Syrian family launch The Olive Branch cafe in Wivenhoe supporting re-located refugees
A couple from Syria have opened a new café showcasing food from their country - and employing refugees fleeing conflict there.
The Olive Branch, in Station Road, Wivenhoe, was launched last night and opens to the public from today.
Opened by couple Abdul Kattan and his wife Fatema Kawaf, the name not only symbolises the fruit which creates the oil used in many Middle Eastern dishes, but also represents the peace the family hopes will come to their native home.
The couple married in Syria in 2009 before moving – temporarily, they thought – to Wivenhoe while Dr Kawaf, 31, studied for a Masters and then a PhD in marketing at the University of Essex.
Conflict broke out in Syria around two years later.
“It was all a shock to everybody”, said Dr Kawaf, who is from the Latakia region.
“When I left I didn’t say goodbye to everybody, I didn’t take all my stuff. I thought I would be visiting every six months so it was not a big deal.
“In the first year life got in the way, and then things got a bit scary. We thought ‘give it some time until it calms down’, but that never happened.
“At some point we realised we won’t be able to go back.”
Although living in the tranquillity of Wivenhoe, the couple and their four-year-old daughter Sham are in no way immune to what is going on in their native country.
“It is difficult. There are days that are calmer than others, some that are manageable,” admits Dr Kawaf, who is now a lecturer at the university.
“One of the struggles is living a perfectly normal, happy life, expected to laugh and hang out with people – and at the same time having in the background a family and life and a lot of memories in a country that is being ruined at all levels.
“We had no idea whether our families were alive or not some days; we couldn’t talk to them at all or they would go missing or lose contact.
“Everybody has suffered and lost someone; what has happened is an awful disaster. It has not been an easy life.”
Mr Kattan, 39 and from Aleppo, used to work in Dubai in marketing and gave up his job to support his wife’s studies, but struggled to find work in that field in the UK as his English was not at a good enough level for the type of work it involved.
Having also worked in the food industry in Dubai, he decided to fall back onto those skills and had the idea of opening a restaurant or café – with Wivenhoe being the perfect place with its “small, lively, open-minded community”.
What sealed the deal for Mr Kattan was discovering some of the Syrian refugees being re-homed in Colchester were being trained in food hygiene and preparation skills, meaning he could offer them the opportunity of employment.
The refugees working in the café will mostly be in the kitchens, working in food preparation when the café is closed.
With the couple’s background in marketing they both began thinking of names, and wanted something going back to their roots.
“We thought of The Olive Branch for a number of reasons,” explained Dr Kawaf.
“It refers to peace, which would be really good in this terrible time, and from a food perspective olive oil is one of the main ingredients in most Syrian cooking.”