June 20, 2017 / 12:51 PM / 3 months ago

In the kitchen, "we're all human": Refugee cooks up taste of Syria in Athens

Traditional Syrian dishes are seen on a table during the Refugee Food Festival in Athens, Greece June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

ATHENS (Reuters) - Barshank Haj Younes may not have much to celebrate, but the young Syrian is cooking up a feast.

His menu features hummus and moutabal - a smoky eggplant salad - and lamb and chicken dishes typically offered to guests at home, about 2,000 km away in war-torn Syria.

For one night this week, the young Syrian Kurd, who fled to Greece a year ago, showcased his cooking talent alongside a Greek chef in a packed Athens restaurant to mark World Refugee Day on June 20.

Beyond giving diners in 13 European cities a taste of Middle Eastern and African cuisine, the French-born Refugee Food Festival, backed by the United Nations refugee agency, is hoping to promote integration.

In sweltering conditions, Younes and Greek head chef Fotis Fotinoglou barely have any room to move around as they frantically prepare a menu of 14 Greek and Syrian dishes in the cramped 1 meter x 2 meters kitchen.

The menu includes dakos - a Greek barley rusk salad - tomato and zucchini fritters, Syrian freekeh - roasted durum wheat - as well as slow-cooked lamb shank and bulgur with chicken marinated in tahini, yoghurt, spices, and cumin.

“There’s cumin in everything!” Fotinoglou says.

“You want garlic? Or onion? You want water?” he asks Younes, a gawky 25-year-old with slicked back hair who stared at him blankly.

They end up communicating with elaborate hand gestures to get by.

Syrian Kurd cook, Barshank Haj Younes 25, prepares a traditional Syrian dish during the Refugee Food Festival in Athens, Greece June 19, 2017.

Beyond offering a brief respite from the daily grind of refugee life in Greece, Younes hopes the food will draw attention to the plight of the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants stranded in Greece.

“(I want to) remind them that there are refugees here, there are still Syrians here,” Younes said. “And I want them to remember that there are Syrians everywhere who are in need.”

Younes, who studied computer engineering, began experimenting in the kitchen five years ago, driven by necessity rather than a passion for food.

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In the early years of Syria’s civil war, he fled the mainly Kurdish northeastern town of Amuda for Iraq, where he hoped to make enough money to pay for his journey to Europe. In hotels he worked first as a waiter, then as a cook.

He arrived by boat from Turkey in March last year, a week after the European Union and Ankara enforced a deal to stem the refugee flight to Europe, cutting short his plans to travel north to Switzerland or the Netherlands.

“At times I don’t want to leave, because I really like the people here, they are very kind,” he said. “At other times I want to.”

Whatever the future may bring, the message Fotinoglou wants to bring home is clear.

“The circumstances which forced (the refugees) to leave behind their homeland, their home, their families, their birthplace -- it could happen to any one of us,” Fotinoglou said.

“We’re here today to say that in cooking, in the kitchen, there are no differences. We’re all the same, we’re all human,” he said.

Editing by Pritha Sarkar

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