'Top Chef' Host Padma Lakshmi on the Power of Food in Refugee Documentary 'Soufra' (Guest Column)
The Susan Sarandon-produced film about women who launch a catering business from a camp in Lebanon reveals how home cooking "sustains" and "gives them purpose" amid the stagnation of refugee life.
It’s been a sickening fall season with hardly anyone worth rooting for, except those women who were brave enough to open their mouths about sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood and beyond. Everywhere it seemed there was only bad news. Luckily, I made it out to the movie theater one Sunday afternoon, prepared to settle into what I expected to be a decent food documentary, nothing more. But what I saw was so much more.
Most of us in America will fortunately never know what it feels like to live as a refugee. Most of us don’t know and haven’t seen how refugees actually live. The new documentary Soufra, produced by Susan Sarandon, tells the story of women living in a Lebanese refugee camp who start a catering business in order to take some control of their lives. Their Herculean tenacity in the face of crippling obstacles, rigid bureaucracy and legal red tape is quite something to watch. And so is the food; it will make you hungry. (Luckily there is a cookbook for sale.) Soufra is an uplifting and welcome respite from the daily deluge of our unrelenting news cycle. "Finally, some good news," I thought.
As most of us already know, food is a great unifier, it brings people together. It is also succor, not only for those who consume it, but often for those of us who prepare it. Meals give order to our lives, give us purpose and a way to do something immediate and viscerally satisfying for our fellow human beings. And as any nomad or displaced wanderer will tell you, along with a prized childhood teddy bear, or a mother's embrace, nothing feels as much like home as one’s own food made by a caring hand. It’s why they call it "home cooking." It is the thing we miss when we are on the road, far from home. And as this film proves, it is indeed home cooking that sustains these refugee women and lifts them up. It gives them not only purpose, but also real financial sustenance. It gives them agency, and the women are happier and more productive, with a renewed sense of hope not felt in years.
Soufra follows the trials and tribulations of Mariam Shaar, who runs the Women’s Program Association at the Burj al Barajneh camp, and after surveying the women, wants to help them capitalize on their best skill. She effectively serves as their CEO, and valiantly goes about trying to organize the women of this Beirut camp with no walls except colossal and ever-present invisible ones. Mariam is rarely flustered and unbelievably calm, a calm that can only come from someone who is no stranger to waiting. We learn that Palestinian and Syrian refugees are not allowed work permits, even though many of them have been stranded for decades if not born into the camps. They have no way of earning a living. Mariam secures a microloan from the organization Alfanar, and to everyone’s delight and surprise, is able to garner modest profits within months of starting up the catering company, named Soufra (which means “dining table" or "picnic” in Arabic). Buoyed by this early success, the women decide that to grow their business they must acquire a food truck.
They try to raise the money for the food truck through a Kickstarter campaign, and by some miracle they manage to get the funds, but there is a legal hitch due to their refugee status that delays and jeopardizes their ability to get a permit to use the truck, when usually it would take 10 days to get such a permit. They do all they can to maximize their enterprise regardless, including setting up a booth in a gourmet market, printing flyers and taking catering gigs outside the refugee camp for parties and functions in the “outside world” of greater Beirut.
In one heartbreaking scene, we see the women of Soufra standing around in an upscale home with Westernized Arab women in camisoles and pearls mingling and laughing, enjoying the food and thoroughly oblivious to the refugee women in their head scarves tending to the table. But our caterers are happy to be there. We hear the gratitude in their voices as they tell of how this business has exposed them to new things; like glimpses of a normal life, even one that seems ever out of reach. This moment was the only instance (in spite of various setbacks) when I felt sorry for these women. And that is the great triumph of this documentary. It does not at any time make these refugees victims or subjects of pity.
Soufra humanizes the plight of the refugee. In another life, these women could be our neighbors, our friends. In another life, these women could be us. It is plain-speaking in its depiction of their desires and hopes. They want what we all want. Autonomy. Productivity. Forward motion. The women of Soufra have found a way to move ahead, past this open-ended inaction, the relentless waiting that is the refugee’s plight. The film evidences in practical terms why everyone must have the right to earn, put down roots, to make a real home and life for themselves and their families through hard work. Soufra shows how the stagnation of life that a refugee must endure is the greatest indignity of all. It is soul-crushing. In the end, it is the hardest crust of bread to swallow.
Lakshmi is a New York Times best-selling author and the Emmy-nominated host and executive producer of Bravo's Top Chef.