Wanting to help newly arrived refugees, Nihal Elwan created a series of pop-up dinners that have now developed a cult following.

2017 Foodies of the Year: Nihal Elwan (Photo: Carlo Ricci)

The Community Builder: Nihal Elwan

Creator, Tayybeh, Vancouver

It started as a casual conversation. Development consultant Nihal Elwan was sharing her love for Syrian cuisine with a neighbour—growing up in nearby Cairo, she knew Middle Easterners often travelled to Aleppo as a culinary destination—when it occurred to her she could help recently arrived refugees with a fundraiser. “I thought, okay, let’s arrange it,” she says. “Some Syrian families can cook a neighbourhood dinner.”

A Facebook post later, the dinner for 50 sold out in minutes. It was the start of Tayybeh: A Celebration of Syrian Cuisine (tayybeh means “kind” in Arabic and “delicious” in the Levantine dialect), a series of pop-up dinners run by Syrian women. The dinners have developed a cult following, with each successively larger event—the latest hosted 150—rapidly selling out. For the Vancouverites who attend, the impact is more than just culinary discovery and charitable support, says Elwan. “We’re realizing that eating has become a lonely, almost solitary experience,” she says. “People often eat on their own or in twos—but the experience of dining with that large a number of people, it’s something they don’t often experience here. We’re trying to replicate experiences in the Middle East, where large numbers of people get together from their neighbourhood.”

The dinners continue, a catering business is developing and, under Elwan’s guidance, the women of Tayybeh have started to test-market some of their pastries at various farmers’ markets around town to develop a larger food business. Most importantly, all of this puts money in the hands of these women, most of whom have never been able to earn their own wages.

“One of them told me, ‘I’m making my own money, and I’m not sleeping thinking about this I’m so excited,’” says Elwan. “It’s the money, but it’s also their sense of confidence. This is really at the heart at what I’ve always loved doing.”

2017 Foodies of the Year ▸▸▸