A project in Tripoli, Lebanon's second biggest city gives women from the rival Alawite and Sunni communities a chance to work together.
TRIPOLI — Breathing shallowly, our eyes scan the facades of buildings riddled with bullets and gutted by shells and mortar. Broken window panes and electric cords as far as the eye can see reinforce the sensation of chaos and desolation. This is Tripoli, Lebanon's second city.
The Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhoods, in the outskirts of Tripoli, are fraught with tensions between two communities: One is Alawite, a Shia minority to which the Syrian president Bachar al-Assad belongs; the other Sunni, which supports the opposition in neighboring Syria. These tensions often boiled over into armed violence during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and, more recently, during the height of the Syrian conflict. The dividing line between the two communities, in fact, is a street called Syria.
The goal of the visit is to meet a group of Alawite and Sunni women who have managed to do the impossible: calm the antagonism and historic animosity between the two communities; ease minds and build bridges; plant the seeds, perhaps, of reconciliation. All this by using a powerful medium — cooking.
We enter a building that seems to have been miraculously spared from the violence. A young Lebanese woman welcomes us. She works for a local NGO supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross and directs a simple project, the goal of which is to provide materials and a neutral and protected space so that women from the two communities to meet, cook and exchange.
The ingredients of success? A modest investment and a unifying concept that overcomes division and mobilizes talent.
Arriving in the kitchen area, the smell of Lebanese dishes prepared with the utmost care makes our mouths water. Six women make chicken sandwiches with spices. The hygiene is impeccable. They put their hearts into the task. Their kitchen had been so successful that the project participants were able to enlarge the business by accepting only large orders. The day of our visit, they are busy completing an order of several hundred sandwiches for an orphanage in a neighboring village.
The women explain to us that they were trained in cooking, and that they acquired skills that have henceforth given them financial independence. They are proud to be able to meet the needs of their families. Wafa Hazouri, 51, fell into a depression when battles were raging in her neighborhood. Her husband, a taxi driver, was almost unable to work. Their only source of income was on the verge of drying up.
"Working in this kitchen doesn't just allow me to pay the bills," she says. "It also brings me out of isolation and depression. My kids are really happy for me."
Cooking for an NGO in Beirut — Photo: Dan Snyder/ZUMA
The building is located on the front line between the two communities and has two entrances, one on each side allowing women to enter safely. We are told that since the project has existed, when fighting flares, this building is always spared. The fighters respect this as a neutral space, one that is set apart from the historical tensions.
Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh were systematically forgotten in the development effort — even after the civil war. As such, the communities living there have failed to escape the vicious cycle of poverty, violence and a lack of opportunities.
The kitchen project is important in that regard not just as a link between rival communities, but as a model, perhaps, for constructing a sustainable economy in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The ingredients of success? A modest investment and a unifying concept that overcomes division and mobilizes talent.
"Doing this work allowed me to recover my dignity," one of the women tells us. A beautiful message of resilience for future generations.
*The author heads the resources mobilization division with the International Red Cross Committee in Geneva, Switzerland.