From an advertising sales manager in Syria to running a catering company in Amsterdam.
er beautiful red curls are probably the first thing you notice when you see her in the kitchen. While making her enticing food, there’s a bright smile on her face. Zina Abboud (33) is the first female refugee to have started her own company, according to the Kamer van Koophandel.
“I’m happy to live here in Amsterdam, but I also miss Aleppo, it’s my city, my home. There I worked as a sales manager in an advertisement company. It was a well-payed job, I had my own house and a car. Life was nice for me. I lost everything when I had to escape from the war.”
Zina worked as a volunteer in the part of Aleppo which was controlled by the free army. There was no milk for the children who lived in this area and a lot of people were in need of medical supplies. Since she herself lived in a neighborhood where the government was still in control, she could buy medicine from the pharmacy. “I hid the medicine under my clothes and crossed the border between the regime and the free army to give them to the doctors for the people who needed it. One day the regime found out. They accused me of helping the free army and started looking for me. I hid by going from house to house. After ten days, I really had to leave. I knew that if they caught me, they would kill me. I travelled to Turkey and lived there for three years. Life was hard. I was lucky to get a job, but could hardly pay the rent.”
Cooking again after five months
Zina decided to go to the Netherlands with her sister and her young niece. This journey took 26 days. They had to walk through mountains for days and then took a boat to Greece, crammed together with 76 other refugees. In the asylum center in Amsterdam, a Dutch woman, Liza, invited her and her friends to eat together on New Year’s Eve. She thought that the refugees missed food from their country because they weren’t allowed to cook in the asylum center. Liza bought some ingredients to make Syrian food, but she did not know how to make it. Zina offered to cook.
She even bought halal meat!
I prepared dinner for everyone and it made me so happy to see them enjoy it. I hadn’t cooked in five months.
Everyone liked it so much, the word spread and people asked her to cook for events and parties. She didn’t have her own kitchen. Liza offered her own kitchen: “Whenever you need to cook for an event, this is Zina’s Kitchen.”
She was surprised that she could find everything she needed.
“There are a lot of nationalities here, like Moroccan, Turkish and Indian people. I can find all the specialties I need in their stores. My dishes are mostly Syrian, but I like to make Turkish, Armenian and Lebanese food as well. Even the Dutch people like my food, because I cook a lot of different things and I make it with love. There is something in it for everyone. I think Dutch cuisine isn’t very rich. Most of the time it’s potatoes, meat and vegetables. But I like cheese. I’m in love with cheese!”
Her kitchen has been officially open for six months now.
“I was really happy when they told me I’m the first refugee woman to have started a company. I also feel like it’s a big responsibility for me now, because of this name. Everything I make, I give it my best. I feel really happy when people smile while they eat it. When they are happy, I’m happy.”
When Zina thinks about the future, the first thing that she is planning on is to get a location in Amsterdam. When that is settled, she wants to expand throughout the Netherlands, with locations in other big cities like Utrecht and Rotterdam. The next project will be ‘Zina’s Kitchen Products’, making her own products and to sell to supermarkets, like special humus. She likes to work on her own, because she knows she can finish everything on time and make it just the way she wants it, but if her company grows, she will have to hire a team. “I guess that will not take long, since I already need someone for large events. During some weeks I have a job every day, and other weeks I only have one day of work. It’s a good start!”
‘I’ve found freedom here’
“Syrian people are very active people. They like to work, they don’t like to sit, eat and sleep. Everyone wants to have a job. And yes, I’ve got a lot of friends who started great projects here to contribute to Dutch society. I am integrating quickly, because I’m very open-minded and I can speak English. But there are also a lot of people who don’t know how to integrate. It’s not because they don’t want to, but they don’t know how to. It’s hard to find work if they cannot speak Dutch or English, so they have to learn. I think we can help them if we just ask everybody in their own language what his or her profession or ambition is. If someone is a farmer, invite him to work and help at a farm. If someone is a baker, ask them to come and work at the bakery. If you want to help them, you have to ask them in their language and you would see these beautiful people in the right place.”
“I’ve found freedom here. When I lived in Turkey, people asked me when I would go back to my country. I can understand that they didn’t like all those people coming to Turkey, but I felt like a stranger. Here in Amsterdam, the people are very welcoming and friendly. I feel like I’m in the Happiness Country.”
Currently Zina published her own Syrian recipes book in the Dutch language: Mijn Syrische keuken
Photography © Zina Abboud