Twenty years ago, the building that now houses Cercis Murat Konağı was a neglected old mansion sliding into dereliction in Mardin, a historic city in southeastern Turkey. Today, it is by many accounts the city’s most famous restaurant, with floor-to-ceiling windows that frame a panoramic view of Mardin’s honey-colored rooftops and the patchwork fields of the Mesopotamian plain far below. In clear weather, you can even peer deep into neighboring Syria.
One morning in December 2018, Ebru Baybara Demir, the restaurant’s chef and owner, sat at a table in the dining room wearing a chef’s apron fixed with a Turkish star-and-crescent lapel. “Hos geldiniz [welcome]!” she greeted a reporter, photographer, and translator, beaming and extending a hand tattooed with twisting vines. Cercis Murat Konağı is at the heart of Demir’s wide-ranging work, which uses gastronomy as a means to give skills, confidence, and hope to vulnerable Syrian and Turkish women. By Demir’s estimation, she has trained some 200 women in her restaurant’s kitchen since it opened 19 years ago. “Some of the women are not educated; some are illiterate,” Demir told me. “But [here] they are professionals, they can earn money, and they can support their families.”
Demir’s efforts have earned her a reputation that extends beyond the borders of Turkey: She operates in the realm of TED talks, international conferences, high-level advocacy, and TV cookery shows, working up to 18 hours a day and hyperactively generating projects that teach skills such as baking, gardening, farming, mushroom cultivation, and literacy. As her profile has grown, so has the scope of her work. In the restaurant and in her other social projects, Demir initially focused her efforts on local women who were in dire straits, often mired in poverty, with large families to support. But since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, she has increasingly concentrated on helping refugees from the nearly decade-long conflict.
The war’s unexpected turns, such as the U.S.’s highly controversial military withdrawal from northern parts of the country last fall, as well as Turkey’s progressively perilous economic situation, have fueled hostile attitudes toward Syrian refugees. Mardin itself isn’t immune to such sentiment: The city is largely impoverished, and some of its locals have greeted refugees, who number in the tens of thousands here, with resentment. Demir’s work has taken on increased urgency as a result, with her numerous ventures increasingly focused on creating harmonious, sustainable relationships within the region’s diverse population. “There is so much prejudice,” Demir said. “Many Turkish people don’t want Syrians here. But we don’t know how much longer the war will continue, and we have to help these people.”
Located on the ancient Silk Road, modern-day Mardin resembles a giant anthill that rises abruptly out of the plain. An ancient citadel, commandeered by a number of militaries over the centuries, most recently the Turkish, crowns the summit, while limestone churches, monasteries, mosques, and madrasas — and the Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, and Syriac still commonly spoken here — reflect the diverse history of the city, which has a population of about 140,000 people in its centre and 800,000 in its surrounding province.
When Demir visited Mardin in 1999 as a young tour guide, she found the old city run down and depressed. There were scarcely any tourists, and only a single hotel and restaurant to cater to them. The region was — and remains — volatile as a result of the military’s ongoing war against the PKK, a Kurdish militant group. Although Demir had grown up in Istanbul, both of her parents hailed from Mardin. She found her thoughts turning there after she graduated college: At the time, both she and her then-husband, who was also a tour guide, were struggling to find work. She decided to open an office in Mardin, selling tours to travel agencies in Ankara and Istanbul.
The following year, Demir took a group of German tourists to Mardin’s only restaurant. The food was disappointing. When the tourists discovered they would be eating there again the next day, they refused. So Demir brought them to her own home, where family members and neighbors pitched in to rustle up some typical Mardin fare.
The city’s heady cuisine is defined by spices, bulgur, meat (particularly lamb), a liberal use of oil, and time — “a long time,” as Demir says. It is also dictated in part by the seasons: After the summer, when temperatures can climb upward of 100 degrees F, preparations are made for the long and bitter winter, which often blankets the city in snow. Tomatoes and eggplants are crushed and dried on rooftops under the sun. Meat is braised in its own fat to produce kavurma, a fried meat-and-onion dish. Pekmez (grape molasses) is boiled to a thick mass to be made into harire, a dessert with walnuts and cinnamon. Dough made from cracked bulgur wheat is shaped into a pocket to encase the rich, spicy meat for ikbebet (poached meatballs).
The dishes that Demir served to the Germans, such as ikbebet and rice flavored with spices and tomato paste, were such a success that she realized she had the makings of a new business model. “When you start a business, you start with the thing that you know the best,” Demir said. “In this region, where there is little education, women know cooking best.”
