January 19, 2018 – There have been a number of documentary movies in the last few years detailing the plight of millions of refugees in the world, and they tend to be deadly serious. This documentary is also serious, but it also has an ingredient missing in many of the others: hope.
This hope begins in an unlikely place, the Burj El Barajneh refugee camp just south of Beirut, Lebanon. Established in 1948 for up to 10,000 mostly Palestinian refugees, some 20,000 Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees now crowd into this camp, which is less than one square mile in size. People live in cramped conditions in grinding poverty. A dangerous tangle of electrical wires are strung everywhere, many of which short out every time it rains, causing death for many who venture out in the rain. In the 1980s the camp was caught in the middle of fighting by the Israeli Army and various militia groups.
The hero of this story, Mariam Shaar, was born in this camp and has lived here ever since, and will probably die here. Like most in the camp, she is not a Lebanese citizen and has few rights in this country. Mariam is an activist, running the Women’s Program Association in the camp. She conducted a survey in the camp to find out what women like to do and how they thought they could make money. The survey indicated that many women liked to cook and wanted to learn how to cook better.
Mariam approached the venture philanthropy organization Alfanar with an idea to start up a food service to not only teach women better cooking skills, but to make money by catering and selling food. Armed with a micro-loan, she helped to set up a small commercial kitchen in the camp, and with Alfanar's help, it grew into the Soufra catering business (Soufra means “dining table” in Arabic).
This film comes in at the point when Mariam is trying to expand the all-female business. The idea is to use a Kickstarter online fund-raising campaign to buy and equip a food truck, so Soufra could more easily sell its food outside the camp. While the Kickstarter campaign is a success, buying a food truck means dealing with a very slow-moving and uncooperative Lebanese bureaucracy. They have to get numerous permits to buy the truck.
Along the way, we get to know the cooks in the kitchen of Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian and Lebanese descent. Food brings them together and makes them into a team, a family of sorts. The film goes beyond the kitchen, into the homes of the people of Soufra, where it is obvious that the Soufra project has improved and enriched their lives. This is more than just a source of income. It is also pride in accomplishment and hope for the future. Several women talk about starting their own businesses.
As the food permit process drags on month after month, people in Soufra begin to lose hope. It is evident they have had many hopes dashed in the past. Mariam, who is a very strong, smart, capable woman, struggles with the pressure of so many people depending on her to succeed.
Meanwhile Soufra is trying to raise its profile in various ways. Soufra starts selling food in local markets. Soufra also works out a deal to be a “guest chef” at a local restaurant. The catering business is very competitive, but Soufra is making a name for itself.
Soufra is a story of smart, strong-willed business people trying to storm past bureaucrats, unfair laws, prejudice and a whole host of other barriers to succeed against very long odds. It is not just a story about the terrible plight of refugees. It is also the story of hope, and hope is a basic ingredient of life in very short supply among the world's refugees. This film rates a B.
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