From the frying pan to the fire for Syrian chef-turned-Gaza celebrity

A Syrian refugee who fled the fighting in his native Aleppo, Warif Kasem is now a celebrity chef in another war-torn city - Gaza.

Syrian chef Warif Kasem cooking at Soryana, his restaurant  in Gaza City, Gaza, on  June 14, 2015. Mohammed Salem / Reuters
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Every chef dreams of opening his own restaurant. Warif Kasem has done it not once, but three times. Some chefs dream of fame. Warif has achieved that too, with his own cooking show on television. And he has done it all in a war zone.

A Syrian refugee who fled the fighting in his native Aleppo, 36-year-old Warif is now a celebrity chef in another war-torn city — Gaza.

His restaurant, Soriana (meaning Our Syria) quickly became a favourite among a clientele long starved of exotic treats.

Born and brought up in Aleppo, the economic heartbeat of Syria, he studied mechanical engineering at Aleppo University to please his father. But his real passion was cooking. He worked in several professional kitchens before opening his own restaurant in Aleppo in early 2011, followed by a catering business. His success brought him many job offers from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other places in the Middle East. But for Warif, there was no place like home.

Even when life got harder with the first uprisings in Syria in 2011 and the ensuing government crackdowns, it did not occur to him to leave.

“There was a shortage of every element of life. No food, no electricity, no water, and my business couldn’t survive in this chaos.” he recalls. “I used to walk all around the city from one street to another just to try to find goods for my restaurant.”

But by the end of that first year of revolution, three of his uncles were in government detention after they were caught at a meeting with other supporters of the uprising. Fearful that they would be arrested too, the rest of Warif’s family fled to Turkey. Then bombs began falling on Aleppo. In one raid, his neighbours were killed.

”It was impossible living there. Shelling and fires were coming from everywhere,” he says. “I spent most of my days in 2011 through to 2012 jumping from one place to another, hiding in 15 different houses out of fear of getting hurt or arrested. At some point, I had to make a hard decision to leave, even when it seemed unimaginable to do so.”

He packed up his precious chef’s knives and left Aleppo on foot on December 28, 2012. He managed to cross the border into Turkey at Bab El Hawa and reach Nizip refugee camp where he was briefly reunited with his siblings before setting off again to look for work. He eventually ended up in Iskandaron, a town on the Mediterranean coast. But working in Turkey wasn’t easy, mainly because of the language barrier. So when an old customer got in touch, offering him the chance to open a restaurant in Egypt, Warif accepted.

He reached Cairo after a 44-hour sea crossing to Port Said. But with frequent protests, a military takeover and strong anti-Syrian feeling, life in the Egyptian capital was difficult.

Fate intervened again, in the shape of another old friend from Aleppo with another job offer, this time in Poland. Warif had already been to the Polish embassy to apply for a visa when he received another offer — this time from an acquaintance, in Gaza.“ My life took another twist,” he says. The options before him were either to start a new life in Poland, a country completely foreign to him, or in the Gaza Strip, a place he knew only from news headlines, which were rarely good.

“I was so desperate to get out of Egypt but Gaza was never a place I’d think about even in my wildest dreams,” he says. But he knew that at least the language and culture would be familiar. And the offer from his Gaza contact was a generous one: to open a restaurant. In May 2013, Warif reached the Gaza Strip via the secret smugglers’ tunnels that linked Egypt with Gaza at the time, (they have since been destroyed) and immediately knew he had made the right decision.

“It was an overwhelming and very heart-warming welcome from everyone I met there. Never felt like a stranger at all,” he says. For the first time since leaving Aleppo, Warif felt secure. He even became a celebrity when a Palestinian director suggested making a cookery series. And he also found love.

He met Maha Abu Alkas, a Palestinian journalist working for France 24, when she interviewed him for a story on Syrian refugees. It was love at first sight and they were married in the spring of 2014, less than a year after Warif’s arrival in Gaza.

But fate had not finished with him yet. Less than two months after the wedding, fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas, the ruling body in Gaza. More than 2,200 people were killed and Gaza City was reduced to rubble.

“It was like a recurring nightmare to me. The horror of war in my country happening all over again right in front of my eyes,” says Warif.

Worse, his new wife was in the thick of it, reporting on the conflict. He could not bear staying at home while his wife faced danger, so Warif donned a bulletproof vest and helmet and accompanied her on assignments.

Almost three years on, Gaza City is under siege and Warif is again living through a familiar nightmare. “Here I am again trying to survive day to day making sure I provide my family and restaurant with food, water, gas and electricity.” he says.

Warif is also a father now. His dreams have changed, and they may be harder to realise. His Syrian passport has expired since he has been in Gaza and with no embassy within reach, he cannot renew it. His eight-month-old daughter, Eliaa, is also stateless.

“My ultimate dreams now are very simple ones,” he said. “I just want to be able to travel outside Gaza and reunite with my family and introduce my daughter to them and give her and my wife a decent future away from war and refugee status.”