A Refugee-Run Restaurant in Lisbon's Mercardo de Arroios

Mezze: Rebuilding, with Food

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In a market as diverse as Lisbon’s Mercado de Arroios, where people from all over the world shop, Mezze doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. But the small restaurant deserves a closer look: it’s not only one of Lisbon’s few Middle Eastern restaurants, but, more importantly, its staff is almost entirely made up of recently arrived Syrian refugees. For them Mezze represents both a link back to the country they left behind and a crucial aid for putting down roots in their new home.

The idea behind Mezze is one that’s being tried out in other countries. Refugees, particularly those fleeing the war in Syria, are given the chance to earn a living and get established by sharing their culinary heritage, either by opening or working at a restaurant or catering business. The benefit is not just for the refugees, who are able to earn some money while at the same time preserving a taste of home, but also for their new communities, who can support those displaced by war and gain insight into their cultural heritage through the universal language of food.

Mezze’s start, though, was motivated by something simpler – the desire for bread. Alaa Alhariri, a 24-year-old Syrian woman who came to Portugal to study architecture in 2014 after a brief time spent studying in Egypt and Istanbul, was missing the flatbread she used to buy back home. “Bread is the beginning of everything, it exists in every culture,” she says. “In the Middle East it means family, it means sharing. Syrians open bakeries as soon as they arrive in Turkey and in other countries as well.”

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Alaa is one of the four founders of the non-profit Pão a Pão, which means “Bread by Bread,” a name inspired by the Portuguese saying “Grão a Grão” (“Grain by Grain,” which has a similar meaning to “step by step”). The organization was the brainchild of Alaa and Francisca Gorjão Henriques, another cofounder and Pão a Pão’s current president. Francisca and Alaa met by chance – Alaa was living with Francisca’s aunt. Pão a Pão was originally created with the intention of opening a bakery.

“Refugees [from Syria] started to arrive in Portugal in 2015 under the European Union program to relocate them,” explains Alaa, whose eyes shine with enthusiasm when talking about the project (while she’s heavily involved in behind-the-scenes work, she doesn’t work at the restaurant). “They only receive state assistance for two years, after which the funds stop.” The aim of Pão a Pão is to help young people and women, in particular, integrate into the work force. “Some of these women have never worked before,” says Alaa. “They’ve been housewives all their lives.”

But the team at Pão a Pão began to think bigger; the bakery plan was scrapped and their new aim was to open a restaurant. They organized a series of successful test dinners in December 2016, which took place in an old covered market that had been converted into an events space. Buoyed by the positive response, Pão a Pão felt confident in taking the plunge. They were able to crowdfund just over 23,000 euros (around $30,000) – almost 10,000 euros more than the initial goal – over the course of 2017, with the restaurant finally opening its doors in September, serving such classic Syrian dishes as moussakakibbeh (fried balls made of bulgur, minced meat and walnuts), kabseh (rice with vegetables and chicken) and baba ganoush.

“The people working here feel like they’re doing something useful. So the more people we can help feel this way, the better.”

“People’s reactions have been amazing, it is better than we could expect, we’re always busy,” says Francisca, who recently left her job as a journalist at the Público newspaper to concentrate on her work with the organization. “We have improved a lot since our first test dinners, especially considering that 90 percent of the team had no prior experience.”

Mezze has also been extremely well received by the Mercado de Arroios’s neighboring shops and stalls, which supply the restaurant with its ingredients. Everything Mezze cooks with comes from the market except the meat, which is sourced from a halal butcher in Almada, south of Lisbon.

Perhaps more significantly, the refugees employed by Mezze take pride in their work. Serena, a 24-year-old from Palestine who has been living in Lisbon for one year now, loves the atmosphere at the restaurant. But, more importantly for her, she values the chance to show that refugees are the same as everyone else: “We work hard, we love life and want to be part of society as much as anyone.”

While we talk, she welcomes people to the restaurant and explains the menu. “The Portuguese ask a lot of questions because they don’t know these dishes but everyone loves the food,” she says. Although she finds the language difficult, she considers Portugal to be her home now. “It’s my home, where I find myself,” she explains. “It still has traditional a family structure, family bonds, and at the same time, more freedom of movement and speech.”

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Rafat Dabah, 21 years old, has been in Portugal for just under two years, after being relocated with his family from Egypt, where they first moved after leaving Syria. “My father had a restaurant in Syria and in the school holidays I would work there with him,” he tells us. “Here in Portugal I worked in a kebab place in a shopping center.” This experience seems to have served him well. He began working as a waiter at Mezze, but is now the restaurant’s manager – he eagerly explains the improvements they have made at the restaurant and the positive feedback they’ve received from diners.

