Somewhere between the migrant crisis, the natural disasters, and the exasperating year of political shifts in both the United States and France, where I live, I crumbled. The emotional pummeling brought on by the relentless stream of news alerts, most of them demonstrating a general lack of humanity, had left me beset with grief and a pervasive sense of powerlessness and I buckled.
But not for long. If anything positive has emerged from the mess of the past several years, it’s the collective awareness that grief is futile if it isn’t properly channeled; it doesn’t help the victimized and it certainly doesn’t help the observers among us. (On top of that, helplessness isn’t a good look.) Grassroots activism has happily flourished as a way to direct today’s brand of rage-shock-hurt-frustration and, hopefully, enact change.
Still, I was concerned that my minimal funds would be limiting to any meaningful support, and I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of people and living things that needed assistance from outside communities. What could I, as one person, possibly do that would impact any of the suffering in the world?
It isn’t realistic to help everyone, reminded one of my close friends in Paris. She and her family had fled Syria nearly 30 years ago and settled in Canada. With family still in Damascus, including primary school–aged cousins, she had grappled with the scale of what she could offer from afar and realized that the important goal is to make a difference in a life. Impact is impact and every little bit is significant.
With that in mind, I’ve donated as much as I could offer to Planned Parenthood, animal rights groups, disaster relief funds, and to aid the arrival of a Syrian refugee family who was being taken in by my friend’s family in Toronto. I’ve also donated my time, helping to organize a fund-raiser in Paris during last year’s presidential campaign.
So when I was contacted by NextGeneration France, a group that works directly with UNICEF on fund-raising and awareness campaigns, about the launch of a #CookForSyria initiative in France, I didn’t have to think twice about getting involved.
The award-winning program, which kicked off in London in 2016, was developed by Serena Guen, journalist and founder of Suitcase magazine, and the food and travel influencer who goes by the name of ClerkenwellBoy following a similar bout of paralysis in the face of one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time. Guen aimed small, first contacting her friend Tim (ClerkenwellBoy) to host a dinner. He leveraged his contacts in the food world and rallied a number of chefs to get involved in a fund-raising dinner. “So many chefs agreed that we decided to make it bigger—only so many chefs can cook at one dinner!” explained Guen. Word spread fast and what began as a modest charity dinner turned into a citywide campaign with over 50 participating restaurants.
Given the turnout, the media attention, and the virality of their operation (#CookForSyria was trending almost instantly), they took it a step further. “We had so much momentum and so many top chefs on board like Jamie Oliver and Yotam Ottolenghi that we decided to create a cookbook. We self-published the book so that more funds would go to UNICEF,” said Guen. To date, that’s 20,000 copies sold and almost £500,000 (about US$660,000) globally from a combination of book sales, dinners, supper clubs, and bake sales that were donated to aid displaced children in Syria and in nearby countries. Binding the experience together is a celebration of Syrian and Middle Eastern cuisine.
In Paris, three of the city’s leading chefs—Thierry Marx, Pierre Sang, and Juan Arbelaez—prepared dishes for the launch of #CookForSyria in France, and nearly 20 establishments have added a Syrian-inspired dish to their menus, committing to donating proceeds from those orders to UNICEF.
I made myself available to host the charity supper club that would serve to inspire anyone looking for both an active way to help the cause and understand more about the culture in need. I invited a few friends to bring a home-cooked dish prepared from the Cook For Syria cookbook that we would share together, family style. I dressed the table with dried flowers, my favorite linen napkins, and platters to present and serve each guest’s dish.
As more of an eater than an experienced cook, I opted for simple but flavorful and prepared a traditional fatteh to accompany an all-veggie spread of hummus, freekeh salad with pomegranate seeds, warm pita and chickpea salad, a spiced cake, and halvah with pistachio for dessert. These wonderful flavors, and so many others, are more than familiar to all of us in Paris, but rarely do we incorporate them into dishes we make from scratch. My guests and I walked away from the experience vowing to use the cookbook more often to honor Syria’s culinary tradition—a feeling we hadn’t anticipated.
Before parting ways, we each donated whatever we had in our pockets for a joint contribution to the Syria Emergency Fund. The idea wasn’t to pour our savings into an elaborate dinner or stress over the gastronomic merit of each dish. It was to be engaged donors and extend the act of giving from a simple click to a deeper experience, one we will be thinking about and repeating for as long as there are children in need.
#CookForSyria has been activated in London, Paris, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Sydney, and many other cities. To learn about how to get involved, visit CookForSyria.com