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12 Sep 2019


Resilient refugees raise funds for UNICEF Syria Crisis Appeal


Ignite® entrepreneur Sophie Bejek and award-winning restauranteur Sharon Salloum at the Cook for Syria dinner. Photography credits: Nikki To. 

Her involvement stemmed from inspiring award-winning restauranteur Sharon Salloum during one of Ms Bejek’s community cooking classes.

In Aleppo, Syria, Ms Bejek graduated with a degree in biological engineering. Shortly afterwards, she worked as a lab assistant until she fled Syria to Lebanon with her family due to the ongoing conflict.

She arrived in Australia from Syria as a refugee in January 2018.

Through the support of Inner West Council, Ms Bejek recently requalified as a certified Zumba dance instructor. With the support of Settlement Services International’s (SSI) refugee entrepreneurship program Ignite®, she has now set up a business to run her own classes.

She has also run a project under the SSI Community Innovation Fund to raise awareness in newcomer communities about local farming practices.

“I have seen many issues in the media about Australian farmers, and I am eager to familiarise myself [and newcomer communities] with Aussie products,” she said.

Ms Bejek was introduced to the founder of award-winning restaurant Almond Bar, Sharon Salloum, while running her community cooking classes.

Ms Salloum attended a community gathering at the Refugee and Community Welcome Centre in Callan Park, Lilyfield, where a diverse group of Syrian women congregated over language-learning, cooking, and some dancing led by Ms Bejek.

“It was heartwarming to see a group of strong-willed Syrian women, who have fled a war zone — and then they’re up dancing!” Ms Salloum said.

“To witness their resilience, how they’ve taken on life, is truly inspiring.”

As a second-generation Syrian, Ms Salloum walked away emotionally moved and eager to contribute to enrich the lives of those women.

Shortly afterwards, she asked Sophie and the wider group of six women to participate in UNICEF’s Cook for Syria fundraising initiative, in which she had a key role.

Recognised as one of the country’s top culinary talents, Ms Salloum was invited to join forces with the head chef of NOMAD restaurant Jacqui Challinor for the fundraising dinner in August.

Ms Salloum said the experience of cooking for a common cause while incorporating a Syrian stamp on their signature dishes was soul-stirring.

“Collaborating with a group of the country’s most prestigious chefs with a group of Syrian refugees was truly uplifting,” said Ms Salloum.

“For me it made the night [so] much more important, to actually have members of the Syrian community there.”


The group of women from the Laziz Project and the Salloum sisters during the Cook for Syria cook-off. Photography credits: Nikki To.

The SSI Community Innovation Fund keeps community at heart, enabling the newcomer community to have a voice in the settlement process through harnessing their innate knowledge about their assets, strengths and opportunities. Learn more about the Laziz Project and other funded projects.

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