Syrian shawarma sellers find niche in Manila’s street food scene

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Alaa Al-Adwan, a Syrian expat in the Philippines, prepares a shawarma dish at his Baba Shawarma restaurant in Malabon, Metro Manila, on Jan. 30, 2024. (AN Photo)
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Baba Shawarma restaurant in Malabon, Metro Manila, on Jan. 30, 2024. (AN Photo)
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Alaa Al-Adwan at his Baba Shawarma restaurant in Malabon, Metro Manila, on Jan. 30, 2024. (AN Photo)
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Updated 09 February 2024

Syrian shawarma sellers find niche in Manila’s street food scene

  • Overseas Filipino workers popularized Middle Eastern cuisine back home
  • Syrian businessmen reinvent themselves by selling Arab food with Philippine twist

MANILA:When Abdulkarim Al-Halabi left Syria in 2011, he sought stability which under unfolding civil war was no longer possible at home. Little did he know that he would eventually find it by joining the bustling street food scene in the Philippines.

Then single and in his 30s, Al-Halabi flew more than 8,500 km from Damascus, where he grew up, to try his luck in Manila.

He received encouragement from a friend — a fellow Syrian who married a Filipina and lived there.

“(My friend) suggested to me, why don’t you come to the Philippines? Perhaps you can do something. When I left Syria, I didn’t think I would open a food business,” Al-Halabi told Arab News.

After working for a few years for a food importer, in 2017 he tried his luck with a shawarma business.

Initially a cart, operating at night and on weekends, two years later it became Shawarma Sham— a proper stall with chairs and tables at a popular student hub across De La Salle University in the Philippine capital.

Open 24 hours, it now caters not only to students but also office workers and all those using delivery apps such as GrabFood, and Foodpanda.

Shawarma has been present in the Philippines since the 1990s, introduced as a snack by Filipinos working in the Middle East.

To Al-Halabi it gave a gateway to venturing into the Philippine food scene. And he is far from the only Arab who has set his sights on the opportunity.

Alaa Al-Adwan, 38, known to his friends and customers as Baba, moved to the Philippines in May last year.

Also from Damascus, he had worked in Dubai, a city that exposed him to different nationalities, including Filipinos. It was also there where he met and married his Filipino wife, who like him worked in the hospitality sector.

During numerous trips to the Philippines to visit his wife’s relatives, Al-Adwan learnt the local food landscape and decided to give it a try.

“I wanted (to do) something I could leave my child with in the future,” he told Arab News.

He called his brand Baba Shawarma and himself Baba Syriano.

At first, he sold only shawarma but soon expanded his menu after observing Filipinos’ penchant for grilled dishes.

The restaurant’s generous portions and Al-Adwan’s gregarious nature quickly attracted customers and in less than a year Baba Shawarma shot to social media fame.

From a one-man operation, Al-Adwan now manages seven employees at his shop in the Malabon area of metropolitan Manila.

He takes pride in his service and the quality of food — the standards applied in Dubai which he keeps on following, as he balances authenticity and the spirit of his culinary heritage with local market demands.

“In Dubai, hospitality is king. How you treat the customer is incredibly important,” Al-Adwan said.

“What I cook in the kitchen is authentic. The spices I have — authentic. But I need to also follow the Filipino taste. I need to follow what Filipinos like.”

While Al-Halabi also tweaked his menu to be more Filipino-friendly by adding more chicken-based dishes, Al-Adwan offers his customers add-ons one would not find in Syria, such as a slice of cheese.

“I give it a Filipino twist,” he said. “We don’t add cheese in Arab countries, but Filipinos love cheese in their shawarma.”

These concessions in their cuisine represent not only the need to cater to the market, but also a realization that they need to adapt to the tastes and flavors of their new home.

While most of their family members are now dispersed in Europe and Gulf countries, both of them are content with their lives in the Philippines.

“Filipinos are nice, warm, and friendly,” Al-Halabi said. “When I’m on the street, and I talk to people, I don’t feel that I am treated like a foreigner.”

Al-Adwan, too, felt at home and unlike many other Syrians who settled in different cultures, in the Philippines he saw no prejudice, no racism, and felt appreciated for working hard to provide for his family.

“Filipino people are lovely people, it is easy to talk to them,” he said. “They are very kind.”

