When Ahmad lost everything – his fortune, his family, even part of his thumb – he fled the desperate situation in Syria in the hope of finding a safe place to settle.
He did not have a plan and was unsure where he would end up. Now, six years later, Ahmad is reconnecting with his Syrian heritage and rewriting its war-torn reputation by telling tales of its rich culture during the supper clubs he hosts around London.
“When did you start the Aleppo Supper Club?” I ask him as soon as we sit down to chat.
“I think it was in 2016. I started accidentally; I didn’t plan for it. First of all, I was homeless.”
Ahmad and I first met in Kenwood House, an idyllic former stately home turned café just inside Hampstead Heath. It is a place I imagine is similar in ways to the citadel he grew up in in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city.Within minutes of meeting, Ahmad is already describing the exclusive life he led back home and the grounds his family owned before the civil war broke out in 2011 – the same war which would eventually force him to escape to the UK.
“My grandfather had a huge amount of land in the North of Aleppo, you could drive for 45 minutes inside it.”
Ahmad was born into a very wealthy, very well-known family within Syria. He takes out his phone, scrolls up his ‘favourites’ folder and shows me a photo of him standing proudly next to a table piled high with cash to prove it.
The picture was taken in 2008 when Ahmad was 23, three years before the war started; the look on his face naïve to the destruction that would soon wipe out his livelihood. “I had a posh life, but I’m very simple,” he says, seemingly realising that the picture of his riches may have come across too strong.
“We had power, but we helped a lot of people. My family educated me to help everyone, but especially poor people and orphans.” He tells me how his family would help out local people who could not afford their food shopping, giving them the money without others knowing, so that they would feel “no less” than paying customers.
His unmistakable generosity rooted in his upbringing shines through even now, as he insists we share a sandwich in the café upon meeting.
As well as his family’s fortune and esteem being a large influence on his identity growing up, Ahmad and his relatives were Jewish, a factor which ultimately meant he was not safe, despite his otherwise VIP status. “Inside my house, my family called me Ed, like Edim, but outside I was Ahmad, because we could not tell people we were Jewish.”
Ahmad was brought up to deny his religion and lie about his heritage; a crypto-Jew if you will. This was due to the discrimination and imminent danger he would face by being part of such a marginalised group.
“My mum actually wanted to hide us, not in one room, but from society.” But despite his name being changed on his official documents, Ahmad explains that: “the government still knew exactly who we were.”
The once prolific Jewish-Syrian community that Ahmad was born into can be traced back to Biblical times, where it evolved to be vibrant and thriving. It continued to flourish throughout the Roman Empire, with the settlement of Arab Jews, known as Musta’arabi and again with the Sephardic Jews who migrated to Syria from Spain in 1492.
The number of Jews in Syria peaked in the early 20th Century with the population standing at around 25,000. However, it is now thought to lie at less than 20 in the whole of Syria following the brutalities of the civil war and rise of terrorist militant group ISIL, whose barbaric beliefs and extreme violence forced people to either flee the country or be left for dead.The persecution of Jews in Syria is nothing new, however, and with a long history of perpetual war and hostility between Israel and Syria, lasting religious and ethnic tensions remain.
Ahmad explains that in his experience, Jewish people in Syria were often labelled Israeli sympathisers and therefore treated cruelly due to their mistaken loyalties. He tells me that when he was young, his parents were given a red ID card so they could be told apart from non-Jews; a Nazi-reminiscent regime which affected Jewish inhabitants of Syria far and wide.
Growing up, Ahmad was curious about the way his country was ruled, explaining that even as a schoolboy he questioned the rigid authority system he had picked up on around him. “Every day at school we were made to sing short rhythms in Arabic. We would sing إلى الأبد حافظ الأسد (Iilaa al’abad Ḥāfiẓ al-ʾAsad) meaning ‘Forever Assad’; Assad as in the family who have illegally controlled Syria for over 45 years.”
“I would ask my parents, why should I sing to the president every day? It annoyed me. But they would say ‘If you talk, people will hear you and they will take your father to jail. They were scared to talk about politics.”
Explaining further the strictures of the ever-present dictatorial government in Syria, Ahmad tells me it is simply impossible for anyone outside of the Assad family to run for president as “even if you have real power and money, the government will kill you and your family.”
Despite the constant murmur of unrest during his youth, Ahmad and his family continued to live in Syria, where they successfully operated multiple businesses. This included a fruitful property development business which they ran alongside their traditional Middle Eastern food produce company; the origin of Ahmad’s deep-rooted affinity with home cooking.
When Ahmad left school, he began studying languages at a college in a city about two hours outside of Aleppo, right next to the Lebanon-Syria border. This came after his dreams of becoming a pilot or going into politics were quickly crushed by government officials, who he says would not even entertain either of the ideas due to his background.