Originally from Damascus, he lives in Lisbon with his younger brother and his mother, who also works at Mezze. His older brother, 24, lives in Turkey. His father died in the war. Living in Loures, a suburb north of Lisbon, Rafat can’t image going back home to Damascus anytime soon. “It’s tough there. Sadly things are still dangerous.”

As for life in Portugal, he doesn’t feel quite at home yet, although it’s getting better. He tells us how he’s enjoying learning so much, including the Portuguese language. “To integrate you need to learn the language, I’ve learned a lot and I’m practicing more now,” he says. “Once I could communicate, life became much easier.”

This isn’t the first time refugees have made Portugal their home. Because of its neutrality during the Second World War, the country saw a large influx of exiles from other European countries as well as North Africa. Likewise, hundreds of thousands fled to Lisbon after the independence of Angola and Mozambique in 1975. More recently, 1,659 refugees took shelter in the country as a result of the Balkan wars in the early 1990s.

In the last two years, 1,507 refugees (mostly Syrians but also some from Iraq and Eritrea) were relocated to Portugal from Greece and Italy, according to the Portuguese Council for Refugees. The Portuguese Government announced recently that they would receive 1,000 more currently residing in Turkey (again, mostly Syrians but also some from other Middle Eastern countries). Although small in number compared to the massive number of refugees being sheltered in the countries bordering Syria, they are being welcomed warmly. The extraordinary success of Mezze speaks to that.

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The support of the Portuguese people has been fundamental to the realization of this project, which leads us to wonder if this openness would have been possible, say, even 20 years ago. “Maybe 20 years ago, without social media amplifying this disaster at the gates of Europe, this wouldn’t be possible,” admits Francisca. “At the same time, today’s Lisbon is much more cosmopolitan than it was 20 years ago. Diversity is now a prime feature in some parts of the city, like in the Arroios neighborhood.”

The ongoing support of Lisboetas, many of whom felt a wave of solidarity with the refugees after Europe initially bungled the refugee crisis, has inspired Alaa and her colleagues to think bigger. “We’re thinking of opening another location. The Portuguese love to eat and we’re lucky that they love our food,” says Alaa.

Francisca confirms the plans to open another place. “We’ve developed this project with the hope of replicating it in Lisbon and other cities in the country. We’re still starting out and we want to improve, but we think we might be able to open in other locations in a year. We also hope to expand our current Mezze to include a take-away and catering service.” They also have plans for debates and workshops, with Pão a Pão hosting a conference on integration at Mezze on Friday, January 26.

According to Alaa, the people working at the restaurant “feel happy, they feel like they’re doing something useful. So the more people we can help feel this way, the better.”


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This article originally appeared in Culinary Backstreets, which covers the neighborhood food scene and offers small group culinary walks in a dozen cities around the world.




Célia, CB’s Lisbon bureau chief, is a freelance journalist, writing mostly about travel and food, and is the co-author of the book "Eat Portugal", winner of a Gourmand World Cookbook Award. Her work can be seen in such publications as The Guardian, Eater, and DestinAsian. In 2014 she started leading food tours in Lisbon through Eat Portugal Food Tours and now does the same with CB. She wrote the Portuguese entries for the book "1001 Restaurants you Must Experience Before you Die" and keeps searching for the best pastéis de nata so you don't have to.



Photographer Rodrigo Cabrita was born in Oeiras, Portugal in 1977. He started his career at the daily newspaper Diário de Notícias in 2001 and has worked at a variety of publications since then. He is now a freelance photographer and takes part regularly in exhibitions. Rodrigo has won several photojournalism awards, most notably the Portuguese Gazeta award. You can see more of his work at his website and his Instagram page.



How Yemeni Women Are Fighting the War

Yemeni women take part in a sit-in and a protest against the ongoing conflict in the Arab country, outside the UN offices in Sana'a, Yemen, 16 March 2017. EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

Yemeni women take part in a sit-in and a protest against the ongoing conflict in the Arab country, outside the UN offices in Sana'a, Yemen, 16 March 2017. EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

Since 2015, a Saudi-led coalition has waged war against Shia Houthi forces in Yemen. More than 8,000 people have been killed, and more than 49,000 injured; at least 69% of the population is reportedly in need of humanitarian assistance. Million of Yemenis are facing starvation. Weapons circulation is widespread and uncontrolled: in 2016, a UN report estimated that between 40m to 60m firearms were circulating freely in the country.

