On a drizzly Wednesday evening, some 50 people are ushered through the door of a bakery after hours. Instead of sourdough loaves being rolled out on the counters of the E5 Bakehouse (in London Fields, half an hour from Canary Wharf), red lentil soup is slowly stirred, citrussy sumac is sprinkled, mint leaves are chopped.
The Hackney bakery is hosting The Syrian Supper Club, a monthly ticketed dinner that has been raising money towards humanitarian projects in Syria since the civil war began eight years ago.
As the room is mainly strangers – locals who shop at the bakery, humanitarian workers, foodies, journalists – we spend the first hour over cocktails and snacks in the form of vivid-green falafel drizzled with tahini and crisp bread dipped in smoked aubergine and almond dip, and strained tarragon yoghurt.
“I started The Syrian Supper Club with my friends Louisa, George and Johnnie back in 2012,” says MD Rose Lukas as we take our seats in a hidden-away dining room for the main course. “The idea came from getting together with friends, eating, drinking, talking, having too much fun late into the night. It’s something Louisa and I used to do a lot of when we lived in Damascus.
“As far as we’re concerned, there’s no better way to introduce or remind others of Syria and
its culture, and at the same time doing something good, which is of course to raise money.”
Raising money has never tasted so delicious – the main event pairs roasted chicken with freekeh and crispy onion-topped lentils – and the proof is in the pudding. To date, Syrian suppers have raised more than £250,000 towards projects in the civil war-torn country, which we learn about as we nibble on date halwa dessert.
“The money that we’ve raised goes towards our charity, Hands Up Foundation, which focuses on funding the salaries of medical and education staff,” says Rose. “Where possible, those projects are inside Syria, run by Syrians and implemented on the ground by our partner organisations.
“The reason we focus on salaries is because it encourages qualified Syrian professionals to stay in Syria and make a living for themselves and their families, but at the same time provide vital services in areas where they’ve almost completely deteriorated.”
It feels promising to break bread with a room of people who genuinely want to play a part
in changing the Syrian story, in whatever way they can – some volunteer with refugees in the UK, others simply attend events such as these – while keeping the atmosphere in firm celebration of the country’s culture.
We eat, drink, talk, and have too much fun, late into the night. And by the end of the night, Damascus, and a more optimistic future, feel just a little less far away.