It was around the same time Ahmad moved to there that the war began, but he was only aware of the existence of conflict in distant cities until the violence landed on his own doorstep. “I remember I was sitting an exam. Outside our class was a big square and the winds brought the voices of people screaming and shouting. Someone was shooting them.”
According to the Violations Documentation Centre, shootings were the most common cause of fatality at the start of the civil war, with over 2,000 people shot dead within a year of the conflict breaking out in 2011.
Ahmad explains that the people shooting innocent students were Alawites – a faction of Islam based in Syria who follow Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed. The government – also Alawites – would target their supporters in rural farmlands and tell them lies about the opposition living in cities, creating further discord and in turn gaining their support in the war.
Illustrating the extent of government corruption, Ahmad tells me: “when they [Alawites] go to high school, someone writes the answers on the board so they can copy. Their exam papers are then taken to another city where they are marked as correct meaning these people will go and study medicine, engineering etc.”
I ask him whether this means the government have complete control over who is in positions of power. He nods.
After realising the severity of the situation, Ahmad left the city for Aleppo. The journey, which would normally take two hours, took Ahmad three days, as he had to seek alternative routes to avoid the heavily armed insurgents posted on every corner.
On his return, Ahmad tells me that he was convinced he was in a different city as the devastation was so great that he did not recognise the place where he grew up.“I could see people living inside tents on pavements in the city, it was crowded with more than two million people, homeless and trapped because their houses had been bombed.”
What Ahmad was witnessing was the beginnings of the Battle of Aleppo: a brutal blood bath lasting four years (2012-2016) which claimed the lives of more than 30,000 people. It was one of the longest sieges in contemporary warfare and has been described by experts as the ‘Syrian Stalingrad.’
Ahmad was soon arrested in his home by plain-clothed rebels: “I was drinking tea when they broke the door to my house. I was beaten in front of my family, who they then hit with the back of a Kalashnikov.” He tells me how he was violently tortured by his captors, the details of which are too raw and triggering to repeat.
After being held hostage for three months, Ahmad’s family paid a ransom and he was sent to a safe house in the countryside where he received treatment for his injuries. This included his thumb which had been badly severed by the criminals.
He shows me the silvering scar that remains on the top of his hand; the trauma fresher than the cut.
Ahmad stayed there for eight months until he was well enough to leave and make the long journey across the border to any place safer than where he had come from.
According to the UNHCR, in 2014, the same year Ahmad fled, it is thought that over three million Syrians left the country as a result of the civil war, most of whom fled to neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
Ahmad chose Turkey. Passing through regime checkpoints and ISIL strongholds en route, he stayed for two months, carrying goods and sleeping in basements just to get by.
From there he paid traffickers to help him get to Algeria; the place he was sure his new life would begin. It was not, however, and ended up being just as dangerous as the previous places.
He managed to escape to Libya with a group of fellow asylum seekers, but on the way all the money he had left was stolen and he was beaten and tormented for leaving Syria instead of fighting. When the group arrived in Libya, they were led onto a boat and were told they were being taken to Germany.
Reflecting on the journey, he tells me: “When I looked at the water, I thought I would definitely die, but if I didn’t get on the boat, they would have shot me.”
Ahmad was led from boat, to ship, to lorry, to a shipping container where he stayed for three days, with just a bottle of water and a packet of dates to his name. Having survived the life-threatening conditions inside the container, Ahmad was one of the lucky ones, if you could call him that.
Reports from the International Organisation for Migration state that in 2014, 3,072 people died or disappeared while trying to migrate to Europe the same way Ahmad did. And even now, it is thought that six people die every day crossing the Mediterranean.I ask Ahmad what happened when he got to the UK and he tells me he did not even know he was coming. “I put the battery back in my phone to look at where I was. I was between Dover and London. I checked seven times and it showed me the same place. I started to shout and shake the whole car and smash the ceiling, anything to make noise.”
Ahmad and the two other men he was travelling with were discovered by police, who took them to London and placed them in temporary accommodation. Here he began the process of applying for refugee status, helping others in the same position as him with interpreting and admin as a pastime.
It took Ahmad four months to get his official documents, but during this time, all he could think about was home. “I started to think about my family and what had happened to them,” he tells me, “but I later found out that the government destroyed our building and two of the floors collapsed above my family; actually, they died.”
After this, Ahmad struggled to get his feet on the ground. The news of his late family proved too much for his mental stability and the added difficulty of losing government supported housing now that he was legal meant he ended up homeless and his progress was put on pause.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, asylum seekers and refugees are five times more likely to struggle with mental health issues than the local population. This means higher incidences of depression, anxiety and PTSD; the disorder that Ahmad manages in his daily life which, he tells me, means: “when I sleep my body sleeps, but my brain doesn’t.”