The conflict has had a devastating impact on the women of the country. Household breadwinners are usually men; many are fighting, injured or killed. There is an economic crisis in the private sector, and many public sector jobs are no longer paying salaries. The health and security of the female population is endangered by exposure to cholera and other diseases. And then there’s the issue of child marriages: the severe poverty crisis means that prepubescent girls are married off to repay debts, or to raise funds to feed the rest of the family.

A woman from the Northern Ibb region, which is occupied by the rebel Houthi army, explained the situation to a research team:

We live in a state of lawlessness: no security, no protection and no functional law enforcement authorities. A person may be shot dead for a trivial thing. The security situation doesn’t look like it did in the past. Now, there are informal groups behaving as if they were law enforcement authorities. These groups have power, and their power is the law. They use force against whoever disagrees with them or criticises their behaviour.

As the feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe has pointed out, women are crucial for war and play supportive roles for the military. Indeed, many Yemeni women are not victims of war or just escaping or hiding from this war. In many contrasting ways, they are actively supporting it, and not only on humanitarian grounds.

Women engaging in war

Although many Yemeni women discourage their family members from taking part in the conflict and very few take up arms themselves, they also help recruit men to the army. They also support combatants by cooking food for them and helping to distribute it.

A young woman, Nasseem Al-Odaini, whose family has fled to the neighbouring Ibb region, stayed behind in Houthi-occupied Taiz and initiated an organisation that assist the combatants that support the former government. As she told Middle East Eye: “We want to encourage the pro-government forces to advance in the province, by raising the spirits of the fighters”.

Other Yemeni women try to mitigate the impact of the conflict the best way possible. For example, women engage in humanitarian relief and in providing social and psychological support for people who have been traumatised by the war. They also engage in peace processes when they initiate discussions of the conflict in their communities.

Since the war is not equally intense in every part of the country, there are better possibilities for women to participate in peace processes around the port city of Aden, in the south, than it is in the north, where the Houthi army has taken control and Saudi coalition airstrikes are part of everyday life. Accordingly, women’s conditions and activities differ from one region to another.

Yemeni women and girls wait to receive free bread provided by a charity bakery during a severe shortage of food in Sana'a, Yemen, 15 August 2017. EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

Yemeni women and girls wait to receive free bread provided by a charity bakery during a severe shortage of food in Sana'a, Yemen, 15 August 2017. EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

A blocked momentum

In the north, local communities are more divided (between supporters and adversaries of the Houthi government) than in the south. When women enter the public and participate in charity work, they may be questioned by “de facto authorities” (read: the Houthi army) who, according to one woman, would try to prevent them from doing their work. They would also tell women that they are not allowed to appear in public before men:

They [the Houthis] are opposed to women playing a role in public life. According to them, the woman’s role is restricted to cooking and housework. They marginalise women; they deny their role in the community.

Women in Northern and Southern parts of Yemen are not full citizens. According to Amnesty International, they “face discrimination in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody, and the state fails to take adequate measures to prevent, investigate, and punish domestic violence”. Discrimination against women in Yemen go back far beyond the war and are associated with local customs according to several studies. And yet, Yemeni women maintain their engagement in the development of their country.

An old engagement

During the popular uprising in the country in 2011 where hundreds of thousands of Yemenis followed the “youth movement” and protested against the corrupt reign of the then-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemeni women took to the streets to an extent that was unforeseen and unprecedented.

Many women participants were independent of political groups, but in the later stages of the protests the Islamic Reform party – inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood – managed to take charge of the protest movement, raising independent women’s concern that their rights would be disregarded.

However, independent women and women belonging to the political parties, including the Islamic Reform party and the Houthi political wing, Ansar Allah, constituted almost one third of participantsin the UN-guided National Dialogue Conference which followed the forced resignation of the President in November 2011. The aim of the 10 months long conference was to formulate a new and more democratic constitution for a united Yemen. However, the draft constitution which included a general 30% gender quota was rejected  by the Houthi movement in September 2014, before the population had given their voice in a referendum.

By then disappointment with the process towards a new Yemen had given the Houthis wide popular support. They occupied major government institutions in the capital, Sana'a and removed the transition government recognised internationally. Interestingly, it was not the gender quota which made the Houthis reject the draft constitution, but the view to a power-sharing model which did not give them what they expected.