Australian counter terrorism force arrests seven teenagers after Sydney bishop stabbing

Updated 3 sec ago

Australian counter terrorism force arrests seven teenagers after Sydney bishop stabbing

SYDNEY: An Australian counter terrorism team arrested seven teenagers on Wednesday linked to a boy charged with a religiously-motivated terror attack on a Sydney bishop and questioned another five people.
Police said a team of more than 400 police and security personnel were involved in the operation, which arrested associates of a 16-year-old boy charged with a terrorism offense for the knifing of Assyrian Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel during a live-streamed church service on April 15.
Police said they took the teens into custody because they posed an “unacceptable risk” to society. They will allege the teens believed in a religiously motivated violent extremist ideology. A further five people are being questioned by police.
“I can assure the community there is no ongoing threat to the community, and the action we have taken today has mitigated any risk of future or further harm,” said New South Wales state Police Deputy Commissioner David Hudson at a news conference following the arrests.
Police said in a statement that the operation was ongoing.
Coming only days after a deadly mass stabbing in Bondi, the attack on Emmanuel and fears of further attacks or reprisals against the city’s Muslim community have put the normally peaceful Sydney on edge. Gun and knife crime is rare in the city, one of the world’s safest.
The Joint Counter Terrorism Team (JTT) operation, which involved 13 raids in Sydney and the regional town of Goulburn, was a combined effort between state and federal police as well as the domestic intelligence agency.
A significant amount of electronic material was seized in the raids, police said in a statement.
Australia’s top domestic spy chief on Tuesday asked technology companies to give it access to user messages in limited circumstances so it could fight extremists.

Iran president arrives in Sri Lanka as minister sought for arrest

Updated 4 min 26 sec ago

Iran president arrives in Sri Lanka as minister sought for arrest

  • Raisi traveled to the island nation after concluding a state visit to Pakistan
  • Raisi arrived in Sri Lanka to inaugurate $514 million Uma Oya irrigation and hydro-electricity project

COLOMBO: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi arrived in Sri Lanka on Wednesday to inaugurate a power and irrigation project, unaccompanied by his interior minister who is being sought for arrest over a deadly 1994 bombing.
Raisi traveled to the island nation after concluding a state visit to Pakistan alongside Ahmad Vahidi, accused by Argentina of orchestrating the 1994 attack on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
Interpol issued a red notice requesting police agencies worldwide to take Vahidi into custody, and Argentina had asked both Pakistan and Sri Lanka to arrest him.
But the minister was not seen accompanying Raisi, who had arrived in Sri Lanka to inaugurate an Iran-backed power and irrigation project.
Iran’s official news agency IRNA reported that Vahidi was back in Iran on Tuesday, where he attended a ceremony to induct a new provincial governor.
An official from Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry told AFP that the interior minister was not listed as part of the Iranian delegation.
The 1994 assault has never been claimed or solved, but Argentina and Israel have long suspected the Iran-backed group Hezbollah carried it out at Iran’s request.
Prosecutors have charged top Iranian officials with ordering the attack, though Tehran has denied any involvement.
The court also implicated Hezbollah and called the attack against the AMIA — the deadliest in Argentina’s history — a “crime against humanity.”
Delayed project
Raisi arrived at an airport in southern Sri Lanka on Wednesday morning to inaugurate the Iran-backed $514 million Uma Oya irrigation and hydro-electricity project.
It was due to be commissioned in March 2014 but sanctions against the Islamic Republic saw the project mired in a decade of delays, Sri Lanka has said.
Sri Lanka funded most of the $514 million project after an initial investment of $50 million from the Export Development Bank of Iran in 2010, while construction was carried out by Iranian firm Farab.
Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office said Raisi’s visit symbolized “the cooperation between the two nations in this significant infrastructure endeavour.”
The two reservoirs are slated to irrigate 4,500 hectares (11,100 acres) of new land, while the hydro dam generators have a capacity of 120 megawatts.
Iran is a key buyer of Sri Lanka’s tea, the island’s main export commodity.
Sri Lanka is currently repaying a legacy debt of $215 million for Iranian oil by exporting tea. The country’s only oil refinery was built by Iran in 1969.
Raisi arrived in Sri Lanka after a three-day visit to Pakistan that followed tit-for-tat missile strikes in January in the region of Balochistan, which straddles the two nations’ porous border.
Tehran carried out the first strikes against an anti-Iran group inside Pakistan, with Islamabad retaliating by hitting “militant targets” inside Iran.
Both nations have previously accused each other of harboring militants on their respective sides of the border.

Ending Mideast conflict not a priority for most Americans: Survey

Updated 46 min 42 sec ago

Ending Mideast conflict not a priority for most Americans: Survey

  • 83% of respondents say Biden should focus on domestic policy
  • 31% say supporting Israel should be given no priority

Chicago: A majority of Americans do not see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a foreign policy priority, according to two new concurrent surveys by the Pew Research Center. 

Americans identified as their top four of 22 foreign policy priorities protecting the country from terrorism (71 percent), reducing illegal drugs (64 percent), preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (63 percent) and maintaining a military advantage over foreign powers.

Finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drew 29 percent, ranking only 14th among the 22 priorities.

The question of “supporting Israel” ranked even lower at 20th with 22 percent, with 31 percent opposing that support.

“Overall, a majority of Americans say that all 22 long-range foreign policy goals we asked about should be given at least some priority. Still, about three in 10 say supporting Israel, promoting democracy in other nations (28 percent) and supporting Ukraine (27 percent) should be given no priority,” Jacob Poushter, Pew associate director of research, told Arab News.

“Even with these priorities, 83 percent of Americans say it is more important for President Joe Biden to focus on domestic policy, compared with 14 percent who say he should focus on foreign policy.

“In 2019, 74 percent wanted then-President Donald Trump to focus on domestic policy, and 23 percent said he should focus on foreign policy.”

Pew researchers said finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was previously “a priority that saw no partisan difference at all” in a 2018 survey.

But the new surveys show a “partisan gap” emerging, with twice as many Democrats (36 percent) today than in 2018 calling the conflict “a priority,” while the share of Republicans (20 percent) has remained constant.

Twenty-nine percent of Americans say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the UN’s ability to provide effective humanitarian aid to Gaza. Fifty-one percent do not have confidence and 19 percent are unsure.

Only 15 percent of Americans say they have confidence in the UN’s ability to enforce a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Sixty-seven percent have no confidence and 17 percent are unsure.

A recent Pew survey found that only 12 percent of Americans believe that lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians is at least somewhat likely.

Blinken due in China seeking pressure but also stability

Updated 24 April 2024

Blinken due in China seeking pressure but also stability

Shanghai: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due in China on Wednesday, as the United States ramps up pressure on its rival over its support for Russia while also seeking to manage tensions with Beijing.
The US diplomat will meet China's top brass on Friday in Beijing, where he is also expected to plead for restraint as Taiwan inaugurates a new leader, and to raise US concerns on Chinese trade practices -- a vital issue for President Joe Biden in an election year.
But Blinken is also seeking to stabilise ties, with tensions between the world's two largest economies palpably easing since his last visit in June.
At the time, he was the highest-ranking US official to visit China in five years, and the trip was followed by a meeting between the countries' presidents in November.
At that summit in California, Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to a US wish list including restoring contact between militaries and cracking down on precursor chemicals to fentanyl, the powerful painkiller behind an addiction epidemic in the United States.
Blinken will start his visit on Wednesday in Shanghai.
While in the city, he will meet students and business leaders in what an aide called a bid to highlight warm ties between the American and Chinese peoples.
The friendly side trip -- the first visit by a US secretary of state to the bustling metropolis since Hillary Clinton in 2010 -- would have been unthinkable until recently, with hawks on both sides previously speaking of a new Cold War between the two powers.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen similarly toured the manufacturing hub of Guangzhou before visiting Beijing earlier this month.
A senior US official previewing Blinken's trip said that the United States and China were at a "different place than we were a year ago, when the bilateral relationship was at an historic low point".
"We also believe, and we have also clearly demonstrated, that responsibly managing competition does not mean we will pull back from measures to protect US national interests," he said.
The Biden administration's eagerness to engage China stands in stark contrast to its efforts to isolate Russia since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
After initially being pleased that Beijing has not directly supplied weapons to Russia, the United States in recent weeks has accused China of lavishing industrial material and technology on Moscow.
Washington has encouraged European leaders, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who recently visited Beijing, to stand firm on China not backing Russia, believing that it wants stable ties with the West as it focuses on addressing economic headwinds at home.
"If China purports on the one hand to want good relations with Europe and other countries, it can't on the other hand be fuelling what is the biggest threat to European security since the end of the Cold War," Blinken said Friday after Group of Seven talks in Capri, Italy.
The Biden administration has trumpeted the agreement with Xi on fentanyl as a success.
A State Department official said that since the November summit, China appears to have taken its first law enforcement measures on the matter since 2017.
Blinken will ask for further implementation, the official said.
"More regular PRC law enforcement action against PRC-based chemical companies and pill press manufacturers involved in illicit fentanyl supply chains would send a strong signal of China's commitment to address this issue," the official said, referring to the People's Republic of China.
One source of friction between the two countries is new legislation that cleared the US Congress on Tuesday -- and which Biden intends to sign -- requiring the wildly popular social media app TikTok to be divested from its Chinese parent company ByteDance, or be shut out of the American market.
Biden faces a rematch in November against former president Donald Trump, who has vowed a more confrontational approach against China.
Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said that China's leaders, eager to focus on their economy, were in a wait-and-see mode ahead of the US election.
"The Chinese understand that the Biden administration is unlikely to deliver any good news on trade because that simply does not support the election agenda," she said.
For Chinese leaders this year, "their priority is to keep the relationship stable".
"Until there is clarity on who the next administration will be, I don't think they see a better strategy," she said.

