Syria Crisis

After Fleeing Aleppo, Syrian Chef Makes It Big In Gaza

Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo, a chef from Aleppo who found refuge from the Syrian civil war in Gaza, became a local celebrity after opening a Syrian restaurant there.

Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo at his Syriana restaurant in Gaza
Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo at his Syriana restaurant in Gaza
Lara Abu Ramadan

GAZA CITY â€" When 35-year-old Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo fled Aleppo in 2012, as the Syrian government rained bombs down on the city, he didn't imagine that he'd be leaving one war zone to land in another â€" the besieged Gaza Strip.

After searching for work in Turkey and Egypt, he ended up in the unlikely destination of Gaza, where he endured yet another war for 51 days last summer when Israel and armed Palestinian groups battled until a cease-fire was reached in late August.

But he found both love and local fame, eventually getting married and making a new life for himself there.

Syria Deeply sat down with Hamdeo at his Gaza City restaurant and spoke to him about his experience and the conditions endured by the 24 other Syrian families in Gaza.

SYRIA DEEPLY: Why did you decide to leave Syria and what was your initial plan?

WAREEF KASEEM HAMDEO: I left Aleppo in 2012, when the bombing intensified and after I lost my home and restaurant in Aleppo. My family had already fled to Turkey six months earlier. Then I had to walk seven kilometers until I arrived at a safe area where there was no bombing. That was in the northern countryside of Aleppo, in the Azaz area.

When I was in Azaz there was heavy bombing. After being there for a week, I got my passport and my personal documents, then I entered Bab al-Salamah one of Syria's border crossings, crossing into Calis, Turkey, where I stayed for a while. I looked for a job there, but back in 2012 the situation wasn't encouraging for Syrians, and most were staying in refugee camps and receiving aid, food and shelter from relief organizations and the Turkish government. I had two choices â€" to go to Istanbul or to go to Egypt. I decided to go to Egypt.

How was the situation in Egypt when you arrived there?

A friend and my cousin both encouraged me to go to Egypt, and told me that as a Syrian chef I could find a job there. I also have a mechanical engineering diploma, by the way.

So I traveled from Bursa seaport and crossed the sea to Port Said. The voyage took 44 hours in the sea. It was painful and joyful at the same time. I entered Egypt and it was a totally new place for me. It's a lot different. I arrived in Cairo and I worked in the food industry, but I didn't make a monthly salary because the situation in Egypt was hard too. Many Syrians were already in Egypt and some of them had opened restaurants. I worked in restaurants, decorating hotels and for other companies. I had a business card made and worked on arranging open buffets.

However, after two months I ran into a Syrian man who used to come to my restaurant in Aleppo, and he told me that he was planning to open a new restaurant in early October and asked me to be the chef. At first, I felt compelled to stay in Egypt, where I'd now have a job, a home and a salary. During this period, though, I met a Palestinian man who told me that his friend was opening a new restaurant in Gaza and he wanted me to come to work with him there. I told him, "Are you crazy? I didn't run away from war in Syria to go to war in Gaza! So I said "no way.""

How did you come to Gaza and what was the reason behind it?

That Palestinian man started to show me photos of his new restaurant and told me Gaza is beautiful and showed me photos of every place, including the sea. I still refused and insisted I wouldn't go. Then another chance came for me to travel to Poland to work there in a Syrian restaurant. Everything was ready and a friend of mine booked a ticket and sent me a visa invitation.

The day I went to the airport, I was surprised to find the man from Gaza there. He stopped me and he said, "Please Wareef, think about it. I want you to come to Gaza and everything is ready for you â€" just come." I agreed, but only under certain conditions. I told him he'd have to pay me $2,500 per month, and, to my surprise, he agreed. When he did so, I started being afraid of where I was going. He told me, "give yourself a chance, just come for 10 days to see Gaza and decide." At that moment, I didn't know what to think anymore."

Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo in front of his Syriana restaurant â€" Photo: Lara Abu Ramadan

I came to Gaza with my Palestinian friend through a tunnel. It was an adventure. After we got through the tunnel and came to the beach road near Rafah city, the view took my breath away and reminded me of Syria. The air was clean, and it wasn't nearly as crowded as in Egypt. I felt comfortable again. The next day my friend took me to his place, Izmir Restaurant. He showed me the place and told me where he wanted me to work. During my first 10 days in Gaza, I visited the whole Strip. The last day I told him, "I'm going to work with you and come back to stay in Gaza, but $2,500 is too high a salary in Gaza." So I went back to Egypt to settle all the business I had there; then I bought cooking equipment and came back to start working in Gaza.

How did people react to a Syrian chef coming to work in Gaza?

I'm full Syrian, not half-Palestinian, and people were shocked that I came here. I started to serve typical Syrian dishes in the restaurant and people loved that, and more started to come to taste the famous Syrian food. Also Syrian drama on TV has affected the demand for Syrian dishes like kibbeh â€" like in Bab al-Hara, the Syrian drama series.

After enduring war in your homeland and in Gaza, how do you feel about your decision?

After living in Gaza for five months, I started to feel like it was getting harder and harder to get out. Back in Syria, before the war, I used to travel to Turkey or Beirut whenever I wanted to â€" even for a day and come back. My dream now is to take a car and travel freely. After seven months, I felt very stressed and I wanted to leave everything, but I didn't do that because of work.

Then, one day, a woman who works with France 24 TV came to interview me. Eventually we fell in love and got engaged and married. Then when the Israeli war came last summer, the Izmir Restaurant had to close down for 51 days. So, I had no job for the time. I worked and helped my wife during the 51 days of war. It’s our duty to help show the truth â€" the killing and destruction around us.

After the war ended, Gaza was dead. One of my clients suggested that I open a new restaurant with him, but it was very hard because there weren't many building supplies. We had to wait for four months.

I witnessed the war in Syria and ran away from death only to find it again in Gaza. But I stayed because at least the war ended; if I had stayed in Syria, I'd still be living through war.

Tell us about your new place, the Syriana Restaurant.

Syria is our mother and I named the restaurant Syriana, Arabic for "Our Syria," because of that. It's a takeaway restaurant with Syrian shawarma and sandwiches and other dishes. It's temporary, until we can open a restaurant where people can sit and dine in.

The biggest problem was getting the construction materials. We paid double the normal prices because of the Israeli siege on Gaza.

You're not the only Syrian in Gaza. Can you explain how the situation is for Syrians here?

There are 24 Syrian families in Gaza who are suffering from the situation. Like the Palestinians here, they can't leave Gaza or find jobs. They received help, but you can't blame anyone here because everyone in Gaza is tired of the situation. I sometimes feel quite bad that my Syrian passport has expired and I can't renew it, as is true for other Syrian families here.

We contacted the European Union and UNHCR in Cairo and Jordan but there was no response. We want to at least be able to renew our passports or to get Palestinian passports so we can travel.

That actually happened with my friend. He went to Egypt and there they told him in the airport that because he's Syrian they’d have to contact Damascus. He didn't want to go back to Syria, so he just came back to Gaza.

We recently created an association for Syrians in Gaza. I'm the head of the association. I give interviews about our situation. I speak out about our struggle and explain how we need to be able to leave Gaza in order to see our families in Turkey and other countries. Here you have UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, but there is no organization for Syrians in Gaza. There isn't even an office for the UN High Commissioner on Refugees because Palestinians have their own refugee agency. Now we're living merely on hope.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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