‘Feels like home’: Word-of-mouth helps Syrian refugee open community restaurant

(Photo: Handouts from Ghada Mustafa)
(Photo: Handouts from Ghada Mustafa)
AMMAN — “We thought we’d be here for a few months at most,” said Ghada Mustafa, a Syrian mother of five who fled to Jordan in 2013. 

Mustafa runs a home-based business from her own kitchen in Mafraq — an undertaking that started informally, and rather spontaneously. Among her neighbors, Mustafa was known as a skilled cook who always offered a helping hand in the kitchen.اضافة اعلان

“One neighbor offered to pay me to prepare the food every time she had guests over. At first, I refused to take any money from her … neighbors help neighbors,” she said in an interview with Jordan News

“Slowly, word started to go around, one neighbor would tell another. It became a local community thing. So I thought to myself, why don’t I turn this into a business?”

 “That’s how the story started in 2014,” she added, but emphasized that coming to Jordan just a few months prior was no easy adjustment. 

Mustafa described a feeling of constant fear upon her arrival to the unknown, likening the uncertainty that lay ahead to an uncut watermelon. 

Along with her daughters, Mustafa had a hard time adapting to the reality of living in a new country where she knew no one. 

“We had just come from the horrors of war. Any sudden movement startled us, no matter how small. We would hear the sound of a door slamming and think we were being bombed.”

“Slowly, we started to find comfort. We found that people were kind. We started to feel like we weren’t away from home. That’s why I never want to leave Mafraq ... it feels like home,” she remarked. 

 Much like her adjustment to life in Jordan, Mustafa’s business was a gradual process. She relied heavily on word of mouth: hoping to try her pickled eggplant, kibbeh, or shushbarak, people would call her to place an order and come pick it up themselves. 

This became a convenient source of income for her, as she didn’t even need to leave the house. 

“I signed myself up at Blumont who said they would help finance and expand my project without running into legal trouble,” she said, referencing an international development program. 

“I attended workshops where they taught us how to price items, how to run a business … they made my project affordable and allowed me to expand my activities.”

Yet, running her kitchen continues to be an uphill battle. 

“I don’t have enough capital to buy things in bulk and keep them in stock. I therefore don’t usually have ingredients on hand,” she said. 

“After people place an order, I can’t go ahead and get started immediately. I ask them to give me a few days to buy the ingredients.”

For that same reason, Mustafa doesn’t have a social media page for her kitchen. She can’t accommodate for an influx of orders but needs to handle them one by one. 

“Currently, my fridge can’t store more than two orders at a time. I need to freeze a lot of my ingredients, like the kibbeh or the dough for shushbarak,” forcing her to go knocking on her neighbors’ doors to ask to use their fridges. 

Sometimes, Mustafa will receive an order but not have enough money to cover the cost of the ingredients, leading her to borrow from friends or neighbors. 

“I borrow money to work, but then use the money made to repay the loan. It feels like not working at all. You don’t get to keep the money you make, you don’t feel gratified,” she confessed.

“Some setbacks bring you back to square one, as if you haven’t worked at all,” she added.

Despite these hurdles, Ghada remains hopeful that she will one day be able to expand her operations. 

 “It’s a dream of mine, but something that needs capital and support.”

“I need a fridge and a dough mixer. I need the capacity to store ingredients, so that if I have a social media page, I can make the food as soon as an order is placed.”

Ghada hopes to open a store in the future, but recognizes that there are institutional challenges to realizing that goal. 
“As a Syrian, I can’t open a store — that needs a permit and fees.” 

“I wish that organizations would do a better job at supporting projects like mine. I’m not saying they’re not willing to offer financial support, they are, and in large amounts, but not to the right people, not the ones working on real projects.”

“We need help to develop our projects. If we don’t develop them, they will no longer sustain themselves, like a light that slowly dims and then goes out,” she said.

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