The lemons here are not as large and sweet, the olive oil not as fragrant, the parsley not as fresh as that plucked from herb gardens at home in Syria. But they will do what they can with it, they concede at last. Another day of cooking together unfurls like a sail before them, and from this moment, the hands of these six women are never at rest.
The sharp perfume of diced mint fills the air. There is comfort in the familiar rituals — chopping tomatoes, mincing garlic, pinching pastry. But the sense of loss rises to the surface like bubbles in the vat of aromatic stew that is soon set to simmering on the stove.
Ghazwa and Zoukaa, Ihklass and Mona, Kamar and Fatih: Their culinary sisterhood came together in this ancient city on the shores of the Mediterranean, a gathering after a scattering from a war seemingly without end.
Though they lived within a few miles of one another around the Syrian capital, Damascus, their paths never crossed. Now, aside from immediate family, the women, all of them mothers in their 30s or 40s, are one another’s closest companions as they try to start a catering business, Lady of Damascus, featuring home-cooked Syrian dishes.
They know one another’s secret sorrows, spoken of obliquely as they grind meat and mix spices: the grudging landlords, the disdainful neighbors, the expiring residency permits; the husbands doing unskilled labor instead of their former professional jobs; the daughters, once eager pupils, now shunning the classroom because of bullying.
And the sons. The sons who want to take to the sea.
None ever expected this strange land to be home for so long.
“For the first nine months, I would wake up and think, ‘Today I am drinking my last coffee in Egypt,’” says Zoukaa, 45 and soft-spoken, with pale, patrician features that bear subtle marks of strain. “I don’t think that now. I try not to.”
All fled with their families two or three years ago, when the civil war’s ferocity and grinding duration were finally driven home somehow for each — a home destroyed, a loved one killed or maimed, a son in danger of being conscripted into the army.
With more than 4 million Syrians in desperate flight across the Middle East, Europe and beyond, these women have found a safe harbor of sorts in this seaside city. But their temporary home, now inundated with refugees, is a less than a welcoming place. They cling to tradition, try to blend in, fret over what they’ve left behind. Their children stare out to the Mediterranean and plot to flee on boats, but the risks are great and the rewards uncertain.
The women spend their days together in a five-room flat rigged as one large makeshift kitchen. A charity that previously used the space for classes for Syrian preschoolers gave it over to them, with a small amount of seed money. The apartment is still furnished with low child-size tables that now serve as counter space. Children’s construction-paper cutouts of sun, moon and stars adorn the walls.
Sitting cross-legged on flattened cardboard boxes used as floor mats, they work quickly and methodically, but even in a rush, they make small considerate gestures, placing a knife or a potato peeler within another’s easy reach. Sometimes their orders amount to hundreds of meals a day.
When they’re giggling over something, heads close together, they can look like teenagers. When they’re stooped at their labors, or have fallen into a pensive moment, they momentarily resemble the old women they will become.
They laugh at their rudimentary kitchen equipment — “At home, I had a juicer!” says Fatih, the group’s newest member. Zoukaa, nose wrinkled from a fetid smell in the hallway of the run-down apartment building, recalls the jasmine she grew in her home garden — “just for the scent of it, only for that,” she says, as if such a thing is now an unimaginable luxury.
Indoors together, they dress as they would in private at home, in leggings and loose T-shirts or filmy tops, with hair tied back or covered by a kerchief. When they come and go — hurrying in late, dashing to the market for a last-minute ingredient, going downstairs to the street to load packaged meals into the car — they don long abayas and tight-fitting head scarves, as they would to go out in public in Syria.
Here, though, there is a sense of armoring against an unwelcoming world. All of the women share the seemingly unconscious habit of a short pause and a deep breath before heading out the door.
Much here leaves them feeling unmoored. Arabic is spoken, as it was at home, but Egyptian idioms are confounding, and the women’s accents immediately mark them as outlanders. They live in rented apartments rather than homes owned by their families for generations. Saddled by unexpected expenses, they watch every piastre; at home, all were well-off enough to take holidays, even to Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
Well, it’s the same sea, says cheerful, ponytailed Mona. And the others look carefully at her, weigh this and choose not to answer.
Since the days of antiquity, Alexandria has been a seafaring city. One of the crab-claw spits of land that encloses the crescent-shaped harbor was the site of the Pharos, the vanished island lighthouse that was a wonder of the ancient world — and a reminder of the treacherousness of these coastal waters.
On a summer’s day, from even a little distance, the sea appears placid, but up close, it huffs and woofs like something alive as it crashes against the rocks, backwash foaming white. When the smugglers’ boats bearing war refugees embark, in disorienting darkness, the sound can be terrifying for those aboard.
All along Alexandria’s seafront, fishermen’s skiffs, their once-bright colors faded, put in at tiny inlets laden with their catches. The city’s corniche, the sweeping coastal road, roars with nonstop traffic, and its walkway is always crowded with strolling couples and families, inclining their bodies to look outward toward the waves.
