Local Heroes #66 - Meet Nihal Elwan - Creator of Tayybeh

Supporting newly-arrived Syrian women in Vancouver, Tayybeh is a celebration of authentic Syrian Cuisine in community-based dining experiences. 

Published by Maansi on 14/03/2018

When it comes to bringing people together, nothing is more unifying than enjoying a delicious meal. It was with this idea in mind that development consultant Nihal Elwan came up with a way to help recently-arrived Syrian refugees feel welcome in their new home. What began as a one-time event has since grown into a celebration of people, food and community. 

What is Tayybeh: A Celebration of Syrian Cuisine?

Tayybeh: A Celebration of Syrian Cuisine is a food-oriented social enterprise and catering company that aims to give Syrian women in Vancouver the chance to generate an income by working as chefs. It’s also a way to help them integrate into their new communities here in British Columbia. We organize large pop-up dinners that take place in different neighbourhoods around Vancouver. Ticketed guests get a massive buffet of Syrian cuisine along with music and entertainment. It’s an opportunity for guests to try Syrian food, meet the chefs and connect with other members of the community. At these events, you’re not always seated with people you know so guests often walk out of these events having made a new friend or two. 

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What is the significance behind the name “Tayybeh”?

Tayybeh in Arabic means “kind” in the feminine form and in the Levantine dialect it means delicious, so I thought this would be a fantastic name that’s both feminine and reflective of delicious food. Interestingly, our logo reads Tayybeh in both English and Arabic! In English it reads Tayybeh left to right and in Arabic, right to left. 

Where did the idea of Tayybeh come from and what led you to become a part of it?

I moved to Vancouver in 2014. Before that, I was an international development researcher and practitioner for about 15 years with a focus on gender, women and youth issues in the Middle East. When I moved to Vancouver, I immediately began volunteering with an organization that provided informational sessions for the influx of Syrian refugees arriving in Vancouver. When I met some of these families, I realized just how many challenges they faced. At the time, there was a major housing crisis in Vancouver and many of the families didn’t have home addresses. I was having a conversation with my neighbour one day about Syrian food and thought about organizing a neighbourhood dinner where we would invite Syrian women to cook for the community. That was essentially the main inspiration for Tayybeh. 

How did you go about planning the very first Tayybeh Event?

The first event was really meant to be just that, one event. At the time, there were no plans to do anything past that. The vision sort of blossomed as we moved forward and saw the wonderful reaction. We were initially awarded about $500 in seed money for the event. For venue, my family friends own Tamam, a Palestinian restaurant in Vancouver. We asked if we could borrow Tamam for the evening and they were very generous in letting us use the restaurant. We created a Facebook invite and just left it out there. We didn’t know who was going to attend or who was going to even see it, but before we knew it the tickets sold out and the event was a full house. 

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Were you surprised at the response from the first pop-up dinner? What were the emotions like? 

I had no expectations and no idea what was going to happen, but when the tickets sold out I realized it was going really well. On the night itself, the energy was electric and the ladies had a fantastic time. It was their first time doing something like this and they were both excited and apprehensive. There was no Syrian food in Vancouver before this so they knew no one had ever tried it. When we opened the buffet, the women stood back and were so focused on people’s reactions. At the end of the event, we brought them on the stage and introduced them to everyone. The emotions overall were a mix of joy and surprise. 

What do you think makes food such a powerful and unifying medium?

If you think about it, everything you celebrate and commemorate in life is done so over food, from birthday parties and weddings to meetings. In the Middle East, food is incredibly central to family life and community. I think when people, even strangers, sit down together and share a good meal, it really helps foster a beautiful conversation and you tend to forget about the things that divide us. We’ve had people from all walks of life attend our dinners. The other thing about food is that it can be a very emotional, nostalgic experience. 

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What has this experience been like for you personally?

It’s been so fulfilling for me in many ways. Working in international development all my life, my objective has been to empower women from the Middle East. With Tayybeh, I would love to think I have provided these women with the opportunity to hone their skills, integrate with the community and enjoy a smooth transition into their new lives in Vancouver. It has been a huge learning opportunity as someone who isn’t from the food industry. It’s had its challenges but one thing that keeps me going is feeling that I’m making someone’s life better, whether for the women chefs or anyone who attends the dinners. 

Words by Maansi Pandya
Images by Maansi Pandya & Olivia Sari-Goerlach

Thank you Maansi & Nihal for this interesting take on connecting food with social inclusion! If you like what you've read and want to read more inspiring stories, take a look at our print journal https://store.acitymadebypeople.com/

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