Soufra
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About the Cookbook

This cookbook, and the affiliated documentary film also titled Soufra, by Rebelhouse Group, accompanies Mariam Shaar on her journey of empowerment by developing a thriving business that employs the incredible women of the Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon.
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Mariam was born in the Burj el-Barajneh camp in the 1970s, almost three decades after her grandmother arrived as the Palestinian refugee crisis began. Like all refugees, her family was forbidden from holding most jobs, lacked documentation to leave the country legally, and did not have the financial means to move outside the camp. So they stayed. Mariam has spent her entire life in the camp, surviving the Lebanese Civil War and a series of other brutal conflicts, including the “war of the camps.”

Driven by a relentless desire to make life in the camp better, she dedicated herself to improving not only her own life but also the lives of those around her. In the 1990’s, she joined the Women’s Program Association, a community-based organization founded with the support of UNRWA to bring together women in the refugee camps in Lebanon to build new opportunities. Today she is the director of WPA’s community-based center in the Burj el-Barajneh camp.

Mariam’s vision has always been to create opportunities for the refugee community and improve lives through education and production. With the intention of creating a sustainable business at the WPA center in Burj el-Barajneh, she surveyed local women to get a sense of their interests. She discovered that many women were interested in utilizing their cooking skills, as they could participate in that at both the community center and in their own homes. Perhaps most important, it was something that reflected their heritage and passions, and something for which there would always be a market. Everyone needs to eat!

With seed funding and business planning support from Alfanar venture philanthropy, Soufra catering was born in 2013. Like any start-up, it went through many iterations. Different names, logos, and business plans were tested. Mariam partnered with Souk El Tayeb, a leading social enterprise in Lebanon, on training and branding. The idea was to revive traditional Palestinian dishes and offer them to the Beirut market. The dishes were met with huge acclaim. But despite the positive reviews, not enough catering orders were coming in. In a brainstorming session with the women of Soufra and its stakeholders, the idea of a food truck was hatched, and with it a whole new journey began!

In 2015, social justice filmmaker Thomas Morgan heard about Alfanar’s work with Soufra. He came to Lebanon to meet Mariam, and ended up dedicating two years of his life to filming her story and helping turn her vision into reality. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, the Soufra women raised more than enough money to launch the first-ever refugee food truck. In so doing, they made it possible to take their food and their business to customers all over Lebanon, and began providing more and more jobs for women inside the camp.

Not only does this cookbook share some of the most treasured recipes that changed the lives of the Soufra women, but it also will give back to the families at the camp. The women of Soufra, through WPA, are full partners in the publication of this book. They will share equally in proceeds from its sales, which will contribute to the ongoing development of the camp’s Children’s Center and to building a school for the children in the camp.

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