From Bekaa to Mecca!
Education, Youth Empowerment & Employability
“I learned that when there is a will, there is always a way,” - Mostafa
Everybody loves food, and lots of people love to cook, but not all of us are meant to be traveler chefs!
With the growing interest in culinary arts and the establishment of many tourist startups all across Lebanon, including bed and breakfasts, hostels and retreat zones, Anera has devoted more attention to hospitality and cooking vocational courses as part of our non-formal education programming, funded by UNICEF.
CIS college, one of Anera’s local partners and training providers, is hosting several hospitality courses with a range of timings and locations (and free of charge to students!) to accommodate the needs of youths struggling with unemployment.
In Chtaura, a town in the Bekaa valley, our partners at CIS decided to sprinkle in a pinch of competition this semester and informed our students that the top three chefs-to-be will win a prize at the end of the intensive hospitality course. The criteria for claiming the prize included commitment to the course, creativity and teamwork.
When the course was coming to an end, the three front-runners really stood out: Mohammad, Douaa and Mostafa. They excelled to such a degree that the college decided to go big with the prize. They reached out to a catering business in Saudi Arabia which offered them a paid internship in Mecca during the pilgrimage season this summer. Millions of people from all over the world gather in the city for about 15 days.
“In all sincerity, when our supervisor informed me that I was selected to travel, the thought did not really register. I am going to Mecca during hajj [pilgrimage]. Will I actually be representing young Lebanese chefs? Will my first paid cooking job in fact take place in the sacred city of Mecca? Is this a dream,” said Mostafa Al Hajj Hassan, a 20-year-old Lebanese student from a humble village called Qaraoun.
In Mecca, the three worked at a restaurant. They trained with an internationally renowned chef and worked alongside professional hospitality staff from diverse backgrounds and nationalities.
Given the social stigma which still exists in rural areas in Lebanon regarding girls and young women traveling on their own for work, we asked Douaa about her take on this internship and her family’s feedback:
“I am so happy and immensely proud of myself! I mean, this internship is a major milestone in my life, to say the least. This was the first time I have ever left my town on my own, let alone travel to another country for a professional experience. I was worried that my options would be limited as a female junior chef in Lebanon. This trip has shown me the magnitude of my potential."
Having studied the basics of cooking and hospitality with a professional chef at CIS, with training in a real restaurant kitchen, the three blossoming chefs went to Saudi Arabia with enough know-how to maneuver smoothly in a new setting – a much larger and complex kitchen and an intense working schedule.
Mohmmad returned to Lebanon filled with future plans, determination and ambition; “Honestly, it’s a beautiful feeling. I am still young, but I always hoped to visit Mecca for a pilgrimage one day. To get the chance to be in the holy land, doing what I love the most and serving food to pilgrims, was a dream that I didn’t realize I even had, not even in my sleep!”
What did they learn from their chef experience in Mecca?
“I learned that when there is a will, there is always a way.” - Mostafa.
“I learned that hard work and commitment actually do pay off.” - Douaa.
“I learned that we cannot do anything on our own. We couldn't have been here without the efforts of UNICEF, Anera and CIS, and we are immensely thankful. We also couldn't have been here had we not trusted our instincts, applied, then registered in the hospitality course. We set our minds to winning from day one!” - Mohammad