In 2001, Demir turned that initial business idea into Cercis Murat Konaği (Cercis Murat Mansion), a restaurant housed in a 19th-century mansion on the old city’s main street. A beautiful stone labyrinth with high ceilings and soaring arches, it opened with a menu of traditional Mardin dishes, such as kuzu tandır (slow-cooked lamb), incasiye (meat stew and pan-fried plums with grape molasses), and kaburga dolması, lamb ribs stuffed with almonds and rice, and flavored with butter, allspice, cinnamon, and pepper paste.
The early days were a struggle. None of the employees, Demir included, had trained as chefs. Conservative locals were suspicious of Demir, who was by then a divorced single mother running an establishment that served alcohol — and that, moreover, employed nearly two dozen local women (men have since worked at the restaurant, but to this day it predominantly employs women, who traditionally do the cooking in this segment of Turkish society). But over time, Demir and her team expanded their culinary repertoire, presenting increasingly ornate mezzes on silver platters and serving Assyrian mahleb- (cherry seed) flavored wine in silver goblets set on pristine white tablecloths.
As the restaurant’s popularity grew, Demir became interested in creating other social endeavors that could help local women gain skills and confidence. She enlisted them to teach classes in jewelry and textile making, and their students sold the multicolored necklaces, bracelets, key rings, and wall hangings that they produced to tourists, who began visiting the city in growing numbers in the mid-2000s. Demir also organized literacy classes for the many women who struggled to read and write, and continued to train new students in the tight confines of Cercis Murat Konağı’s kitchen. Eventually, she consolidated her growing number of projects into a pair of agricultural- and social-development NGOs: Hayatım Yenibahar, formed in 2015, and Şükraan, formed in 2018.
Cross-border trade with Syria had historically been a major part of Mardin’s economy; Demir herself often sent her employees to Syria to buy olives, olive oil, and kaymak (clotted cream). But by 2013, tens of thousands of Syrians were themselves crossing the border to seek refuge in Mardin. Demir became increasingly keen to help the many Syrian women arriving there, and soon, a number of them found work in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Among them was Asya Mahmud, who, at around 16 years old, had made a harrowing journey through ISIS-held territory with some of her family members. In Syria, she had lived with her parents and eight siblings in a two-bedroom house in the country’s northeast Qamishli province. Her dream was to become a doctor. But as the war unfolded, Mahmud’s small town was swept up in fighting involving the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Although the town was spared intense conflict, shells would periodically kill people and destroy buildings, and it soon became too dangerous for Mahmud to attend school.
Her two older brothers had already gone to Mardin to stay with family to avoid being forcibly conscripted by the YPG. In 2013, Mahmud’s father decided that the rest of the family should follow while he stayed behind to look after the house. Each carried a backpack containing only clothing — everything else had to be left behind.
After making an arduous border crossing, Mahmud and her family members found their way to Mardin, where they reunited with Mahmud’s older brothers. The family stayed in their uncle’s house until they found their own place in Kötek, an impoverished neighborhood on the city’s southeastern edge. There was no furniture in the house, only rugs and blankets, so everyone slept on the floor. One of Mahmud’s brothers sometimes found construction work, but the pay was irregular.
While Turkey has done more than any other country to harbor Syrian refugees fleeing the war, most of the 3.6 million Syrians thought to be living there face hardship. Their special legal status as “guests” does not afford them safeguards against forced return to Syria, or the right to work that would come with full refugee status. They are generally not well integrated into Turkish society, and often struggle to access services or education, and to obtain work permits and citizenship. When, like Mahmud’s brother, they do find informal work, they are frequently exploited.
Mahmud briefly returned to Syria, but the situation had deteriorated in her absence. She was forced to return to Mardin, a journey she made in the company of her uncle. It was a tense, occasionally terrifying undertaking: Mahmud traveled across the jihadi-controlled Manbij border covered head to toe in a burka and abaya; the smuggler had warned her that if the jihadists caught so much as a glimpse of her eyes, they would readily kill her. At one checkpoint, soldiers took Mahmud’s uncle away for a three-hour interrogation before allowing him to return.
Back in Mardin, Mahmud missed her home, and school. She took walks on the hills overlooking the old city and asked herself, over and over again, “What am I doing here?” Months went by. And then one day, a friend told her about a project run by a Turkish woman named Ebru.
After Mahmud was introduced to Demir, in 2014, her life did begin to change, however slowly: She spent 18 months learning to sew and tailor as part of one of Demir’s textile programs, and then began training in the restaurant’s kitchen. The salary there was higher, so her family was able to gradually furnish the house. “I was really happy because I’d found a way to help my family,” Mahmud recalled. “For me [the job] doesn’t matter; the most important thing is to work.”
