The sun was bright and hot on the rooftop of the Women's Program Association (WPA) building in Lebanon's Burj el-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp. Upon the rooftop were vegetables and herbs growing in planters in every direction.
Soufra Kitchen was founded nearly four years ago as part of a program for the WPA by Mariam Shaar — a Palestinian refugee born in Burj el-Barajneh — in the hopes of allowing more women to work and support their families.
“We started to make a survey with UNRWA on needs for women in all of the camps in all of Lebanon,” Shaar told Al-Monitor. She added, “When we finished the survey, we found that women would like to work and find a job to support their families, like through cooking.”
After sending a proposal to Al-Fanar, a philanthropy organization that helps invest in sustainable programs throughout the Middle East that make a social impact, they started working with 10 women; the women cooked and delivered food.
Since then, Soufra has grown to consist of 40 Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian women, who will often cook and deliver large orders of food for nongovernmental organizations throughout Beirut.
Shaar said she continues to try to get women involved in Soufra “to support them and encourage them to change their economic situation and social situation."
When she started, Shaar said, she did not anticipate her program would grow as much as it has but was pleasantly surprised when it did. She noted that not only the business had grown, but the attitudes of the women involved with Soufra had changed as well.
“When we started, some women said, ‘Okay, we just want to get money,’” Shaar explained, adding, “But now, the effect of the kitchen … not just economically but socially … they come here just to sit here [in the garden], to drink coffee without any work. Their lives also have become changed. A woman was afraid all of the time that her husband would divorce her, but now she says, ‘[It's OK] if he divorces me, I can get money. I can open my own house.’ So the women here have become stronger than before.”
Amira, a Lebanese woman working with Soufra, spoke highly of her job and said it has helped her both socially and financially.
“It has been a fulfilling experience, and it fills my time and provides financial support," she told Al-Monitor.
Abeer, a Palestinian woman who works with Soufra, told Al-Monitor that Soufra’s and the garden’s success is proof that Palestinians and women can be successful.
“We always have to believe that there’s hope,” she said, adding, “Especially because we are Palestinians and people say to us ‘You cannot make this.’ So now I say, ‘Yes we can, and yes we did.’”
Another Palestinian woman working with Soufra, Manal, agreed with what Abeer said, telling Al-Monitor that this should be an example for women to fight for their dreams because they are achievable.
“I want to tell the women in their homes who do not have a job but want one that they can make their dreams come true,” she said passionately, adding, “They just need to be strong.”
As many of the women working with Soufra are Palestinians, they are restricted to work inside the camp; some depend on their work to be able to provide for their families.
“Some of them are divorced, some of them are widows and some of them depend on [working with Soufra],” Shaar said, adding, “Before they were dependent on help from the people, but now most of them are getting a fixed salary.”
The rooftop garden was opened in October 2018 after around two months of construction. It was financed by the Norwegian Embassy in Beirut in August 2018 after the WPA approached them with their proposal to build a rooftop garden that was made from recycled plastic.
Ziad Abi Chaker was introduced to Shaar through a mutual friend, and he agreed to help them build the garden using his patented solid plastic boards that are made from recycled plastic bags, as he had previously worked on a similar project at the American University of Beirut where cabbages were planted in a rooftop garden atop one of the university’s buildings.
“We went to check on the roof to see if it was structurally sound because we don’t want to install heavy structures and then have the building collapse,” Abi Chaker explained to Al-Monitor. “The roof was structurally solid, and we looked at where the holding beams were and decided that based on where the beams are, we were going to place the structures on the beams themselves. When we finished, we had equipped the space with around 3,000 positions to plant.”
In addition to the garden, Cedar Environmental also installed a compost so that the food waste in the building could be used to feed the plants.
Abi Chaker also praised the garden for being environmentally friendly and utilizing the rooftop in the project.
“You have a roof that sits there all day collecting sun; if you sit beneath it, you have to put your [air-conditioner] on just so that you are comfortable,” he said, adding, “Now you have plants on the roof, and they are taking part of the energy … now the roof becomes productive, and since it is made from recycled materials, you have diverted waste from the landfills. Plastic is practically indestructible, so it’ll last for a couple of hundred years.”
According to Shaar, Soufra has become a symbol of hope for people living in the camp since it started out small but continues to expand.
“They always look at us as an idol,” she said joyfully, adding, “They’re always wondering what the next step is now because we started with the kitchen, then we bought a food truck to sell the meals outside of the camp. Now we made this garden, and we hope to make a small restaurant. We also have many other projects, like [a] preschool. So the people in the camp ask, ‘Mariam, what’s your next step? Can we work with you or be volunteers?’”
Following the success of this garden, Shaar said she would like to expand it to other rooftops and would even like to open a small Soufra restaurant in the camp.
Until they take their next step, the women will keep showing up to the kitchen and will continue to give their community the hope of change.
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