The Handmade Kitchen: Healthy Middle Eastern Meals Made by the Women of Shu’fat Refugee Camp

02 August 2017
© 2017 UNRWA Photo by Abeer Ismail

A delicious smell spreads to all the corners of the kitchen. Tasty and traditional Palestinian meals are being placed on tables made by creative Palestinians. With limited resources, a group of Palestine refugee women residing in Shu’fat refugee camp in northern Jerusalem established a small catering kitchen in the basement of the Shu’fat Refugee Camp Women’s Centre. Known as the ‘Handmade Kitchen’, the burgeoning business has since upgraded to a small restaurant-style kitchen, where they prepare delicious food and desserts for the month of Ramadan.

They tirelessly craft meals such as masakhan, maqlouba, maftool, grape leaves, pastry and Levantine desserts. Salam Mujahed launched this project as a source of income for the women of the camp, many of whom face hard living conditions. She notes, “We currently have five women skillfully working here to prepare food. Each woman who benefits from this project faces hard economic conditions. The project was initiated to help them to improve their conditions and to provide them with psychological support, making them active members of the community.”

The women have proven to be dedicated workers, always showcasing their culinary talents. They present their products to customers with love. The supervisor of the food unit at the Women’s Centre, Sabreen Ghurab, explains, “Our experience in this field has expanded. We work here together with love and we learn from each other. We excel and love this work because we have gained experience. We feel very happy when our customers are satisfied with our products.” 

The women also joined the UNRWA Healthy Camp Initiative to improve the quality of their work and bring it up to commercial standards. The Healthy Camp Initiative, a programme implemented with generous support from the United States, aims to provide an improved camp environment through youth participation and has been implemented in Shu’fat and Aida refugee camps. This Initiative includes the provision of preservative-free, nutritious food to UNRWA school students through the Healthy Canteen Initiative.

The manager of UNRWA Healthy Camp Initiative, Khadejah Iwidat, highlights, “The training courses that the women of the camp received in the fields of empowerment, leadership, project management and collective work helped them to improve their capacity to start their own projects.” She went on to add, “At the beginning, their project was limited to the food service industry when UNRWA connected them to UNRWA schools and the Healthy Canteen Initiative. UNRWA schools contracted them for the purchase of their pastries and fast healthy meals, given that they do use food preservatives. The Healthy Canteen Initiative impacted them by expanding their portfolio to include big projects and banquets.”

Many families buy from the kitchen when they do not have time to cook. Mrs. Salam notes, “They come to the Handmade Kitchen because it resembles home-cooked food, from form to taste and cleanliness.”  She has high hopes for the sustainability of the Handmade Kitchen and looks forward to improving it in the future. She also highlights that the kitchen is set to see an increase in orders from working mothers during the month of Ramadan, especially for large family banquets.

The project is not without its challenges, however. As Mrs. Salam notes, “We seek to expand our project outside the camp, but the checkpoint [near Shu’fat camp] gets in the way of our ability to deliver external orders on time.” Yet even in the face of these difficulties, the Palestine refugee artists of this catering kitchen remain at the ready to prepare delicious and distinguished food for their clients, whether for banquets during Ramadan or other types of occasions, to ensure that everyone can enjoy the comfort of their quality, home-cooked meals.