Mahmud eventually began to thrive in the hectic kitchen, working elbow to elbow with the other cooks. She picked up Turkish while working in the textile program and the kitchen, and became a translator, working across Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic for Demir’s growing number of interconnected social ventures.
One of the most prominent was the Harran Gastronomy School Project, which ran from 2016 in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Located in the neighboring Harran region, home to thousands of refugees as well as a largely impoverished local population, the school had 160 students — mostly Syrian and Turkish women, although 44 men also attended. They learned food-handling hygiene, chopping techniques, and restaurant service, as well as how to improve the dishes they already cooked at home.
In 2017, the school earned Demir a nomination as a finalist for the Basque Culinary Prize, an international award that recognizes projects transforming society through gastronomy. Although she lost out on the 100,000-euro prize, Demir had another plan in the works: Teaching traditional agricultural techniques, like farming without irrigation and using water traps to capture pests rather than spraying chemical pesticides, to produce healthy, sustainable local crops that would thrive despite the environmental problems in the region caused by industrial farming and climate change.
Called Living Soil, Local Seed, the program focused on sörgul, a regional wheat variety. First cultivated in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago, the seeds are well suited to local conditions and resistant to drought and disease. Although they yield smaller harvests, they are cheap to produce, and can be replanted to increase the region’s relatively small wheat output.
To grow the seeds, Demir wanted to use traditional, organic farming methods, which can help to restore the land to a healthy state. Although these methods are still used in parts of Syria, they have been been lost in much of Turkey amid the country’s shift to industrial farming. So Demir’s agricultural engineers relied on Shamsa Abdullah, a Syrian refugee and farmer who taught the engineers how to plant and nurture the seeds, and to make water traps to attract and kill pests without using any pesticides. With Abdullah’s knowledge and funding from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 20 tons of seeds were harvested and replanted by an initial cohort of some 70 women farmers.
In 2018, the project earned Demir a second nomination for the Basque Culinary Prize. Although she didn’t win, Living Soil has since grown to employ 350 female farmers — both locals and refugees — and the 2019 harvest yielded 440 tons of wheat whose seeds will again be replanted in order to keep the wheat growing indefinitely.
Demir has also built on the project’s philosophy of cultural exchange by applying refugee cultural knowledge to her other work, such as a soap production venture that uses methods from the now-devastated Syrian city of Aleppo, and a beekeeping project that plants local cotton seeds that produce a healthy nectar for bees. She believes this approach to beekeeping can be reproduced in the rest of Turkey and beyond — and in the process foster more sustainable social and environmental outcomes. “If we use the local cotton, the bees will survive. We train the women, the women earn money, we clean the chemicals from the soil, beekeeping survives and produces good honey,” she said. “All of it is an ecosystem.”
As the scope of Demir’s work has grown, so has national resentment toward Syrian refugees. In the early stages of the war, they were broadly welcomed in Turkey. But over time, an economic downturn and high unemployment have fostered a more negative attitude, and many are clamoring for the refugees to be sent back to a country that continues to be roiled by unrest.
With Russian and Iranian assistance, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has over the past few years reclaimed and reasserted his repressive rule over much of the territory that had previously fallen to rebels. Last October, shortly after President Donald Trump agreed to remove American forces from northern Syria, Turkey launched a military invasion aimed at expelling Kurdish-dominated militias from the border, displacing around 180,000 residents and raising the prospect of ethnic cleansing and fears over the reemergence of ISIS.
Following a subsequent ceasefire, and an agreement between Turkey and Russia, Syrian Kurdish forces were obliged to retreat 20 miles from the border, which was supposed to be controlled piecemeal after the retreat by Russian and Turkish troops (and their Syrian Arab proxies), with some places likely to fall under Assad’s direct control. But in early 2020, an intensifying offensive by Assad’s forces to retake Idlib, northwest Syria’s last rebel-held province, created the nine-year war’s biggest humanitarian crisis to date. Some 1 million people have fled from the fighting, only to end up living in desperate, makeshift conditions close to the border with Turkey. Turkey responded with its own counteroffensive to try to push back the Syrian government forces, until a tenuous ceasefire was signed between Turkey and Assad’s ally Russia in early March.
The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly expressed an intention to resettle millions of Syrian refugees in a so-called “safe zone” in the border region. But even as the war winds down, Syria remains fragmented, repressive, and prone to renewed violence.
