Food is hope, says Malaysian volunteer at refugee stop on Greek island

Rayyan Haries, who is on the Greek island of Lesbos helps to feed about 2,000 refugees daily, as they flee the Syrian civil war.
Rayyan Haries, who is on the Greek island of Lesbos helps to feed about 2,000 refugees daily, as they flee the Syrian civil war. PHOTO: RAYYAN HARIES/FACEBOOK

He is a school dropout and he keeps his parents worried because he is hardly at home in Subang Jaya, Malaysia.

Meet Mr Rayyan Haries, who is on the Greek island of Lesbos helping to feed about 2,000 refugees daily, as they flee the Syrian civil war that has raged on for the past four years.

As volunteer rescuers swim out to help refugees struggling in barely seaworthy boats battered by the Aegean Sea, Mr Rayyan, 25, is on the north shore of Lesbos island, boiling litres of water to make hot soup or tea to give the refugees their first taste of Europe - which often is more like a taste of home for the Syrians, rather than anything Malaysian.

"It's really sweet, I can't drink it," Mr Rayyan said of the tea he makes to suit Syrian tastebuds.

The avid cook had planned to study Italian cooking in Rome but that changed after he saw a photograph of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi lying face down in the sand on a Turkish beach in September. The toddler died alongside his five-year-old brother and his mother, as well as at least nine other refugees, when their boat overturned during a voyage from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos.

Speaking in a Skype interview during a rare break since he got to Lesbos almost two months ago, Mr Rayyan said he decided to volunteer at the camp after finding out that it was severely lacking in resources and volunteers as no non-governmental organisation was organising the camp.

"No one owns the camp, it's just people with solidarity coming together," he said.

Armed with just 1,000 euros (S$1,497) crowdfunded in a couple of days and sponsored airfare from Malaysia Airlines, Mr Rayyan arrived in Lesbos last month and started a soup kitchen, the one and only on the island. The kitchen had just one stove and a few pots, and volunteers chopped food on their laps.

But with constant support flowing in since he arrived with his infectious enthusiasm, the kitchen now has three burners, food processors and storage large enough to hold 5,000 meals.

"We have petty cash now!" he exclaimed.

It has been a meandering journey for the Malaysian, from his early years as a curious boy in his mother's kitchen to starting the "Volunteer Cook" movement that now has its first full-fledged kitchen running daily in Greece.

In his own words, he "screwed up" a scholarship to study at a public university in Malaysia and got kicked out, despite excelling in culinary arts at a technical high school. He tried his hand at travel writing in 2012, but it was only after volunteering for relief work in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan in November, 2013, that he found his calling.

When volunteers were asked what skills they could offer, Rayyan responded: "I can cook!".

He realised that "there's no NGO in the world that just comes in and says we want to provide food".

"I promised my mum I was going to go for 47 days, I ended up staying a year," he said, while giggling.

From the Philippines to Japan, and later Jogjakarta in Indonesia, the Volunteer Cook idea started taking shape in his mind, keeping to the simple rule his mother taught him when he was a boy: "If you cook your food with a message of love, your food becomes a message plate. I'm a believer that food is hope."

For the refugees landing in Lesbos, the hope is crucial after a gruelling and dangerous journey via Turkey that can take months to complete.

They linger at Skála Sikaminéas - the fishing village that Rayyan is based in - for under an hour. Soon, they must make the 57-km trek to a holding camp where they are registered as refugees - a process that can take up to a week as they wait in line.

Rayyan's work is nearly as arduous. His day begins at about 5am as he keeps a full-time job as a digital strategist before logging off at 10am to prepare for the day's cooking.

Depending on whether it is a crazy day, his team - optimally of six if there are enough volunteers - can end up feeding up to 5,000 refugees by the time they clock out at midnight.

Rayyan doesn't know how long he will stay on in Greece - his visa expires next month and he is trying to get it extended - but he hopes that by the end of his time there, he will be able to hand over the kitchen to a new team, thus keeping Volunteer Cook operational until the end of the Syrian crisis, which has forced an estimated four million people to flee their homeland since 2011.

Having hardly been back in Malaysia in the past three years - during which he also volunteered after the Nepal earthquake - the decision to head to Lesbos was greeted with resignation from his family.

"When I told my mum I wanted to go to Greece, she asked 'How many years before you come back this time?' " he said.

Given the number of volunteers - including a few Malaysians, some already studying in Europe - who have expressed interest in joining his kitchen at Skála Sikaminéas, Rayyan is unlikely to head home any time soon or to pursue his dream of learning cooking in Italy.

"I've seen boats capsize in front of my eyes. Let's not forget there are so many more Aylan Kurdis. Italy is always there, I can always go back. But I know I can do something with Volunteer Cook, that's why I'm here instead," he said.