by Gary Meyer
Earlier this year we were lucky enough to see a truly inspiring movie about female empowerment against the odds with gorgeous plates of studded pilafs, mouth-watering freekeh dishes and stuffed grape leaves in Thomas Morgan’s SOUFRA.
In the midst of a successful film festival tour where it keeps winning awards, a beautiful cookbook has been published with many recipes you will want to try. And we are bringing a couple to you on EatDrinkFilms.
“A stirring tale of empowerment, the documentary “Soufra” shows how societal change can begin with small steps.” Andy Webster, The New York Times
SOUFRA follows the unlikely and wildly inspirational story of intrepid social entrepreneur, Mariam Shaar – a generational refugee who has spent her entire life in the Burj El Barajneh refugee camp just south of Beirut, Lebanon. The film follows Mariam as she sets out against all odds to change her fate by launching a successful catering company, “Soufra,” (which means “a table of delicious plenty”) and then expand it into a food truck business with a diverse team of fellow refugee woman who now share this camp as their home. Together, they heal the wounds of war through the unifying power of food while taking their future into their own hands through an unrelenting belief in Mariam, and in each other. In the process, Mariam is breaking barriers, pulling together Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian and Lebanese women to work side by side and form beautiful friendships while running this thriving business.
SOUFRA will shine a new and revealing light on people inside of the largest refugee crisis in human history, but ultimately this film is about hope, grit, passion and the common bonds created by bringing people together around food as a bridge to overcome all barriers. Though Mariam is officially considered “stateless” she is a beacon of hope and home for thousands upon thousands of women in the most unlikely of places. Mariam and her team will be just that for thousands more once her story is told through SOUFRA.
“This is a feel-good doc that’s clear-eyed and grounded in tough realities….the film deftly balances the personalities and culinary creativity with the fundamental matter of day-to-day political struggle. As the women teach one another recipes, they’re sharing their stories and cultural backgrounds. At work in the kitchen and at the table for a communal meal, their joy is contagious, even though some traditional dishes, as Shaar points out, have become indelibly connected with wartime deprivation.” Shari Linden, The Hollywood Reporter
Miriam just presented a very special screening of SOUFRA at the Vatican in Rome as part of the 2018 Laudato si’ Challenge and is the start of a new campaign named Breaking Bread with the goal of establishing 1,000 interfaith screenings of SOUFRA around the world by the end of 2019.
The filmmakers hope Mariam’s story of hope and resilience inspires interfaith dialogue and challenges all of us to build a stronger and more inclusive global community.
We hosted two screenings in Oakland, California with a Lebanese food truck. You can host screenings too. The SOUFRA team will work with you on all aspects of making it a success. Visit Host a Screening!
SOUFRA is showing around the world. Check SCREENINGS to find when it will be playing near you.
Read more reviews on Rotten Tomatoes with a 100% rating.
“As most of us already know, food is a great unifier, it brings people together. It is also succor, not only for those who consume it, but often for those of us who prepare it. Meals give order to our lives, give us purpose and a way to do something immediate and viscerally satisfying for our fellow human beings. And as any nomad or displaced wanderer will tell you, along with a prized childhood teddy bear, or a mother’s embrace, nothing feels as much like home as one’s own food made by a caring hand. It’s why they call it “home cooking.” It is the thing we miss when we are on the road, far from home. And as this film proves, it is indeed home cooking that sustains these refugee women and lifts them up. It gives them not only purpose, but also real financial sustenance. It gives them agency, and the women are happier and more productive, with a renewed sense of hope not felt in years.” Excerpted from a Guest Column in The Hollywood Reporter by Padma Lakshmi, a New York Times best-selling author and the Emmy-nominated host and executive producer of Bravo’s TOP CHEF writing about SOUFRA.
Now about those recipes. These are published with permission from the cookbook “Soufra- Recipes from a Refugee Food Truck.” Buy the book through this link and get 15% off using the code ‘love’.
Thomas Morgan, the director and producer of SOUFRA tells his story of making this movie.
“Delicious food, an inspiring entrepreneur, a true underdog pursuing a seemingly impossible goal, and learning to drive for the first time at age 42? These, I believe, are the ingredients of a great story.
