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Cordaid NL
Humanitarian Aid Syria

What it takes to run an emergency kitchen in Aleppo

Surely, the best makhlouta (lentil soup) in the world must be served in Aleppo! It’s on today’s menu of the Jesuit Refugee Service. Their daily meals, prepared and distributed in unlikely circumstances and with Cordaid support, help thousands to survive war. Kitchen manager Muhannad Majano, tells what it takes to fill the plates.

Here’s a typical day of Muhannad (37), and for that matter of any of the 76 Syrian JRS volunteers that run the emergency kitchen of Aleppo. “I get up at 7, say goodbye to my daughter and wife, knowing it might be the last time I see them. Then it’s a 45 minutes’ drive to the kitchen in the Franciscan monastery.”

Even the kitchen itself has been hit by mortars

Going to work is a job in itself, not without risks. “Normally it would take 10 minutes, but with all the check points, it now takes up to an hour”, Muhannad explains. “In the past, it was even more dangerous. This road was bombed quite a few times. Even the kitchen itself was hit by mortars. Man, that was scary! We had to run for our lives.”

kitchen aleppo
Muhannad Majano (© JRS)

Once he has arrived at the kitchen, Muhannad gives all he has to make sure his teams deliver up to 10.000 hot meals a day for fellow Allepians who cannot provide for themselves. “We have different teams”, he continues. “One team enters data of our beneficiaries and makes sure we reach the most needy. Another team prepares the food in 14 huge cookers. Then there’s the team that distributes the food to our main centers, up to 25 km away from the kitchen, and, if sudden displacements take place, to other locations. And we have a management team.”

“Nowadays, we serve up to 10.000 hot meals a day.”

Muhannad Majano, JRS Kitchen manager

As kitchen manager, Muhannad is involved in the whole chain, from finding the ingredients to making sure that kids, elderly people, single mothers and others get their daily plate of wholesome food. And he covers more than the Aleppo region. “Right now”, he says, “the situation in and around Afrin is really bad. This is 50 km away from Aleppo. We travelled as close to Afrin as possible and started working there as well to serve the displaced population – mainly Kurdish families.”

Watch our video showing the work of the kitchen in Aleppo and other Cordaid-supported activities (in Dutch)

“My shop was bombed”

Before the war, Muhannad was a shop owner. “I used to have a good life”, he recalls. “I had my own food shop. That’s how I provided for my family and me. But my shop was shelled in July 2012.” Soon after this happened, Muhannad, who was lucky to have completed his military service before the war, joined the JRS team as a volunteer. “I wanted to fight with dignity, by serving my people and helping to feed them.” For almost a year he worked without an income, like the other volunteers. Then, as it got clear the war would drag on, the volunteers were paid an income that allows them to keep their heads above water. With his shopkeeper’s experience and a degree in business management, Muhannad worked himself up from data entry volunteer to kitchen manager.

Muhannad’s guess is that more than 70% of the people in Aleppo now live below the poverty line.

At 10 AM the first meals are ready to be distributed. “By that time, we have tasted what we prepared, added the right amount of spices to the meals, and then off they go”, says Muhannad.  “The next challenge is to pass all the check points on the way to our distribution centers and spontaneous crisis locations. And to find the fuel get there by car.”

Lack of water, lack of fuel

Because fuel, just like water, are two of the least available and therefore most cherished resources in Aleppo. “Taps run dry every now and again and gas and petrol are lacking often”, Muhannad adds. “War forces us to be very inventive at times.”

kitchen Aleppo
Muhannad (left) with some of the cooks (© JRS)

As the war continues, poverty in Aleppo becomes increasingly abhorrent. Muhannad’s guess is that more than 70% of the people in Aleppo now live below the poverty line. “Breadwinners are either killed, injured, missing or locked up”, he says. “Meanwhile, prices for daily necessities have flared up. And the bad thing is that rich people leave the city and the country, and the poorest ones stay behind, creating even more poverty. Especially in the rural areas and the eastern part poverty is extreme. There’s not a day we cannot afford not to do our job.”

More than serving food

JRS’s kitchen is about more than serving food. It is a beacon for the many volunteers that work there. “Like myself”, says Muhannad. “But especially for the young boys and girls and the elderly of our teams, who have no degrees, no jobs, no prospects at all”, he is quick to add. “Some are illiterate. We train them, we pay them, we assist them. And we love each other. We are a family. Many of us would have been crushed by the war and the lack of opportunities, if it wouldn’t have been for the JRS kitchen.”

Muhannad joined JRS 5,5 years ago, right at the start of the emergency kitchen in Aleppo. “We started by serving a few hundred meals a day”, he remembers. “Then, overwhelmed by the demand and the suffering, we managed to increase our capacities and now serve up to 10.000 meals a day. Definitely, among the many war-affected citizens, meals with meat are among the favourite. But today we serve another nutritious and appreciated dish: makhlouta, a lentil soup with vegetables and onions.”

Strangers in their own city

Once the meals are served, Muhannad drives back home, crossing his mutilated city. “Sure, I miss the security. But mostly”, he says, “I miss the buildings I loved so much. We have lost our cultural heritage. We have become strangers in the city we were born in.”

“There’s not a day we cannot afford not to do our job.”

Muhannad Majano, JRS Kitchen manager, Aleppo

Once he is home, Muhannad embraces his wife and his daughter, grateful for yet another day and grateful to be with his loved ones. “I remember”, he says, “driving home after having closed the kitchen. Near my place, I heard the sound of bombs. I saw our building was hit. We have our apartment on the top floor. I went inside. All the windows and doors were blown away. But my wife and baby daughter were safe. Terrified but alive.”

Signs of solidarity help Aleppians endure

When asked what kind of support he needs from people outside Syria, Muhannad is fast to answer. “We are grateful that Cordaid and their Dutch supporters helped us to deliver meals all these years. But support does not always need to be financial”, Muhannad concludes. “Any sign that reaches us, of people who show they care and stand with us, gives us, Aleppians, the energy to endure. Because we will continue, however bad the situation. Even if war stole everything from us, we will stick with the people who need us.”

Cordaid has been supporting the JRS kitchen since 2013.

Read more about Cordaid’s work in Syria.

(featured image: part of the volunteer JRS kitchen team in Aleppo. © JRS)