Canada's Syrian newcomers feed neighbours in need this Ramadan
Rabie Abo Alzahab had barely slept: on two consecutive nights in the middle of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the 38-year-old had been preparing enough Syrian dishes to feed 500 people.
"We put a Damascus touch on the food," said Abo Alzahab, taking a quick break from a busy kitchen at the Ralph Thornton Community Centre in Toronto's east end, where volunteers prepared plates of rice, salad, hummus, BBQ chicken or falafel.
The chicken is "marinated with Damascus flavour," he explained, and the dressing on the fattoush salad is made with pomegranates.
"I'm really happy and excited to serve them Mediterranean food, Damascus food," said Abo Alzahab, who came to Canada 13 years ago from his native Syria, and now runs his own catering business.
"We try to help as much as we can," he said.
Just outside the kitchen, a large conference room was filled with a dozen tables, each hosting a small, colourful Ramadan lantern at its centre.
Dozens of volunteers milled about, bringing plates of food to men and families who wandered in for lunch. Children moved enthusiastically between the seats, offering guests their choice of orange or apple juice.
The "Feed Your Neighbours" Ahlan Ramadan event on last weekend sought to feed homeless or low-income individuals and families in Toronto - no questions asked - in the spirit of giving that marks the month of Ramadan.
|The event in Toronto was set up to feed homeless or low-income individuals and families [Jillian Kestler D'Amours]
Many of the volunteers were Syrian newcomers themselves, having only just arrived in Canada after the government's push to resettle tens of thousands of refugees from Syria since late 2015.
"They've been here a year now," said Julie Mahfouz Rezvani, executive director at Mes Amis Canada, a local non-profit that provides support and training for Syrian newcomers in the Toronto area and organises community events.
|Many of the volunteers were Syrian newcomers themselves
"It's all about giving back. And what a better way to give back… than to feed 500 people," she told The New Arab.
Last year, the organisation distributed 1,000 food baskets during Ramadan. This year, the event included a sit-down luncheon, and volunteers then distributed food directly to people in the community. Any leftovers were donated to local shelters.
|Chef Abo Alzahab came to Canada from Syria 13 years ago [Jillian Kestler D'Amours]
"It is about having that sense of giving back, and feeling as other people do," said Mahfouz Rezvani, adding that the event also aimed to build bonds between Syrian newcomers and the local community.
|Attendees were encouraged to ask questions about Ramadan, or the refugees' experiences
Attendees were encouraged to ask questions about Ramadan, or the refugees' experiences, and "to hear each other's stories and see the commonalities" between both groups, Mahfouz Rezvani said.
"Maybe they will know a little bit more about us, and they will know a little bit more about them," she said.
For many Syrian newcomers, the event was a way to return the kindness and generosity that Canadians welcomed them with only a few months ago.
|Jana and June Tayfour were volunteering to give something back to the community [Jillian Kestler D'Amours]
Canada has resettled more than 40,000 Syrian refugees since November 2015 through government sponsorship, and the support of private sponsorship groups such as churches, synagogues and mosques.
More than 350 communities across the country are now home to Syrian newcomers.
|For many Syrian newcomers, the event was a way to return the kindness and generosity that Canadians welcomed them with
"We were new to the country and we didn't know anything. People helped us with everything and they made us feel welcomed," said Kholod Almawazini, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Canada 18 months ago, in a statement.
"We love this country and we are grateful to the people of Canada. It's our turn to show them kindness," Almawazini said.
Jana Tayfour, 24, and her sister, Jude, 21, were also volunteering on Sunday.
Though they didn't come to Canada as refugees, the sisters, whose family is originally from Syria but last lived in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, said they wanted to give back to the Toronto community.
"We're here to help," said Jana, who is completing a masters degree at the University of Toronto.
She said it was worth it "to see [the] smiles" of the attendees. "It's about putting something else's needs before yours," she said, about the importance of giving back during Ramadan.
"I just hope they have a good time," Jude said. "It can change their day."
"One person can make a difference," added Jana.
Jillian Kestler D'Amours is a journalist based in Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @jkdamours