can build steady income. Add to that sensationalized news headlines and prejudices toward Arab cultures, and the chance for Syrian refugees to easily build a new life becomes harder and harder.
Tayybeh affords dozens of female Syrian refugees the opportunity to receive income based on their existing skills, and it helps them assimilate into Canadian society. Their stories are found on the company’s blog: “Rola arrived in Canada with her family in September 2018. … To improve her English, she volunteered in the Salvation Army, and attended English classes while working at Tayybeh. ‘I was working and going to English classes at the same time, so the staff were helping me to understand my complicated schedule’, she explains. ‘They mean more to me than just family, because I get great support from them both financially and emotionally.’
"If you have faith and invest in the capacities of women and vulnerable communities and persons in society, you will see the fruits of your labor manifold,” Elwan tells CircleAround. “Always consider who stands to gain the most from your actions or work efforts. If it's a neglected group or person, know you are on the right track."
Elwan studied in Egypt and Cairo and worked in international development, specifically on gender and women’s issues in the Middle East. This experience helped fuel her passions; she eventually quit her full-time job to focus on growing Tayybeh, learning everything from strategic direction and expansion to day-to-day operations — all on the fly.
Today Tayybeh is one of the most well-known and highly sought-after catering businesses in the Vancouver area. Elwan and her team provide a variety of services, from boxed lunches like chicken shawerma and chickpea falafels served with white basmati rice, zesty cabbage salad and hummus dip, to larger events like weddings and corporate banquets featuring a variety of Middle Eastern flavors.
Elwan and her team continue to build community wherever they go, and everyone is involved in the process, from cooking and catering setup to packaging, delivery, and more. Women and families are able to connect with those from similar backgrounds and experiences while fostering new connections in their new neighborhoods or through client connections.
“If you have faith and invest in the capacities of women and vulnerable communities and persons in society, you will see the fruits of your labor manifold,” Elwan tells CircleAround. “Always consider who stands to gain the most from your actions or work efforts. If it's a neglected group or person, know you are on the right track.”
During the pandemic, the company expanded to prepare prepackaged gourmet foods for delivery. Customers can order kebabs they can reheat on the grill, smoked eggplant dip and homestyle pita chips, and a variety of frozen meals or catering items that offer the same quality and taste they’ve experienced at a Tayybeh event.
“The biggest reward is seeing the smiles of satisfaction and success on the faces of our amazing Tayybeh chefs who embody resilience and hope,” Elwan says. “With every rave review, award, accolade, and gesture of appreciation from a customer, the women feel rewarded for their hard work. Their happiness is my happiness.”