When Mohamad Rahimeh arrived in the Calais refugee camp that was nicknamed “the Jungle”, cooking was the last thing on his mind. He was a political scientist from Syria with a journey from hell behind him. Food was just a means to an end.
But when a close friend fell sick, he rustled up a meal of eggs. A hidden talent was uncovered.
“He loved my food and after he got better I made everyone a big feast from one pan, and everyone had my ‘Jungle eggs’ – people loved it,” Rahimeh says.
Rahimeh is one of almost 14,000 Syrian refugees who have arrived in the UK since 2015, and a growing number of chefs bringing Syrian cuisine to the country’s food scene.
His recipe, using simple ingredients such as tinned tomatoes that were donated to the camp by charities, is still a big hit three years later, served to customers at his popup Syrian brunch in Archway, north London.
With the help of some Syrian friends and British volunteers that Rahimeh met in the now-cleared camp, he turned his culinary talents into a viable business by setting up Mo’s Eggs. Customers sit at communal tables, taking it in turns to dip in to the colourful selection of homemade hummus dishes, while he wanders through the restaurant chatting about his recipes and his home country.
“That’s where the idea of Mo’s Eggs came from – sharing food from one pan and giving people the love we had in ‘the Jungle’,” Rahimeh says.
Asylum Eggs have also been added to the menu since then – a new recipe that came to him during his stay in a detention centre while seeking asylum in the UK. “Whenever I make something new I always try to have a story behind it.”
Rahimeh buys most of his ingredients from the market, having grown up in the mountain town of Ain al-Fijah surrounded by fresh fruit and vegetables.
Research has shown that the majority of Syrian refugees in the UK are now in work or study, but unemployment rates remain high. A report from the University of Glasgow found that for 18- to 32-year-old Syrian refugees, 35% are studying and just over a quarter are in paid work. However, 19% are looking for work, almost five times the national unemployment rate of 3.9%.
The report also found that many of the young Syrian refugees settled in the UK are highly qualified – a quarter have a university degree. But many are working in jobs they are overqualified for, and only 57% of those in professional or highly technical roles in their home country have found similar work in the UK.
As more arrive, the popularity of Syrian food is on the rise, not only in London but in other areas that have large concentrations of immigrants and refugees. A number of restaurants and bakeries have popped up in Scotland, for instance, where nearly a fifth of Syrian refugees have settled since coming to the UK.
Juliette Lyons, who met Rahimeh in the Calais refugee camp while working for an NGO and now helps run Mo’s Eggs, said: “For a lot of customers who come, it’s their first interaction with Syrian culture and it’s opening people’s eyes to a little part of Syria here that they hadn’t ever been exposed to before. It’s highlighting Syria in a completely positive light, rather than just in the context of war.”
While his popup continues, he hopes to set up shop permanently with a street food stall and add his specially made Syrian ice-cream to the menu.
But not only has Rahimeh brought his Syrian cuisine to the UK, he’s also been introduced to classic British food dishes too. “The first English dish I tried was roast potatoes, and I love them. It was Christmas time [when I first arrived in the UK] and everyone was making roast potatoes and roast chicken. It’s my favourite.”
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