Research also shows that although 61% of these people are likely to experience serious mental health distress, they are less likely to receive help than other UK nationals.
In 2015, whilst walking through central London, Ahmad stumbled across the Solidarity with Refugees rally, an event where thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in support of people just like him.
“I saw people, maybe 20,000 of them, in the street. I asked what they were doing, they said ‘we are here to help refugees’,” he tells me, laughing at the irony of it. “It was funny for me, I told them I’m a Syrian refugee. I told them I need help, but I don’t know how.”
Ahmad tells me that he got chatting with a man at the rally who invited him over to cook for a group of his friends. “When I was there, I told them my story.”
Through this meeting, Ahmad was given a temporary place to stay with one of the guests, who later showed him a website where refugees can find longer-term host families to stay with, which he did.
For the next year-and-a-half, Ahmad volunteered for a charity that donates second-hand bikes to refugees and asylum seekers who otherwise would not have a means of transport to get around London. His work was successful and telling his story to donors earned the charity a healthy grant, however working as a volunteer, Ahmad himself was only receiving £40 of benefits a week.
He left the charity in search of a more lucrative job and ended up getting involved with an English-Arabic tour guide service at the British Museum, a scheme they were running during Refugees Week in 2016.
Although this opportunity was prestigious, he was only paid to give two tours, so his workload was not consistent. With a lack of stable income and no support system around him, Ahmad was at a loss.
“I decided to text my manager from the British Museum, asking for advice,” who suggested he should start cooking again and he did. He realised this would give him the opportunity to tell people more about Syria, more than the war: “I could present Syrian culture and tell them stories about our food, how it’s made, where it’s from and what it’s called; positive things.”
“When I started cooking again, the guests said, ‘I think you need to start charging more than £10′,” he tells me, amused.Kicking off his new culinary venture in the homes of London’s eager culture buffs, Ahmad has gone on to cook for charities all over the city, coining the name ‘Aleppo Supper Club’ in the process.
In 2017, Ahmad catered for over 100 people at a charity event for the British Red Cross where he shared his experience of living in Syria during a talk hosted by celebrity chef Loyd Grossman.
“After this, I did a lot of improvements with my presentation, first I was cooking delicious food, but it looked normal. I started to think about decoration, presentation. Now I write people’s names in pomegranate seeds on top of baba ghanoush.”
He tells me how he cooked for Tanya Burr – British actress and YouTuber – and a small group of her friends earlier this year: “I wrote Tanya’s name in Sumac. I was introduced to her by the UN, to tell her more about refugees because she has three million people on her platform.”
Ahmad tells me that although he has cooked for some household names, his work still operates on a word-of-mouth basis, with any profit made covering simple expenses.
“Sometimes one of my friends will recommend me, sometimes I do it for charities, but I cannot tell you it’s a business. I feel it’s more like a social enterprise project where I can share happiness, music, food and tell people about Syria.”
While he is thankful for his opportunities he is also frustrated with the lack of support he and other refugees receive: “If I’m honest with you, I cannot criticise charities and these people, but in the past, some of them would work with us, write funding applications, talk about us a lot, but they wouldn’t actually employ us,” he says.
“So, when I have big events, I make sure I involve other refugees. Even if they don’t come to the event, some of them will prepare the food. It’s a big problem for us, to find work.”
Thinking about a more positive personal experience, Ahmad tells me about RefuAid – an organisation that provide refugees with online language programmes, scholarships for higher education and employment support.
With the help of this charity and their donors, Ahmad is currently completing his IELTS (International English Language Testing System) – a requirement for students who do not speak English as their first language – so that he has the option of studying at university later in his life if he chooses.
Looking to the future, I ask Ahmad where he would like to take the Aleppo Supper Club. “We’d like to run as a proper catering business in the future as we do not make any money from it at the moment.”
He also tells me that he has not given up on his dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot, which he hopes one day he will be able to achieve. In the meantime, however, Ahmad would like to return to education so that he can secure a stable job and pay bills and taxes but most importantly, he says, is to live a normal life in London.
Before leaving, I ask Ahmad what his favourite thing to cook is. “There’s one dish my mum used to make. You fry aubergine, red and yellow peppers and red onion, in coriander, garlic, olive oil. Then you boil a few tomatoes, so the skin comes off, chop them in two and turn the temperature down. Then you stir it all together. You can eat it cold with bread like we do in Syria.”
Featured image by Sapphi Littleton.
Edited by Holly Johns & Franziska Eberlein.