By Youssef Aziz
Three years ago, there were few authentic Syrian restaurants in Egypt.
“Now they are countless,” said Mohamed Belal, who helped to found one of Cairo’s first Syrian restaurant chains in 2004.
Since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, more than 190,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Egypt, bringing with them, among other things, an entrepreneurial spirit and shawerma.
Syrian restaurants require little capital, which makes it one of the easiest businesses to start, Belal said. Shawerma is also an easy product to sell.
In Syria, Belal said, “You may find up to nine shawerma restaurants in the same street, and they will be all making profit equally.” Egyptians, he said, “tend to prefer a greasy diet,” so selling shawerma is “a very profitable business”.
At the Heliopolis branch of Belal’s restaurant, Anas El Demishki, you can smell the shawerma as soon as you walk in. The chefs standing in front of the shawerma furnaces are Egyptians who Belal and his crew have taught Syrian recipes and techniques; however, most of the waiters are Syrians.
Some Syrians have struggled to put down roots in Egypt.
Soon after their immigration to Egypt, some Syrians became more involved in politics as they considered Egypt to be their new home, said Amina El Korei, a spokeswoman for the World Foods Programme, an international NGO that works with refugees. This, became a source of conflict when some supported the Muslim Brotherhood during their mass sit-ins at Rabaa Al-Adaweya Square to protest the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi last July. Some Syrians have complained of discrimination, she said.
Khaled Anan, who owns “Bon El Demeshki” (Damascus Coffee) and the El Shamy Laboratory for Coffee, argues, however, that Egypt is the “perfect place for Syrians to live”. It’s easy to communicate, there’s good social diversity, and living standards are good, he said.
The way Anan sees it, the increase in Syrian restaurants are a “win-win” for both the immigrants and Egypt. It provides job opportunities and encourages the spread of authentic Syrian cooking.
“My Egyptian neighbours have been treating me like a brother,” he said. “I have never felt like a stranger here.”