‘Soup for Syria’ cookbook helps stir pot on refugee relief efforts in Valley

Last modified: Wednesday, December 09, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — A Northampton publisher’s cookbook continues to be used locally to bring attention — and money — to the plight of Syrian refugees.

“Soup for Syria,” from Interlink Books of Northampton, is a collection of photos, narratives and soup recipes with contributions from over 80 chefs. The material was photographed and collected by Barbara Abdeni Massaad and carries the subtitle, “Recipes to Celebrate Our Shared Humanity.”

Communities around the Pioneer Valley are using the book in hosting events to generate donations for Syrian refugees who have relocated to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.

Michael Kane, a volunteer at the Valley Syrian Relief Committee, said he and others want to address the devastation of the country’s civil war. “It was going to mean a lot of tragedy and displacement. We wanted to figure out some way we could do something significant and contribute to the lives of Syrians,” he said.

The Syrian conflict, now in its fifth year, has forced civilians to flee instability, the loss of their homes and violence —not only from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, but from the Islamic State.

In September, the Valley Syrian Relief Committee organized a “Songs for Syria” benefit concert that raised $35,000 that was donated to the Syrian American Medical Society, an organization with a presence in Syria and in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Another concert is being planned.

Fundraiser in Shutesbury

Meantime, inspired by the community support the concert received, artist B.Z. Reily and businesswoman Chris Warren, both from Shutesbury, organized a “Soup for Syria” fundraising event at the Shutesbury Athletic Center just before Thanksgiving. In collaboration with Interlink’s Michel Moushabeck and graphic designer James McDonald of The Impress Group, they hosted over 200 people and raised $6,000.

Organizers say donations are still coming in, as people continue to request copies of the book.

“We can do so much more in the west to support and offer aid,” said Omar Dahi, a professor of economics at Hampshire College in Amherst who spoke at the fundraiser.

Dahi, who was born and raised in Syria, has traveled to refugee camps in Lebanon for the past four years for research. He said 25 percent to 50 percent of the population in Lebanon is now Syrian. Though Lebanon is a relatively poor and underdeveloped country strained by new arrivals, he cites an outpouring of support there for refugees.

“The U.S. doesn’t admit a large amount of refugees and supports them very little (institutionally) once they’re here,” Dahi said. “Most refugees are fleeing terror, that’s why they’ve left their homes .... People are devastated and suffering war, they don’t want to be forgotten.”

As the conflict has continued, the amount of aid has declined drastically, Dahi said.

He said community efforts on behalf of Syrian refugees are helpful because they give people a way to express their support, and show that they care about the conflict.

“Soup for Syria is about raising awareness about the humanitarian plight,” he said.

Dahi said he plans to organize more talks and events in the spring semester and hopes to create a scholarship for Syrian students to enroll in the Five Colleges.

“Seeing the devastation made us wonder what we could do to help the situation,” said Reily, one of the organizers of the Shutesbury fundraiser. “People are driven to do something, and when they see the book and the faces in the book, they’re really interested in doing something to help.”

Reily and Warren said they were able to attract support using word of mouth and their Shutesbury book group. They gathered enough support to make two double batches of turkey soup, carrot ginger soup, chickpea soup, and tomato basil soup, and advertised the event with fliers and social media.

“In the world we live in, it feels really good to do something positive,” Warren said. “You can do something and make a difference.”

The community support did not end there. Squash Inc. of Belchertown provided fresh vegetables to make the soups and the Lone Wolf in Amherst donated large soup pots. All leftovers were taken to the Amherst Survival Center at the end of the day. As Warren observed, “This event is a gift that keeps on giving.”

Reily and Warren said they hope to see more events like this in the area and offered to help other communities organize their own fundraisers. One attendee purchased one of the books and sent it to a friend in Chicago, who is now planning an event there.

Similar events in the area include a fundraiser at Hampshire College hosted by students Nik Costello, Maggie Colgan and James Fitch and an event at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.

The book can be purchased at independent bookshops, including Odyssey Bookshop, Broadside, Amherst Books and Booklink Booksellers. All proceeds go to the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHRC.

For information on hosting a fundraiser, email Reily at bzreily@gmail.com or Warren at Chris@printassoc.com.