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Foodie, Entrepeneur, Refugee

'Refugee Restaurants' as sites of encounter

Seeking safety and a better life, refugees arriving in Europe leave behind almost everything they hold dear – their homes, families, and belongings. One thing refugees do carry with them is food: recipes passed on through generations, uniquely cultivated tastebuds, and kitchen skills which once nourished entire communities. For some, this culinary knowledge becomes an opportunity to earn a livelihood in their newly adopted countries. In the growing phenomenon of “refugee restaurants,” for example, entrepreneurship programs in both the public and private sectors encourage refugees to market their cuisine to locals. Media accounts celebrate such initiatives as socially impactful, providing refugees with meaningful work and a path to integration while exposing Europeans to different cultures. Breaking bread – with a side of hummus or muhammara – is seen as the ideal way to learn about one another and get along.

But beyond the feel-good stories and positive press, how do refugee restaurants serve as sites of encounter? And how do these encounters reproduce – or undermine – the power configurations in which such initiatives are entangled? This project takes us behind the scenes of Syrian refugee restaurants in the Netherlands in order to analyze the political, economic, and social relations animating such endeavors. How do government policies behind these projects reward certain kinds of behaviors among newcomers, distinguishing between the “good” refugee and the “bad?” How does the commodification of ethnic cuisine change it, and who gets a say in the directions this transformation takes? In what ways do neoliberal entrepreneurial initiatives push refugees towards high-risk ventures, and what consequences arise when businesses fail? What religious or moral concerns must newcomers negotiate in their interactions with new kinds of clientele? How well are refugee restaurants really working for the various stakeholders involved – for the cooks and the staff, the project’s financiers, and the communities they serve— and how might these ventures be improved?

Through a group ethnographic project dedicated to documenting and critically analyzing Syrian refugee restaurants across the Netherlands, this project offers students hands-on experience in qualitative research while also immersing them in debates around food and its connection to refugee integration and belonging; entrepreneurialism and globalization; and cultural heritage, among many others. In trying to understand the driving factors behind this culinary phenomenon, alongside its limitations, we work towards developing a holistic overview of refugee restaurants which maps out how they are transforming the wider Dutch political, economic, social and culinary landscape.

The client of this project is a startup incubator focused on supporting refugee initiatives, particularly in the food industry. The incubator uses entrepreneurship to foster social integration and financial independence among newcomers, providing them with the know-how needed to establish their own food business. Working in collaboration with public and private sector entrepreneurship initiatives and funding agents, the incubator provides a window into the Dutch refugee startup scene more broadly.

Through fieldwork, interviews, and a mapping out of Syrian refugee restaurants across the Netherlands, students will investigate the variety of initiatives that follow this trend. They will compare and contrast the experiences of various stakeholders in each of these restaurants to discover the overall benefits such projects offer and the shortcomings that remain to be addressed. This research will result in a report which critically analyzes the wider impact of this approach to refugee integration into society and the labor market, also offering suggestions for its improvement. This report will be presented to the startup incubator, the refugee restaurants involved, and a wider public audience of stakeholders in the public and private sector. In addition to this report, and in consultation with the group, a creative output focused on the food and stories of those who make it is also possible.

Kick-off weekend
The kick-off weekend of this think tank will be in October (exact dates will be announced later).

Weekly meetings
After the kick-off, weekly meetings will take place on Thursday from 18.30-20.30.

Study trip
A study trip lasting up to three or four days is also part of this think tank. The dates and location will be determined in consultation with the group.

dr. Joud Al Korani, assistant professor of Islam, politics, and society