Idea We’re Watching: “Project Ahlan” has Australian Restaurants Readying to Welcome Syrian Refugees

Ahlan is Arabic for welcome. That’s what the hospitality industry in New South Wales (NSW), Australia is planning to offer refugees from Syria. It began with a small-scale idea: When refugees start arriving in NSW, Carol and Sharon Salloum wanted to hire some at Almond Bar, their restaurant serving Syrian cuisine.

Like any good idea, it has grown among local hospitality businesses. Called “Project Ahlan,” the long-term vision is to support Syrian refugees find employment across the hospitality sector in New South Wales, which ranges from specialty and gourmet food markets, to ethnic food suppliers, to delis and greengrocers, and more.

Carol, left, and Sharon Salloum of Almond Bar in Darlinghurst, Sydney

Carol, left, and Sharon Salloum of Almond Bar in Darlinghurst, Sydney

The owners of Almond Bar are leading the project, engaging fellow employers as champions of refugee talent.

A business network for refugee employment

After a radio show profiled Almond Bar at a community cooking event with refugees of other backgrounds, peers in the hospitality industry began showing interest. A small group of like-minded chefs and restaurant owners came together, along with a cultural psychologist, an educator, and a local settlement agency, the Settlement Services International (SSI).

One restaurant owner and project partner, Hugh Foster, explained that refugee employment is a natural fit with industry values. He said, “we’re in the hospitality industry and we’re being hospitable.”

Large numbers of Syrian refugees haven’t arrived yet, so the project partners are getting ready. Initially, they’ve been going chef to chef, Salloum said, bringing small groups of chefs together to talk about the project. The project’s cultural psychologist and educator spend time with the chefs, helping them understand what to expect when the refugees arrive and how new employees can best be supported.

For Carol Salloum, rallying the industry takes a personal touch. She says there is nothing more personal for a Syrian than sharing a meal together. She and her sister Sharon would know. The children of Syrian immigrants to Australia, they have run Almond Bar since 2007.

Almond Bar in Darlinghurst, Sydney, serves Syrian cuisine

Almond Bar in Darlinghurst, Sydney, serves Syrian cuisine

“A lot of [the employers] don’t know what to say, what to do. They’ve never met anyone from a war and worked with them,” Salloum says. “If we bring small groups of chefs into our restaurant, they’re more likely to ask questions, to talk about their concerns, and what they’re prepared to do.”

Part of the personal touch is foregoing any paper-based application process for the project. Salloum connects directly with potential employers as interested peers. The personal touch is working. Everyone Salloum has approached has been interested, and many are on board. A small group of about 10 employers will pilot the project.

Here’s how it will work: With SSI as a close partner, Project Ahlan will identify those refugees who have experience or are interested in hospitality work. Job candidates will be given training and skills development directly in workplaces. Like the small group of employers, Project Ahlan will begin small on the candidate side, beginning with 15-25 refugees. As they learn and gain profile, Salloum’s vision is for the program to grow and scale.

It’s not just about the job

Employment is important, but it’s not just about supporting refugees to get a job. Connecting the newcomers with the community as they restart their lives is an important goal of the project.

“Through food, through interaction, that’s how they’re going to become members of the community,” Salloum said. “They’re more likely to feel at home, feel more comfortable, and settle in better.”

As the project moves forward, Salloum said they’ll host an event bringing refugees and employers together over dinner or a typical Australian BBQ. Eventually they’ll also hold a public event that will aim to have refugees cook for the community and interact with their neighbours. For Salloum, having employers and the broader public meet and spend time with refugees is a way to ensure greater understanding, which extends beyond the workplace.

Sensitivity to refugee experiences is an important component to work involving refugees in Australia. In recent years, refugees and asylum seekers have become highly politicized, with debate centred on how to manage the arrival of boats to Australia’s shores. In the years leading up to 2013, Australia received a rising number of asylum seekers by boat. The number dropped after the government introduced tough border policies including towing boats away from the mainland, but the political debate over refugees has continued.

Engaging the community comes naturally to Salloum. “That’s just the kind of people we are,” she said. “The way we run our restaurant is very much about making people feel good about themselves, and making people feel comfortable.”

Almond Bar owners Carol and Sharon Salloum

Almond Bar owners Carol and Sharon Salloum

She knows employers can play a big role in engaging the wider community. Project Ahlan is “an opportunity for an employer to demonstrate to their workers that it’s important to help other people.”

But it’s not just a good thing to do. It’s a smart thing to do.

“Food is an expression of culture, and those who come here to work with our chefs and in our kitchens bring their culture, thus enriching ours. They also bring their resilience and their hopes and dreams,” Salloum said. “These remarkable people will more than repay our hospitality. We can learn from each other.”

Tips for employers:

  • Employers are essential to successful settlement of refugees and you can plan your own hiring and training, and other welcoming initiatives. Don’t wait for government or community service providers to take the first step.
  • You don’t have to champion refugee employment alone. Peers in the business community as well as local immigrant settlement agencies are likely ready and willing partners.
  • It’s OK to think small. Providing one job, paid internship, or training opportunity has a major impact on a family and the broader community.
  • Pair initiatives with training aimed at employers. Consider topics ranging from general information about refugee issues worldwide, or national refugee statistics; to more specific learning about mental health and trauma, or the business culture of a refugee group’s home country.
  • If long-term employment is not option, consider a short-term contract or paid training period, as the upskilling and local workplace experience will be invaluable in a refugee’s job search.

Learn from other employers: