Review: Salma the Syrian Chef
by Danny Ramadan. Illus. by Anna Bron. 40 pp. Annick Press. Released 3/10/2020. Tr $21.95. ISBN 978-1773213750.
Preschool to Grade 3.
Salma and her mother are Syrian Muslim refugees living at the Welcome Center for new immigrants in Vancouver, Canada. They both miss home and hope that one day soon Salma’s papa will be able to join them. Mama’s long days are filled with English classes and job interviews. Her fatigue and sadness, juxtaposed to Salma’s youthful joy and hope are viscerally heart-wrenching and the reader feels deeply for Salma in her efforts to make her Mama smile, let alone elicit a happy laugh. Salma attempts a joke but Mama only responds with a “sad smile, full of love, but empty of joy.”
Encouraged by Nancy, assumed to be a Welcome Center employee or coordinator, Salma draws back on her good memories. Though Salma realizes that she can’t bring her Papa to be with them sooner, or rebuild their own home in Damascus, there is something she can do to make her Mama happy.
Salma wants to make her mother’s favorite dish, foul shami, but doesn’t have the recipe. Jad, the Jordanian translator helps find a recipe for her, but Salma realizes that she doesn’t know the English names of the vegetables she will need. Creatively, she finds a way to get around the language barrier by drawing pictures of the ingredients she needs. With the encouragement and help of other friends at the Welcome Center—Amir and Malek, a couple from Lebanon; Granny Donya, an older Iranian woman who wears a headscarf, and Ayesha, wearing a pink headscarf and jeans, Salma gets most of the ingredients for the recipe. It’s implied that Ayesha is Somali as she brings Salma home-baked Somalian sweets.
Ramadan captures Salma’s range of emotions and seamlessly weaves in bits of information about the other kids at the Welcome Center through their interactions with Salma—i.e. Ayman misses kushari; Riya misses the masala dosas her mama made in India; and Evan, who recently arrived from Venezuela, misses arepas— highlighting the commonality of the refugee and immigrant experience, and the complexity of feelings of loss, adjustment, and belonging. The interactions between the new immigrants give off feelings of familial warmth, where in moments of frustration Salma is encouraged to see that this home is “beautiful in its own ways.” These interactions are also intentional and powerful; through them Salma’s agency is highlighted while giving fortification and joy to each individual. Bron’s bright, detailed illustrations enrich the text, through character movement and evoking palpable emotions. Bron uses Syrian-inspired geometric patterns to frame illustrations adding cultural depth to each spread. The resulting work is a poignant and universal tale of finding home and belonging, emphasizing the importance of people and community.