The Houthi movement’s occupation of the capital and seizure of government seemed to mark both the beginning of a war, and the end of momentum for women’s rights in Yemen – a country which generally figures in the lowest ranks of Arab gender equality indexes. In 2014, a group of women from diverse political backgrounds pushed for political solutions instead of war. Since then they have been sidelined from peace negotiations – but that doesn’t mean that Yemeni women have lost all hope.


This article was originally published on The Conversation.




Dr. Connie Carøe Christiansen is a visiting associate professor in Gender Studies. She was an associate professor at Roskilde University in Denmark and a senior advisor at KVINFO, the Danish Centre for Research and Information on Gender, Equality and Diversity, where she managed academic programs in the Arab region, including a program which established an M.A. program on International Development and Gender at Sanaa University in Yemen. She has published research on gender, migration and Islam in Denmark, Turkey, Morocco and Yemen. She has her M.A. in Cultural Sociology and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Copenhagen University, Denmark. 

A Criminal State of Affairs



Ten Years ago, I started on a journey to document practices of untouchability across several states and religions of India. 25,000 kilometres, 9,000 minutes of footage and four years later, I put together a documentary called India Untouched. The main reason for making this film was to challenge the belief of most Indians that untouchability is a thing of the past.

In the years since the making of that film, little has changed. We still receive reports of barber shops refusing to shave Dalits. Homeowners unwilling to rent their houses to Dalits. Children segregated and discriminated in schools, women not allowed to draw water from wells, families pushed out of temples. Segregated mosques, churches, even crematoriums. Pervasive violence aimed at those who challenge caste discrimination. Social and economic boycotts for those who dare to transgress caste boundaries. Newly-weds chased and killed because they chose to marry outside their own caste. Rapes. Acid attacks. The list goes on shamelessly.

What is more shameful is that these practices are manifestations of a belief that views certain castes as nothing but an impure sect, which should remain servile and accepting of its lesser status. Our failure is to see this belief as endorsing of and perpetuating criminal behaviour.

Article 17 of the Indian Constitution states that “Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.” However, society continues to look at untouchability as a social given, grounded in ‘tradition’. Instead, we should see such practices for what they are: criminal acts. If your house were burgled, you would expect the case to be treated as a criminal act/offence. Such a luxury is not afforded, however, to Dalits facing discrimination and persecution. The laws in place to address the scourge of caste-based discrimination may be progressive, but the mechanisms that exist to enforce legislation are regressive.

A large part of the problem is that law enforcement agencies operate in a reactive rather than a proactive manner. Despite the prevalence of caste-based behaviour leading to untouchability (criminal offences) these agencies wait for an aggrieved party to file a complaint — and report violation of Article 17 — rather than do their job in enforcing the law. How else does one explain the fact that police stations and courts have not taken any suo moto cognizance of these everyday events? How else can we understand that there are no public or government campaigns to remind citizens that untouchability has been abolished, and that those practicing it will be treated as criminals? In order to fall in line with the shifted morality and ethics of our time, we need a strong and proactive law enforcement mechanism. We do not have this in India.

On 14 April 2012, we launched a campaign at Video Volunteers (a media and human rights organisation) to draw attention to the issue of untouchability. To date, we have collated 30 videos that document breaches of Article 17. Together with the videos, we collected 2,800 signatures that were sent to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) with an appeal that the videos be taken as evidences of offences, and that those involved be prosecuted. Despite submitting the petition and video evidence twice over, we have not received any sort of acknowledgement — let alone action — from the NCSC. We have now sought answers with an application under the RTI Act. It’s a sign of the times when one needs to file an RTI with the institution responsible for protecting the rights of Scheduled Castes, just to find out what is going on.

As a society, when we hear about untouchability practices, we should feel outraged, as we would with other criminal acts like murder and rape. It’s time we accepted that the practice of untouchability is not the vestigial remains of some backward, social phenomenon or tradition: it’s a criminal offence. Let’s start calling it what it is.



Stalin K. 


Stalin is the Managing Trustee of Video Volunteers India. He is a leading voice in the community media movement in India (including as co-drafter of the government’s recent community radio policy), a human rights activist focused on issues of caste and communal violence, an award-winning filmmaker (screened at Hamptons and winner of the Mumbai International Film Festival and Indo-american Arts Council Film Fest in NY, Earth VIsion Film Festival, Tokyo), and a sought after trainer and guest lecturer in media and human rights at universities around the world. He has produced 25 films on development issues, set up two community radio stations, designed a dozen rights-based campaigns, and conducted over 300 training workshops. Stalin has worked with more than 100 NGOs and regularly distributes his films to over 1000 groups, placing him at the heart of India’s NGO networks.