By Shamim Malekmian
THE head chef of Cork city’s new Palestinian café, Izz, speaks little English, but her gastronomical fluency has narrowed cultural gaps.
Eman Aburabie is not allowed into her homeland. Her family took refuge in neighbouring Jordan, reportedly home to almost two million uprooted Palestinians
It was there that Eman was born, grew up, fell in love, and got married..
Her husband, Izzeddeen Alkarajeh, also a Palestinian, manages Izz Café where she is head chef.
A former software developer, he opens up on how their dream of returning to their homeland was shattered — a decision that led to them coming to Ireland three years ago.
“My wife can’t go to Palestine. When we got married, we thought that we could work on the process of family reunification in Palestine,” Izzeddeen says.
“But unfortunately, Israel has changed the law during the years since we got married, and they put an absolute ban on the family reunification process for the Palestinian state.”
By abolishing family reunification, Izzeddeen reasons that Israeli officials are hoping to prevent the population of Palestinians from growing.
The 44-year-old, who was laid off from his job in Jordan, tried to secure a Canadian work visa, but being older than 35 disqualified him.
“We felt this risk of being split as a family. Neither Jordan gives my wife the right to sponsor me nor Israel is processing our family reunification,” he says,
“We decided to find a place where we could be together as a family; so, we came to Ireland to seek asylum.”
The Palestinians’ loss is Ireland’s gain.
When the family arrived in Dublin in 2016, they were moved to a Direct Provision centre, where their four children dreamed of their mother’s falafels and warbats (a type of Middle Eastern pastry).
Cooking, however, was not allowed in their shelter.
“The kids were starving for the first month,” Izzeddeen recalls.
“I’m not saying that they gave us bad food, it’s just that my kids didn’t like it, so we spent the whole month buying chips and biscuits from the supermarket.”
Asylum-seekers in Ireland often complain about their limited or lack of access to cooking facilities.
After a month, the family was moved to a refugee accommodation in Cork.
“It was one of the first centres that would let you cook your own food,” Izzeddeen says, a smile in his voice.Until the moment the smell of Palestinian food overtook their temporary dwelling, Izzeddeen and his family didn’t feel quite at home.
The family shared their meals with everyone else at the centre, using food as a vehicle for care. Eman relates the pleasant experience in Arabic, as Izzeddeen translates.
“It seemed that we had brought a solution to the Direct Provision system,” she says.
Encouraged to share their food like a slice of their culture with everyone in Cork, the couple met Darina Allen and got a humble start with a little help from the renowned chef.
“I told them, we love to have your food, we need Palestinian food,” Darina recalls. “So, I introduced them to my son-in-law, to give them a stall in Mahon Point and Wilton and Douglas, for like a week, to see how it would go.”
The food trial was a success. “Everything was sold out in two hours,” Izzeddeen recalls.
“We brought our own small oven, and the smell of fresh food in the market attracted a lot of people.”
From a stall in the farmers’ market, Eman cooked up a recipe for “guilt-free falafels”: her unfried version of the food that is instead prepared in an oven, as taking a fryer to the market proved impossible.
According to Izzeddeen, their guilt-free falafels are cheap and spare you from “50 extra calories”.
“And when we added our own traditional toppings like sauce, pickles and chilli sauce, people started calling each other.”
The couple have just opened Izz café on George’s Quay.
It is a small piece of Palestine in the heart of Cork, decorated with nostalgia. A tiny radio on a wooden shelf captures the customers’ eyes. “Just like the one we had in Palestine when I was a child,” Izzeddeen says.
Every afternoon, the place is packed with food enthusiasts from all walks of life; cooking is Eman’s way of eliminating cultural gaps.
Darina thinks we tend to forget one simple fact about immigrants: their unwavering gratitude toward Ireland.
“I think we should put ourselves in their shoes; they work very hard,” she says.
“They had to leave their own land and turned to us for shelter, and they are very grateful to us for taking them in.”
Izzeddeen says he has an urge to give back to people in Cork for making his family “feel supported and appreciated”.
Regular acts of solidarity, including recent calls to boycott the Eurovision Song Contest when it was held in Israel, warm the couple’s heart.
“I want to be loyal to Cork and to Ireland in general. I want to show my love and passion for this community,” he says.
A painting in Izz café’s depicts a tall golden key laid on a wooden wall — a black and white scarf which Palestinians call Keffiyeh, is hanging from the key.
“That’s the apartheid wall that Israel built on the inside the borders of West Bank and isolated us from accessing many of the areas beyond the wall,” Izzeddeen explains.
“The key is a symbol of our right to return home.”
Meanwhile, Izzeddeen prepares a hot cappuccino and designs it with a comforting message: “Palestine hearts Ireland”.