PETALING JAYA: For most Malaysians, Hari Raya is a time for joyful gatherings with friends and family, spending quality time together and spreading the spirit of the season over delicious food.
But while many are celebrating, there are countless others for whom the festivities might seem like a distant dream. For 53-year-old Jawad, the festive season is a reminder of what he had to leave behind.
“I am a Palestinian from Gaza. My brother, parents and I travelled to Syria when I was 12,” he told FMT, adding that he and his family had to endure countless years of despair when the war broke out in that country.
It wasn’t until 2015 that he finally managed to flee to Malaysia with his wife and son, forcing them to bid a painful farewell to their homeland.
“I left everything in Syria. My home, my family. When I left, my mother asked me, ‘How can you leave me?’ I still remember, every morning I would go to her room, say good morning, and kiss her hand.”
Amidst the struggle of starting anew, one of Jawad’s talents offers him hope: the man is a gifted cook who enjoys nothing more than serving up beloved childhood dishes to share with his new community.
“I learnt cooking from my father. He was the cook of the family; in fact he actually taught my mother how to cook,” he said fondly.
His love for whipping up traditional Middle Eastern cuisine keeps him connected to his roots. “When I cook, I put part of my soul in the food. I believe that is how it becomes delicious.”
Owing to his status as a refugee, he doesn’t get a chance to share his food as widely as he’d like. Fortunately, he has received some assistance through Little Steps, a non-profit organisation that helps underserved communities.
Through its Muhajir Kitchen initiative held in conjunction with the holy month, the NGO has been able to connect refugee cooks such as Jawad to locals to showcase their delicious food.
FMT had the opportunity to join Jawad on such an occasion. As the sun rose over Kajang, the chef was already hard at work, preparing to cook for 80 individuals from the Yemeni refugee community.
The tantalising aroma of Middle Eastern spices filled the air as he meticulously marinated large pieces of chicken, which he would slow-cook for two hours.
“That’s how it becomes juicy,” he explained, turning to a bubbling pot of basmati rice simmering with a medley of spices: cinnamon, black peppercorns, cumin.
While today he would be dishing up biryani, that Middle Eastern classic, his other culinary strengths include shish kebab and falafel.
As he cooked, he opened up about his passion for sharing the cuisine of his homeland with locals here, especially those who are unfamiliar with the rich, exotic flavours of the Middle East.
“I would love to make my food famous,” Jawad said with a smile.
For him and many others like him, the holy month and Aidilfitri celebration can be bittersweet. “Back home, Ramadan is a happy occasion. Here, as a refugee, I don’t experience that happy feeling as much.”
He has fond memories of the neighbourly warmth he had grown accustomed to in Syria. “During this time, everyone would be together. If I cooked something, I would send it over to my neighbour, and the next day, they would do the same.
“The iftar table would have about 10 different dishes from 10 different houses.”
Another memory he holds on to is that of the Musaharati, the dedicated person who wakes people up for sahur – a time-honoured tradition in the Middle East.
“Not a day goes by without listening to him and waking up to the sound of his drum. I remember his name and hear his voice in my mind even now,” Jawad said.
Nevertheless, he is happy to be able to give back to the community that has embraced him. “So far, in the eight years I’ve been in Malaysia, I find the people to be very kind.
“And when I cook for refugees, I feel overwhelmed because I know how difficult life is for them and myself. So, it’s very nice to know that I will be giving them good, tasty and healthy food.”