By Felicia Beltran and Jake Threadgould
I find myself blurting ‘¡Que suerte!’ at every pause in Khaled’s tale of survival and escape from Syria. To which he replies ‘There is no luck in life. The only luck is that you have a mother.’
Those who have endured unimaginable things perhaps have perspectives unimaginable to our own. For Khaled, his fortune came as a result of hard work, taking chances and the kindness of others. He stresses that he has had to start over many times. Now a chef-in-training, he is thousands of miles away from home and busy making a name for himself here in Madrid. His journey is unique, inspiring and moving: a demonstration of the power of human endeavour.
Khaled left Dara’a, southern Syria, in 2012 after sustaining a bullet wound to the foot. He walked for eight days to Jordan where he would spend six months handcuffed to a hospital bed receiving medical treatment. ‘There was a young boy next to me who had his legs blown off by a bomb, he was also handcuffed to the bed, as was his mother. I filmed it on my phone and it got me in trouble.’
He was given two options; Turkey or Egypt. So, with help from the UNHCR, he went to Cairo, where, after several days on the street, he eventually found work in a restaurant. Because of his injury, he spent most of his working hours standing on one leg until he was able to pay for another operation.
His perseverance brought him luck. A chance encounter with a former Algerian Army General brought him to Algeria, and from there he trudged on towards Europe. ‘In the same moment that he (a friend) asked me to go to Europe, I went to my room and packed my suitcase. He said he wasn’t talking about right now and I said “Yes, we don’t talk about it, we do it.” He called me crazy and I said “Okay I’m crazy, what do you want?” He said he wanted to go but not now, and I said “Now or never”.’
And so, through refugee camps near Melilla, by sneaking onto buses and trains through Spain and France, Khaled made it to Belgium, where he would spend six months working and battling the authorities which, in the end, had him moved back to Spain. The law dictates that people seeking asylum can be returned to the country where they initially registered.
Which brings us here. Madrid.
Starting from zero
When Khaled first arrived in Madrid, he was lost and alone. He moved around quite a bit before ending up at CAR (Centro de Acogida a Refugiados), Vallecas. ‘Before, I didn’t like the Spanish people, speaking Spanish, living here, no one.’ he explains. ‘But when I started living in the Centro de Acogida in Vallecas, everything changed.’
He expresses his appreciation for a woman at the centre named Susana, a source of information and support for those living there, as well as the main point of contact with Madrid For Refugees. Susana did for Khaled what no one had done before, she pushed him into working for the life he wanted. ‘She always wants more from us, gives us a push, and gives us positivity.’ he says. ‘La verdad, igual que una madre.’
Susana put Khaled in contact with Madrid For Refugees as he was about to leave the centre. The association helped him with the move to his new flat and, soon after, it was agreed that he would cook for MFR’s debut Chefugee Dinner. Happy to be able to collaborate with MFR, Khaled approached the task with his characteristic positive attitude. Despite his difficult journey here, his love of cooking for others is a way for him of sharing his happiness and passion for living in the present.
Khaled struggles to tell me the origins of his passion for cooking; his story (like his personality) is punctuated by laughter. He started at the age of eight, against his mother’s wishes. ‘She didn’t want me to cook until she tried the food I made, but then she was happy with it.’ he says.
He learned through observation and trial and error, and still today Khaled likes to invent new dishes with different ingredients and spices, ‘food that no one has ever tried before.’
Khaled is currently completing 300 hours as a chef-in-training at a Madrid restaurant. When he finishes this course, his hope is to do another one, in either a bakery or a pastry shop. He has many dreams and expresses rather endearing concern about the future as he imagines it. ‘I want to think for my future, for my kids. No, I’m not married at the moment, but I worry about my kids, even though they don’t exist right now.’
From extraordinary stories like Khaled’s, come ordinary dreams. Khaled wants to one day have a family and a house in the countryside. Other long-term goals include becoming a kitchen manager and eventually owning his own restaurant. He doesn’t know if he’ll be in Spain forever, but this doesn’t worry him. ‘What I know now is that you make your place in any place in this world.’
Felicia Beltran is Co-Leader of the Events Team in Madrid For Refugees. Passionate about working with refugees who are adjusting to life after resettlement, she advocates for the work MFR does to help newcomers feel welcomed into the international and open community of Madrid. Felicia came to Madrid from the Twin Cities, Minnesota, to teach English and is happy to have found her new home.
Jake Threadgould is a teacher and freelance journalist with experience of working throughout the Middle East. His main focus there lies with social issues such as women’ rights and gay rights as well as marginalised communities and, most recently, the consequences of the war in Syria.
Interested in trying Khaled’s cooking & helping refugees? Come to our “Chefugee” dinner on June 11th
Interested in hiring Khaled to cater for your party or event? Email firstname.lastname@example.org