12,950 kg of food. The amount is quite hard to grasp. Food entrepreneur Selina Hami surely couldn’t imagine it either when she decided to buy food for Syrian families with her savings in 2015. She had finished her studies of International Relations at the University of Stockholm and decided to start a catering company. She wanted to combine food, cooking and aid projects in her business.
Selina told about her plan to buy food boxes on her webpage and people started to contact her to help. She traveled with the funds to Syria, where she has family too. Since she knew people there she asked around how to distribute the food. It had to be in a way that wasn’t political and would reach those most in need. With the help of local aid association she found families to give the food to and the association was also willing to help with the transportation.
Selina went to the grocery shop across her grandma’s home in Damascus and designed the food box with the groceries they had to offer. Might sound like an easy job but add to the mix a shop full of enthusiastic advice givers, balancing with what people wanted, what was needed, what would store well and what was available. The shopping doesn’t seem so relaxing anymore, does it?
She packed the food in leftover cardboard boxes. Getting the boxes ready was one job, delivering them another. Where are the bombings today was a regular question before hitting the road.
After the first trip came another one, then third. Sponsors came along. Selina’s idea of buying some food with her savings had led to big projects that helped all together 788 families. A proof, that one person can definitely make a difference.
How Her Business Became Vegan
As soon as I decided to go to Sweden in October, I contacted Selina if we could meet. She has not only helped hundreds of people in Syria but creates amazing vegan food concepts, runs her own catering company and so much more. And she is first 26 years old. Gosh, makes one feel old and lazy here! Luckily she was up for a chat.
We meet with Selina at a hummus bar in Södermalm, Stockholm. It was Selina’s suggestion and the yummy hummus plates in front of us suit to her food philosophy too. Respect for the food, no substitutes but tasty meals from good ingredients.
Selina tells that she loves creating and coming up with new concepts. That is why becoming an entrepreneur was an easy decision. When Selina started her catering company Selina’s Pome, she wanted that the food she serves is ethically produced and sustainable.
During our talk it comes clear that when Selina starts something she puts a lot of work and effort to make it happen. That was the case with the aid project in Syria as well as with researching where the food comes from to our plates.
Selina came across information and pictures about factory farming that were disturbing to face. First she decided to buy the meat from a local farmer. The animals were much closer that way but so was their death. The orders of meat were very specific. A sheep’s leg. A rib of a cow. That brought uncomfort, when the distance, both emotional and physical, was gone.
She also noticed there was almost no research about the health of the workers in slaughterhouses in Sweden. The only thing she could find were unofficial internet forums where people were talking about the mental stress that the job created. Slowly using meat started to feel more and more unpleasant.
Selina tells that she and her mom were thinking these ethical questions at the same time. Then Selina’s mum had a dream. In the dream her mum was at a supermarket. She went to the meat counter to get some ribs. The sales person stated that they didn’t accept money. They only changed the meat for “something with the same value”. She agreed to the contract. Then a shopping cart was brought there next to her, with their family’s much loved cat slaughtered in it. A rib for a rib.
Selina asks on her webpage, “what happens […] when we acknowledge that dissimilarity does not equal anyone being less deserving of respect?” Selina became vegan as did her catering company (and her mum too).
When Food Tells Stories
The timing was good to start a vegan catering, since in 2015 there weren’t that many around in Stockholm. Selina also had a specific cuisine she concentrated on, Middle Eastern food that she knew well and had grown up with.
Selina tells that many companies in Sweden want to show sustainability these days, also with their food choices. One time Selina catered a company whose employee told her that it was inspiring to see that she worked with social entrepreneurship. Selina tells smiling that she “went home and googled what it meant”. She realized it was exactly what she was doing, even though she hadn’t had a name for it.
“Social entrepreneurship is not donating, it is the structure of the business”, as she points out.
When Selina has been travelling around she has also collected stories of the local people. Her catering company Selina’s Pome will focus in the future even more bringing these stories to the dining table and creating recipes based on people’s stories. It might be a pastry with rose water inspired by her aunt who loves flowers or a favorite food of a person she met in Syria while travelling there. As Selina writes on her webpage: “Food has always been a way to gather and connect, so I wanted to use food as a way of connecting people around the world, with the hope to inspire you to look beyond the plate.”
And Then There Are the Burgers…
Selina has done many inspiring projects, but I found her because of burgers, of course. She had this summer an Indiegogo crowdfunding to finance her franchise-pub concept called Grub, that would serve gourmet burgers. Yes please!
Selina’s goal, with Grub and other projects too, is also to normalize plant-based food. Vegan food doesn’t have to be health or raw food, that many people associate with veganism, or one sad dish in the back of a meat restaurant’s menu.
Selina had been serving burgers through her catering company and gotten positive feedback, from vegan and non-vegan customers. Her idea is not to imitate the animal products but to create same textures and tastes like umami, saltiness and greasiness. She says that for example the juicy patties are hard to create, but to bring the needed heaviness you can use sauces. That makes the experience and consistency similar even when the elements are not the same.
Making the crowdfunding was her first one and was covered by big newspapers in Sweden. Even though the goal of 15 000 euros wasn’t reached, the campaign itself had reached many. Selina has been contacted by people interested about the concept and making it happen.
I really hope that Grub pubs will be around some day. Take a look at the photos of the burgers in the crowdfunding page and you understand why one hungry customer is here ready to take the ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm.
Read more about Selina’s work on her webpage and follow her on Instagram and Facebook as well.