YEREVAN (Aleppo-NGO) – After months of preparation, the Aleppo Compatriotic Charitable Organization (Aleppo-NGO), a Syrian-Armenian humanitarian relief organization, is nearly ready to open its new Middle Eastern cuisine center. Named Aleppo Cuisine, the center will be located on Koghbatsi Street in the heart of Yerevan.
In addition to a small on-site café, the Aleppo Cuisine Center will offer catering and delivery services, and will produce a wide array of frozen foods for distribution to grocery stores and restaurants across Armenia.
Developed with the intent of providing jobs to individuals who have fled to Armenia during the Syrian conflict, Aleppo Cuisine will also distribute a share of its profits to refugee families whose breadwinners are incapacitated by illness or disability. In addition, the cuisine center will regularly donate food to vulnerable local populations.
Aleppo-NGO’s president, Ani Balkhian, relates that she and others at Aleppo-NGO had the idea for a cuisine center while considering ways to help refugees who arrived in Armenia via the NGO’s Save a Life program from 2015 to 2017. “We brought people here,” Balkhian says, referencing Aleppo-NGO’s evacuation of hundreds of Armenians from Syria at the height of the conflict, “and we feel a responsibility to help them rebuild their lives.”
Vreij Kolandjian, the past chairman of the Parish Council of St. Kevork Armenian Apostolic Church of Houston, Texas, who had raised more than 120,000 dollars for the Save a Life project, helping rescue over 250 Syrian-Armenians by resettling them in Armenia, said: “Armenia and specifically Aleppo Armenians need jobs more than anything else. Jobs will empower women and give them a sense of security, dignity and self-accomplishment. The Aleppo Cuisine Center will do just that! In that perspective, we are starting immediately a global campaign called Create-a-Job. Three thousand dollars will secure one full year salary for one refugee.”
Two factors convinced NGO leaders to focus on a cuisine center. First, they say, they took note of the rising demand for Western Armenian and Middle Eastern food in Armenia. Tsola Beshlian Vizoyan, Aleppo Cuisine’s prospective head chef, observes that “Syrian cuisine has quickly become very popular in Yerevan. Over the past few years, locals have definitely developed a taste for it.” Evidence for her claim is scattered across the city: from Erebuni to Arabkir, more than 40 restaurants—the vast majority owned and operated by recent refugees from Syria—now focus on Middle Eastern cuisine.
As restaurateurs scramble to keep up with demand, Aleppo Cuisine’s large-scale production and distribution service will address major gaps in the market, increasing the availability of Middle Eastern and Western Armenian cuisine at catered events, grocery stores, and beyond.
The second factor that convinced Aleppo-NGO to open a cuisine center was the skill set of the refugee population. “The women of our community,” says Harout Zoulamian, a member of Aleppo Cuisine’s leadership team, “are talented, energetic, and hardworking, and their culinary expertise is a great untapped resource. We are convinced that they can accomplish anything they set their mind to.”
Since December, Aleppo Cuisine’s prospective employees have participated in a variety of business, hygiene, and safety training sessions, and are now concluding the preparation process with hands-on practice in a mock kitchen. Zoulamian notes that the women entered the training with a wealth of knowledge and experience regarding Middle Eastern cuisine. “They already knew how to prepare all of the dishes,” he says. “Ichli kufta, madzunov kufta, yalanchi, pastries, desserts, you name it—they can make it perfectly.” The training thus sought to draw on these existing skills and prepare the women to work as a team, to produce much larger quantities of food, and to meet uniform quality standards.
“When you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day. When you teach them how to fish, you feed them for a lifetime. This is our philosophy,” Zoulamian says. “The cuisine center isn’t a temporary aid initiative. It’s a sustainable foundation on which families can build their lives in Armenia.”
Balkhian agrees, declaring: “Aleppo Cuisine Center’s technical training differs from other training programs for Syrian refugees: it offers a direct path to sustainable employment and income for some of the most vulnerable members of our community.”
Aleppo-NGO hopes to employ up to 70-90 Syrian-Armenian women and persons with disabilities within its first 60 months of operations. Work hours will be personally tailored for each employee, allowing individuals with unpredictable schedules to participate. For many of the employees, the center will represent the end of a months-long—or even years-long—search to find a job that accommodates their family responsibilities.
In the words of Beshlian-Vizoyan, “A job is one of the most important ways someone can feel strong, one of the best ways to build dignity. So I have great hopes for this enterprise and the impact it will have on the women who participate. It’s proof that we as Syrian Armenians are not broken, that we’re still fighting, and that we have a fierce will to survive.”
The Aleppo Cuisine Center will be headquartered at 83 Koghbatsi Street, and is scheduled to open for business as soon as the remodeling is completed in the next few months. The cuisine center’s space was bought thanks to a generous donation from St. Kevork Armenian Apostolic Church in Houston, under the leadership of Vreij Kolandjian, Dr. and Mrs. Österbauer-Tanielian and another donor who remains anonymous.The kitchen, meanwhile, has been fully equipped with new appliances provided by GIZ, Germany’s flagship international development agency, which has been implementing the Economic Integration of Syrian Refugees in Armenia (EISRA) program for the past two years.
Aleppo-NGO’s leadership has ambitious plans for the cuisine center’s future. One hundred percent of the profits will be used for humanitarian relief assistance and re-investment into growth—hiring new employees, increasing services and production amounts, and eventually expanding to a second location.
One day, Zoulamian says, Aleppo Cuisine’s products will be found throughout Armenia, and will even be exported internationally. “There are no limits in our mind as to where we can go.”