Jihad Abd el Halim was walking along the street in Nahr El Bared camp in Lebanon when he noticed a poster advertising a pastry training class at the camp’s Women’s Program Center.
“That’s where everything’s happening,” he explains.
At 14, Jihad had failed his seventh grade exams four times and decided to quit school. He had always loved cooking, often baking treats for his family, but he hated school.
“It’s not a problem to quit school because we know as Palestinians there are few good jobs open to us in Lebanon,” Jihad says.
Most Palestinian refugee youth end up dropping out of school to find a job and earn some money to help support their families. But Jihad was intrigued by the idea of learning pastry skills.
“It’s very difficult to live in a home that lacks water for laundry and for washing.”
The program is run by Anera in partnership with several social centers in Lebanon’s refugee camps, thanks to funding from Reach Out To Asia (ROTA). The eight-month vocational training program includes classes in pastry, hairdressing, plumbing, and mobile phone and computer maintenance — skills that can lead to careers for Palestinian refugee youth. To date, 223 students have attended classes.
Jihad Excels in Vocational Classes, Finds Passion for Pastry
So, at the age of 18, Jihad joined the pastry class. “We learned the theory of baking and then had hands-on training so we could gain a marketable skill and find work fairly fast,” he says. Jihad loved the class and then got the opportunity to take full-time training — a three-month internship at the Women’s Program Center. He prepared pastries for their events and ceremonies. “Watching everyone eating and enjoying my cheesecake and other pastries was so satisfying,” he smiles proudly. “It felt so good to finally taste success after my previous failures in school.”
Mamale Abdel Aal, Head Coordinator at the Women’s Program Center, has high praise for Jihad’s work. “He was an exceptional student and took the training seriously.” She says his passion for cooking and his drive to acquire new skills made him a great cook. He used to take his pastry to his friends to make them taste his treats and give him feedback. “He was really exceptional,” says Mamale.
Two years have gone by and the 20-year-old from Nahr el Bared is now a chef at a local pastry shop there. His specialty? Cheesecake. He also prepares other traditional recipes and is soon traveling to Rome, Italy to help out his Uncle.
“My uncle called me a few weeks ago and asked me to get my passport ready and to apply for a work visa so I could join him in Rome. That’s where he manages a pastry shop,” explains Jihad. “His shop is doing well because Italians love his Middle Eastern desserts.” Jihad can get some professional experience, support his family, and perhaps even open his own bakery in Lebanon someday.
“So look at me now. From a simple vocational class to a profession all because I saw that poster.” Jihad is excited about his future: “It is my love for pastry that is shaping my career and my future.”