“Anywhere at all that you can hide — hide the people, hide the boats — the smugglers find and use,” said a fisherman in an urban cove shadowed by tall buildings. Though the risk of being caught by police frightens him, the fisherman sometimes uses his small boat to ferry would-be migrants a few hundred yards offshore to a bigger vessel, which in turn carries them to a larger ship outside Egyptian territorial waters, bound for Europe.
A single midnight load of 10 people can earn him more cash than he makes in a month with his nets. Sometimes, he and others said, the migrants are forced to wade into the sea clutching their scant possessions, then scrambling into waiting dinghies. A journey that begins immersed in water could end that way as well: More than 2,500 migrants and refugees have drowned so far this year while trying to cross the Mediterranean.
This summer has seen a massive shift in migratory routes, with many Syrians opting instead for a short but dangerous sea voyage from Turkey to Greece, then overland through the Balkans to coveted destinations like Germany and Sweden. But the Egypt-based smuggling business remains highly lucrative.
At a Syrian restaurant not far from the women’s catering kitchen, nearly every young waiter is saving up for passage to Europe. “You can die on the sea, or you can die in the war, or you can die every day here,” says 19-year-old Amir.
Like most Syrians, he can’t work legally, and he has no residency permit, and no chance to continue his studies. Born into an educated family, Amir had always expected to attend university, to marry, to inherit his father’s gracious stone house. Echoing a phrase that would-be migrants in Egypt use over and over again, he says with a shrug, “It’s death in life here.”
Ghazwa and Kamar are making kibbe, spice-and-meat-filled dumplings that are one of Syria’s signature dishes. When asked whether it is a family recipe, Ghazwa snorts. “Yes, if family is the whole country!” she says. “You’re born knowing how to make this.”
Ghazwa, 42, is one of the cooking group’s founders, and she can be a stern taskmaster. But she is also a gifted mimic, with a droll sense of humor. Kneading dough, she describes getting a call from an Egyptian police commander who wanted to order a batch of meals for fellow officers.
“I told him, ‘I’m innocent!’” she says, raising a flour-covered hand while the others look on, laughing. “Don’t lock me up!”
Ghazwa suffers from insomnia, and her nighttime thoughts turn to her widowed sister, and to her brother-in-law shot dead in his Damascus shop by government forces who believed he was colluding with the rebel Free Syrian Army. And she worries about the catering business. Can it stay afloat, given each day’s slender profits?
Kamar, 39, whose creamy complexion evokes the Arabic meaning of her name, “moon,” is shaping little torpedo-like tubes of dough, handing them off to be stuffed with filling and sealed with a dab of cornstarch. As she talks of how strange and oversize the city still feels to her at times, her rising inflection seems to teeter on the verge of tears, but turns at the last minute to a laugh.
“You would think Alexandria was bigger than all of Syria!” she says. The others nod.
Kamar worries about her married daughter who remained behind in Syria, her little son who is berated by Egyptian teachers and struggling in school, and her husband, who is angry and depressed over the family’s fall in fortunes.
A high-end antiques dealer at home, he had hoped to use his connections in the trade to start a business here. But lacking legal standing, he tried to form a partnership with an Egyptian and was swindled out of a large sum of money.
Kamar’s family of five lives in a cramped apartment in the neighborhood of Mandara, not far from the catering kitchen. In Syria, the family had a large flat in the center of Damascus and a spacious home in what was once the pleasant suburb of Dariya.
“It’s gone, destroyed,” Kamar says. “Not just our house, but all Dariya.”
Although the waterfront is less than half a mile away from the catering kitchen, sea light and sea air do not penetrate the neighborhood’s high-rise canyons of slab apartment blocks. Today, on the street just outside, a rat has been squashed flat by cars, its contours perfectly outlined like chalk at a crime scene.
The shoreline feels distant, but the sea is a constant mental backdrop, carrying both allure and peril.
“We want to escape,” Kamar says. “But we fear the sea.”
Egypt was initially welcoming to Syrians fleeing the war. There was a sense of solidarity; Egyptians and Syrians for a time had been compatriots in the short-lived United Arab Republic. For early arrivals, the journey here was not unduly arduous; many people would drive to Beirut, the Lebanese capital, and catch a commercial flight to Cairo, where they could enter Egypt with only their passports.
That picture changed drastically two years ago, when Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader, was deposed by the military. Within days, Syrians were being turned away at airports. Visas had to be obtained in advance. Popular television talk shows spouted hate speech against them. Street harassment struck fear.
The Syrian migrants, having escaped violence at home, found themselves unwittingly caught up in Egypt’s own upheaval. Barely two weeks before being pushed from office in July 2013, Morsi had appeared in public with a group of hard-line Muslim clerics and championed a jihad against Syrian President Bashar Assad. In the minds of many Egyptians, Syrians seeking sanctuary were tarred by perceived association with the Islamist cause of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
The numbers of Syrians in Egypt are small compared with those in countries bordering Syria. Official U.N. figures put the total at under 200,000; nongovernmental groups estimate the tally is double or triple that. That is dwarfed by the numbers sheltering in Turkey — nearly 2 million — or in Lebanon or Jordan, much smaller countries where the strain on resources is far greater.