In the refugee camp that Mariam Shaar calls home, more than 6 decades have passed as each generation waits for quality of life and the opportunity to work. Mariam could wait no longer. She found inspiration. Not in politics, or headlines, or the ongoing cease fires and negotiations, but in the simple experience that is shared across a dinner table.
Mariam assembled a group of women eager to work in a kitchen, who collectively believe they have the power to create their own destiny. When I stood in front of them and asked if they would let me into their lives to film them, they looked at me with deep uncertainty. I feared they would decide against it. But, Mariam stood up and signed the release form, and one by one they each signed their name—a powerful affirmation that they were ready to be heard. That moment stayed with me throughout the two years I spent filming them, and with it a huge sense of responsibility to tell their story the best way that I could.
The day before they displayed their food at the local farmer’s market, a suicide bomber targeted a place less than a mile from their camp. They struggled to find any form of transportation just to get the food to the market that day, but luckily found a taxi. With food piled high on their laps, they had to navigate five different security checkpoints between the camp and the market. They arrived late, full of apprehension. They made the best of the circumstances and never complained or made excuses.
For me, this day was a clear portrait of their character and the fortitude and courage they muster to face roadblocks every day of their lives. SOUFRA gives you a mere taste of the struggle that Mariam and others face to this day. They meet barrier after barrier meant to ‘keep them in their place.’ Many times I thought they would give up. I know I would have. I nervously expected a message of surrender from Mariam as she grew exhausted from every setback. But she pressed on harder each time with the energy and fortitude of a great entrepreneur and with the persistence and patience of someone who is out to change history.”
Mariam Shaar was born in the Burj el-Barajneh camp in the 1970s, almost three decades after her grandmother arrived as the Palestinian refugee crisis began. Like all refugees, her family was forbidden from holding most jobs, lacked documentation to leave the country legally, and did not have the financial means to move outside the camp. So they stayed. Mariam has spent her entire life in the camp, surviving the Lebanese Civil War and a series of other brutal conflicts, including the “war of the camps.” Driven by a relentless desire to make life in the camp better, she dedicated herself to improving not only her own life but also the lives of those around her. In the 1990’s, she joined the Women’s Program Association, a community-based organization founded with the support of UNRWA to bring together women in the refugee camps in Lebanon to build new opportunities. Today she is the director of WPA’s community based center in the Burj el-Barajneh camp.
Mariam’s vision has always been to create opportunities for the refugee community and improve lives through education and production. With the intention of creating a sustainable business at the WPA center in Burj el-Barajneh, she surveyed local women to get a sense of their interests. She discovered that many women were interested in utilizing their cooking skills, as they could participate in that at both the community center and in their own homes. Perhaps most important, it was something that reflected their heritage and passions, and something for which there would always be a market. Everyone needs to eat!
With seed funding and business planning support from Alfanar venture philanthropy, Soufra catering was born in 2013. Like any start-up, it went through many iterations. Different names, logos, and business plans were tested. Mariam partnered with Souk El Tayeb, a leading social enterprise in Lebanon, on training and branding. The idea was to revive traditional Palestinian dishes and offer them to the Beirut market. The dishes were met with huge acclaim. But despite the positive reviews, not enough catering orders were coming in. In a brainstorming session with the women of Soufra and its stakeholders, the idea of a food truck was hatched, and with it a whole new journey began!
In 2015, social justice filmmaker Thomas Morgan heard about Alfanar’s work with Soufra. He came to Lebanon to meet Mariam, and ended up dedicating two years of his life to filming her story and helping turn her vision into reality. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, the Soufra women raised more than enough money to launch the first-ever refugee food truck. In so doing, they made it possible to take their food and their business to customers all over Lebanon, and began providing more and more jobs for women inside the camp.
The film’s official website, SOUFRA.
Interview with director Thomas Morgan and executive producer Susan Sarandon.
Thank you to Thomas Morgan, Lisa Madison and Rebelhouse Films for providing background and interviews for this article.
Vivien Killilea Best shot the beautiful photographs.