Many refugees will surely never return. With tens of thousands of them living in the Mardin area, Demir feels it is essential to provide education and training, and to challenge prejudice and segregation, by bringing together locals and refugees. In one of her workshops, a group of 35 women (20 Syrian refugees and 15 locals) trained in sustainable mushroom cultivation, and now make money selling the produce together. In another, they’re being taught to make bread and pastries. The effort extends to children, too: In one agricultural program, children from 8 to 12 years old — 40 refugees and 40 locals — learned how to grow strawberries and potatoes, planting seeds in school gardens, and observing changes in the soil as they grew.
The project underlined some of the difficulties that the children face. “My children have friends from Syria, but they don’t go to school,” Demir told me. “What will they do? What will they be in the future? I have to care about them — as a mother, as a human.”
When I spoke with Soner Ercin Yılmaz, Demir’s project manager and assistant, he mentioned a 10-year-old Syrian boy who had attended the workshops. The boy had seen his parents being killed and escaped with only his backpack, which he carried everywhere and wouldn’t take off. At first he refused to speak, but gradually came out of his shell. One day Yılmaz was feeling dizzy. The boy reached into his bag and offered him some chocolate. He had been carrying food, clothing, and a first-aid pack with him all this time, prepared to flee at any moment. “My heart just broke,” Yılmaz said.
Demir’s long-running dream is to open Mardin’s first permanent culinary school. In the almost 20 years since she opened her restaurant, the city has become a place where such a dream is plausible: Mardin’s main thoroughfare is now stuffed with Assyrian wine cellars, stores piled with pyramids of soap, and shop after shop of furiously glittering jewelry. The city is home to a modern museum sponsored by one of Turkey’s richest families, an art biennale, and several fine restaurants and hotels. Back in 2001, when Demir was a tour guide, around 55,000 people visited Mardin that year; in 2018, that number had grown to around 3 million.
While her permanent culinary school is a long way from being realized, Demir has another big plan in the works: in September 2019, she announced There is Hope in the Kitchen a two-year project funded by the World Food Program and run in cooperation with the Turkish government. It aims to teach 600 students — a mix of Syrian refugees and impoverished locals — who will receive culinary training in seven cities throughout Turkey, including Mardin, and learn the skills that will help them find jobs working as chefs in hotels and restaurants. “[Although] there are economic problems in Turkey, we are managing by seeking funding from abroad and support from government ministries,” Demir told me. “The projects are growing each year, we are improving our work each year, and these projects can provide hope.”
Now, of course, the future is looking more uncertain: The COVID-19 pandemic has not spared Turkey in its march across the globe. Cercis Murat Konağı shut its doors in March when the Turkish government ordered all restaurants to close, and reopened in June. Even now, the number of customers is way down. “There are no tourists here at all,” Ebru said in October.
And yet many of Demir’s projects have continued running, including her soap production and some of her agricultural production. As the economic effects of the pandemic threaten to further dispossess Turkey’s most vulnerable citizens, it seems clear that Demir’s work will assume even greater urgency in Mardin, where unemployment and financial deprivation were already prevalent for Syrians and Turkish people alike; Mardin is located in a region that has the highest unemployment rate in Turkey.
But while her projects are making a difference, the fortunes of her graduates are still inextricably tied to the fortunes of the city and its surrounding region. Some still work for Demir, but others are unemployed or have left to cook in restaurant kitchens elsewhere in Turkey or in refugee camps. One afternoon in Mardin last year, I met a young Syrian widow with several children. She had sat at home, depressed, until Demir’s bakery workshop gave her a small income, new baking skills, and lots of new friends. But she was now getting anxious: The six-month course only had two months left, and there were no baking jobs in Mardin. “How will I open a bakery or something like that?” she asked. “With this income I can just take care of my kids.”
As for Asya Mahmud, her life, at least before the pandemic, was busy: She was working in the restaurant kitchen and across Demir’s various other enterprises, and dreamed of one day opening her own restaurant. But dreams cost money and, as is the case for the vast majority of Syrians in Turkey, Mahmud’s status here was not settled — when we last spoke, she could not afford to apply for Turkish citizenship.
Still, she no longer wanted to return to Syria. In Mardin, she explained, she was learning valuable skills both in the kitchen and through Demir’s other projects, working alongside people she loves, and supporting her entire family. “I feel,” she said, “like I’m at home here.”
Patrick Keddie is a journalist based in Istanbul. He is the author of The Passion: Football and the Story of Modern Turkey.
Gülşin Ketenci is a photographer and documentarian.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin