After fleeing Syria's war, chef becomes a star in Gaza

Tue Jun 16, 2015 12:19pm EDT
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By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - It is a safe bet that no one made it as a celebrity chef following the same path as Wareef Hameedo.

Three years ago, the 34-year-old was running a small restaurant in a mall in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Then it was heavily bombed in Syria's civil war. Members of his family fled to southeast Turkey and he followed shortly afterwards.

In Turkey, he decided he would be better off in Egypt. He sailed to Port Said and ended up working as a chef at corporate banquets in Cairo. Struggling to make ends meet, he faced a decision: risk a journey to Europe or try his luck elsewhere.

"I had to choose whether to ride the death boats to Europe, with an uncertain future, or go to Gaza on the advice of some Palestinian friends," Hameedo said. Against the odds, he chose Gaza.

In May 2013, he was smuggled through one of the tunnels linking Sinai with the Palestinian territory and joined 1.8 million Gazans trying to make a living in an economy on the brink of collapse, with unemployment nearing 50 percent.

With a degree in mechanical engineering, Hameedo's technical skills might have been useful. But he was determined to make it as a chef, and step by step he pursued the dream, although Gaza was consumed by war between Israel and the militant group Hamas barely a year after he got there.

As well as meeting his wife -- a Palestinian journalist who interviewed him about Syrian refugees -- he eventually opened his own restaurant with a partner, calling it "Soryana," or Our Syria, a small place in one of Gaza's best neighborhoods.

"I saw there were no creative ways of cooking," he said of his initial impression of Gaza's cuisine. "Only a few places were doing non-traditional things. When it came to Syrian-oriented food, I thought I might have a chance."   Continued...

Syrian chef Wareef Hameedo prepares food for customers at Soryana restaurant in Gaza City June 14, 2015.  REUTERS/Mohammed Salem