It is becoming increasingly rare to read a positive story about Syria. The ongoing conflict has sadly come to define the majority of conversations about the country, causing many to forget the qualities that shaped the lives of Syrian people before the violent unrest.
But while the severity of war may dominate the big headlines about Syria, stories of renewal and generosity are unfolding beneath the surface. They tend to be small, but they represent the hope that the future holds.
One of these stories involves a cafe in Essex. The Olive Branch, in Wivenhoe, recently celebrated its first birthday. The cafe, which serves Syrian cuisine, was opened by Abdul Kattan and his wife Fatema Kawaf in early 2017.
The couple met and married in Syria in 2009, but soon moved to Wivenhoe when Dr Kawaf, 32, got a job at nearby Essex University.
After the war in Syria broke out in 2011, the couple decided to set up the cafe as ‘a sign of hope’. A year after opening The Olive Branch, their message has only been matched by Abdul’s excellent cooking, because the food has gone down a treat with locals.
‘The first year has been a great success. It was indeed a lot better than we expected, a dream that has come true,’ Dr Kawaf told the Daily Gazette.
‘The Olive Branch fitted in very well with the community….It has also been extremely popular with the vegan and vegetarian community.’
Along with reshaping perceptions of Syria through food, the couple wanted the cafe to create opportunities for the very people fleeing the conflict. When they launched, Abdul was joined in the kitchen by two Syrian refugees who assisted with food prep.
‘The refugees who worked with us have now moved on to focus on studying English and other courses and we wish them all the best,’ Dr Kawaf said. ‘We are very happy to have given them the stepping stone they needed work wise.’
The couple now hope that they can offer more refugees the chance to build a new life away from war: ‘We are open to having more refugees either for work training or for employment as and when a suitable person comes along and we hope to keep this initiative open and grow it bigger with time.’
Yet even if this turns out to be a slow process, The Olive Branch has already offered up immediate benefits for one young Syrian: The owners’ daughter.
‘She loves Syria even though she’s never been there, she talks about her family over there with passion, luckily The Olive Branch has helped introduce her to a beautiful version of Syria.’
As more stories like this become a reality, we’re sure a beautiful version of Syria will be even better known.