Because of the lack of long-term prospects in Egypt, Syrians regard it as a way station, a purgatory of sorts. They either want to wait out the war with an eye toward returning home or seek to make this a jumping-off point for new lives in Europe.
Neighboring Libya is by far the biggest site of launchings for Europe from North Africa, but passengers skew heavily toward sub-Saharan Africans so desperate they will risk Libya’s lawlessness. Boats setting sail from Egypt, though, almost always carry large numbers of Syrians.
And middle-class Syrians can afford to spend at least $2,500 for passage on what may be an unsafe and leaky craft, ranging up to $6,000 for a voyage on a “luxury” vessel. That draws them into a nexus of criminal gangs, opportunistic hangers-on and corrupt Egyptian officialdom, according to those familiar with the smuggling trade.
“Everyone takes a cut,” said a self-described low-level smuggler in the faded resort of Agami, west of the city, a popular launch site.
Nearly every Syrian in Alexandria knows of someone who drowned. A year ago, Mohamed Adnan Albawab, a 40-year-old Syrian tailor, excitedly phoned his wife, Walaa, when he finally made it onto a boat departing from Damietta, an Egyptian coastal city on the eastern branch of the Nile, where the river empties into the Mediterranean. He would soon be in Europe, and would send for the rest of the family as soon as he was able.
That was the last time his wife spoke to him.
Witnesses told the International Organization of Migration what happened nine days later off the coast of Malta when passengers balked at transferring to smaller, unsafe-looking boats. The smugglers became enraged and deliberately rammed the ship, which sank. About 500 people were aboard; only 11 survived, and only two bodies were recovered.
Albawab’s wife still refuses to believe he is dead, and no entreaties to accept her widowhood and begin rebuilding her life will sway her.
“She wants to go to Italy and try to find him — she keeps swearing she will get on a boat and go,” says her 24-year-old sister, Alaa, who moved in to help support Walaa and her two young sons. “She’s lost her mind, her reason. She can’t be left alone.”
Alaa, consumed by sorrow for her sister, cannot forgive the smugglers.
“This,” she says, “is a business of death.”
The kitchen smells of burnt sugar. The women are making harisi, a semolina cake that is so popular it accompanies nearly every meal they sell. When they sell it as a stand-alone product, it is so inexpensive — the equivalent of about 30 cents a pound — that they are overwhelmed with orders.
“No more harisi for anyone! Not even if they beg!” Ghazwa mock-screeches.
Dignified Zoukaa, uncharacteristically playing the clown, confesses that she likes to snack on the hardened crust edges that are cut off and discarded. To illustrate, she makes a comical hips-widening gesture.
They all make gentle fun of Ihklass, whose sometimes truculent demeanor belies her need for companionship. If left in the kitchen tending the oven, she will testily call out for someone to come help with the cakes.
“Hey!” she’ll holler. “It’s lonely back here!”
On days like this, enjoying one another’s company even as they hurry around assembling a large order, the women almost never talk about news of the war. Or of the latest boat tragedy.
But inevitably, family gossip takes on the character of shipping news. Ihklass’ 17-year-old son is out of detention; he spent nine days in police custody after a failed attempt at a voyage. He’s happy, though — the intermediary hadn’t yet handed over his payment to the smuggler, so he can try again.
“I was afraid, but at the same time, I encouraged him,” Ihklass says haltingly. “He needs a better future.”
Zoukaa can scarcely bear to hear such talk. Her 18-year-old son is determined to try a crossing. A few days earlier, as she and her son sat together, she talked of the dangers. He listened courteously enough to his mother, this youngest child of hers, but could not contain a flickering smile of bravado. She caught a glimpse of it and closed her eyes.
“This is destroying me,” she said.
At the end of another day of cooking comes a rush to clean up. The women throw themselves into the task of scrubbing and mopping every inch of the apartment, but hurriedly; they have to go home and cook their own family suppers.
Mona’s eldest son, too, is thinking of a sea voyage. He is 18, and the family’s displacement disrupted his education, so he is in the same high school class as her 15-year-old twin boys, feeling awkward and out of place.
The older boy, she says, remembers well the family’s prewar life in Syria and longs for a home that no longer exists. But the younger ones, still children when the war broke out and barely into their teens when the family arrived in Alexandria, are adjusting, even thriving, making Egyptian friends as well as Syrian ones. They especially love going to the seaside, she says.
“We’ll go home to Syria one day,” Mona says, hands still for an instant over a lemon-scented batch of yalangi, stuffed grape leaves. “But I promised the two of them that we can take a trip back to Egypt — to visit. Only to visit.”
About this series: This series reports on the greatest trans-national human migration since World War II. How we reported the series and reader reaction here »
Additional Credits: Digital design director: Stephanie Ferrell. Digital producer: Evan Wagstaff. Lead photo caption: Yasmine, Kamar’s 16-year-old daughter, brings vegetables to the catering business.