Arrests follow barricades and encampments as US college students nationwide protest Gaza war

Updated 24 April 2024

Arrests follow barricades and encampments as US college students nationwide protest Gaza war

  • More than 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had camped out on Columbia University’s upper Manhattan campus were arrested last week

Standoffs between pro-Palestinian student protesters and universities grew increasingly tense on both coasts Wednesday as hundreds encamped at Columbia University faced a deadline from the administration to clear out while dozens remained barricaded inside two buildings on a Northern California college campus.
Both are part of intensifying demonstrations over Israel’s war with Hamas by university students across the country, leading to dozens of arrests on charges of trespassing or disorderly conduct.
Columbia’s President Minouche Shafik in a statement Wednesday set a midnight deadline to reach an agreement with students to clear the encampment, or “we will consider alternative options.”
That deadline passed without news of an agreement. Videos show some protesters taking down their tents while others doubled down in speeches. The heightened tension arrived the night before US House Speaker Mike Johnson’s trip to Columbia to visit with Jewish students and address antisemitism on college campuses.
Across the country, protesters at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, started using furniture, tents, chains and zip ties to block the building’s entrances Monday evening. The defiance was less expected in the conservative region of California, some 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of San Francisco.
“We are not afraid of you!” the protesters chanted before officers in riot gear pushed into them at the building’s entrance, video shows. Student Peyton McKinzie said she was walking on campus Monday when she saw police grabbing one woman by the hair, and another student having their head bandaged for an injury.
“I think a lot of students are in shock about it,” she told The Associated Press.
Three students have been arrested, according to a statement from Cal Poly Humboldt, which shutdown the campus until Wednesday. An unknown number of students had occupied a second campus building Tuesday.
The upwelling of demonstrations has left universities struggling to balance campus safety with free speech rights. Many long tolerated the protests, which largely demanded that schools condemn Israel’s assault on Gaza and divest from companies that sell weapons to Israel.
Now, universities are doling out more heavy-handed discipline, citing safety concerns as some Jewish students say criticism of Israel has veered into antisemitism.
Protests had been bubbling for months but kicked into a higher gear after more than 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had camped out on Columbia’s upper Manhattan campus were arrested Thursday.
By late Monday at New York University, police said 133 protesters were taken into custody and all had been released with summonses to appear in court on disorderly conduct charges.
In Connecticut, police arrested 60 protesters — including 47 students — at Yale, after they refused to leave an encampment on a plaza at the center of campus.
Yale President Peter Salovey said protesters had declined an offer to end the demonstration and meet with trustees. After several warnings, school officials determined “the situation was no longer safe,” so police cleared the encampment and made arrests.
In the Midwest on Tuesday, a demonstration at the center of the University of Michigan campus had grown to nearly 40 tents, and nine anti-war protesters at the University of Minnesota were arrested after police took down an encampment in front of the library. Hundreds rallied to the Minnesota campus in the afternoon to demand their release.
Harvard University in Massachusetts has tried to stay a step ahead of protests by locking most gates into its famed Harvard Yard and limiting access to those with school identification. The school has also posted signs that warn against setting up tents or tables on campus without permission.
Literature Ph.D. student Christian Deleon said he understood why the Harvard administration may be trying to avoid protests but said there still has to be a place for students to express what they think.
“We should all be able to use these kinds of spaces to protest, to make our voices heard,” he said.
Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said college leaders face extremely tough decisions because they have a responsibility to ensure people can express their views, even when others find them offensive, while protecting students from threats and intimidation.
The New York Civil Liberties Union cautioned universities against being too quick to call in law enforcement in a statement Tuesday.
“Officials should not conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism or use hate incidents as a pretext to silence political views they oppose,” said Donna Lieberman, the group’s executive director.
Leo Auerbach, a student at the University of Michigan, said the differing stances on the war hadn’t led to his feeling unsafe on campus but he has been fearful of the “hateful rhetoric and antisemitic sentiment being echoed.”
“If we’re trying to create an inclusive community on campus, there needs to be constructive dialogue between groups,” Auerbach said. “And right now, there’s no dialogue that is occurring.”
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, physics senior Hannah Didehbani said protesters were inspired by those at Columbia.
“Right now there are several professors on campus who are getting direct research funding from Israel’s ministry of defense,” she said. “We’ve been calling for MIT to cut those research ties.”
Protesters at the University of California, Berkeley, which had an encampment of about 30 tents Tuesday, were also inspired by Columbia’s demonstrators, “who we consider to be the heart of the student movement,” said law student Malak Afaneh.
Campus protests began after Hamas’ deadly attack on southern Israel, when militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages. During the ensuing war, Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the local health ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between combatants and noncombatants but says at least two-thirds of the dead are children and women.