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Asylum seekers in Asia

Nine Hong Kong chefs turn up kitchen heat for Syrian refugees

Local fundraising in global effort targets children suffering from one of world’s largest humanitarian crises since second world war

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 October, 2017, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 October, 2017, 2:00pm

Nine of Hong Kong’s top chefs came together on Thursday evening to take part in a global effort to raise money for Syrian children in need.

Launched in London last November by UK Instagram foodie Clerkenwell Boy and travel magazine Suitcase founder Serena Guen, “Cook for Syria” is a supper-club fundraising initiative seeking to help the war-torn country’s youngest victims.

Following a launch dinner party, the pair convinced 50 top London restaurants to offer a Syrian twist on their signature dish for an entire month, with a portion of the proceeds going to charity, Boy said.

“We’ve encouraged top chefs to do their own research and come up with a unique dish that connected their own cooking with the flavours of Syria and the Middle East,” he explained. “There’s definitely been an increase in the awareness of Syrian cuisine and culture, with many embracing the use of spices like Aleppo pepper in their cooking.”

Chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Yotam Ottolenghi got on board and the initiative has since gone global, with volunteer-led events from New York to Australia.

The charity dinner in Hong Kong was meant primarily “to get people talking about [the crisis] and be more aware”, said Dervla Louli, founder of wellness travel portal CompareRetreats.com. Louli brought the fundraiser to the city after seeing the success in London.

“The humanitarian crisis is still ongoing,” she said. “It’s so easy to just forget about people and the awful things that are happening.”

Children deserve to have a wonderful childhood no matter where they are from
Dervla Louli, organiser

Of Irish and Egyptian parentage, Louli grew up in Saudi Arabia and recalled a wonderful childhood in the Middle East. “Children deserve to have a wonderful childhood no matter where they are from,” she said. “If this can help make some children’s lives happier, healthier and safer, then that is the best thing that can come out of it.”

The dinner drew 110 guests at Beef and Liberty in Lan Kwai Fong. Each chef prepared a course with a Syrian twist, and the evening included a raffle and auction. Guests paid HK$1,237 to attend.

Similar to London, the Hong Kong event marked the beginning of a month-long campaign for restaurants in the city to donate HK$20 from one of their signature dishes, and encourage pop-up events locally.

All funds go to charity partner Unicef to provide clean water, nutrition, a safe environment and educational facilities for the children.

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The Syrian conflict grew out discontent with President Bashar al-Assad’s government and dates to 2011. It is one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises since the second world war and has put over eight million children in danger. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, half of the five million refugees from the conflict are children, while boys as young as seven are being recruited to fight.

For Hong Kong-based British chef Nathan Green, who co-owns the restaurant Rhoda, getting involved was “a no-brainer”.

“You need shelter, clean water, food, clean air. Look at what Syria has become. Where’s the fairness in it?” he asked. “In Western society we are very quick to turn a blind eye and think, ‘it’s not my problem, it’s someone else’s problem’. We are all guilty if we don’t do what we can.”

Green said that, as a new father, the cause struck even closer to home. Fellow chef Agustin Balbi, of the Japanese restaurant Haku, felt the same.

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Balbi described the child victims as suffering in a situation “totally foreign to them, made by someone else”.

“If I can do something, I will say yes right away”.

The chefs expressed enthusiasm for being able to use their talent with food to bring people together. Serving heaping plates of Syrian-inspired cuisine to be shared, Green said, encouraged discussion and awareness between people as they eat.