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Nayran Tabiei · Cooking Instructor, Free to Feed

Dream Job

Today’s Dream Job subject, Nayran Tabiei, has a story that’s likely to astound. Though foreign to most, the challenges this ever-smiling woman has overcome, only serve to push the boundaries of what can be achieved in the pursuit of fulfilling service.

Nayran is cheerfully multitasking when we join her in the kitchen of Melbourne-based social enterprise Free to Feed. In between guiding a group of receptive young participants through the art of tabouli-tiny parsley chopping, the Cooking Instructor chronicles her long and testing journey to a safe and purposeful present.

18th August, 2017

Nayran Tabiei. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Nayran works her dream job as a Cooking Instructor at Free to Feed. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

We joined in her Syrian Brunch class. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The beginnings of our feast. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Photography – Amelia Stanwix.

Elle Murrell
Friday 18th August 2017

It’s not always as straight forward as 1: graduate, 2: survive an internship and 3: land the full-time job you’ve always wanted. Nayran Tabiei grew up in Damascus, Syria, where she lived until she was 22. A worldly young woman, she travelled regularly to support her immediate family spread across the globe (United States, Thailand, Dubai, Sweden, and China). ‘I was the youngest and I would often go to my older sisters to help them through their pregnancies and things,’ she dutifully explains.

At 23 on one such caregiving stint, Nayran met Majid, who was working in the IT industry in Dubai, and the pair later wed. They lived in Iran raising their four young children, before relocating to Syria in 2006. There, Nayran was happy running her coffee shop and booming baklava delivery business, when the Syria Crisis began. After the bombing of her home and business in 2011, she fled with her family to seek safety in Beirut, Lebanon.  ‘I don’t mention much about what happened in Syria, because the media tend to “bold” and focus on that. But that’s not all my story,’ says Nayran. ‘I like to focus on the journey since then… my life here. I want it to be happy and I don’t want to make trouble for myself.’

Majid flew from Lebanon to Dubai and Qatar hoping to secure longer-term stay visas, work and schooling for their children. but it was to no avail. Nayran decided it best to then send her three teenage sons to Iran to live with their paternal grandmother, while she and her young daughter travelled to her brother in Thailand, Majid later joining. The family was unable to stay and moved on to Bali, Indonesia, with the financial support of Nayran’s family. After months of hopping from country to country in grave uncertainty, they were down to the last five days of their legal stay in Indonesia.

Nayran confided in a local Syrian restaurant owner, who explained it would be near-impossible for the family to establish themselves in Bali, and advised travelling to Jakarta to have their status changed and visas extended by the United Nations. ‘In the end, they did not accept us,’ explains Nayran. ‘If you could have seen our faces when we came out – we were crying, we had no idea what to do, and were honestly thinking, what will happen with us?’

In the moments of despair that followed, the family was approached by a smuggler, who reassured them in comfortingly fluent Persian and Arabic. He promised passage to Australia. ‘My brain just knew, ok, I am going,’ tells Nayran. ‘As he was talking, I imagined the sea and the sharks ahead, but then everything that was behind us. My husband was pulling me saying, “Don’t do it. What are you doing?” But I knew, yes I’m going, I will even swim!’

After 27 days of moving from place to place by night, hiding from police, trekking through dense jungle and boarding boat after boat, the family made the crossing. The small fishing vessel on which they were aboard with more than 65 others reached Australian waters, and they were taken to Christmas Island on October, 18th, 2012.

‘When I arrived, for me, it was heaven. Some people talk of the wire, officers, guns, but I didn’t see any of that. I just saw heaven because they gave us shelter and food,’ remembers Nayran. ‘When I see the Australian flag now, as I first saw it then, my heart jumps, because I now feel myself to be Australian.’

 The family spent three-and-a-half months there in detention, before another month in Adelaide, three months in Port Augusta, followed by three month’s curfewed community detention in Melbourne. Nayran now laughs, as she looks back on their Syria style-attempt of walking door-to-door on Ballarat Road, Sunshine, with all the money they had left, asking to rent a house. The trio have since settled in Braybrook, where Nayran has become an invaluable member of the community. Her contributions to the area, and Melbourne more widely, are nothing short of astounding… she’s also been a Salvation Army volunteer for four years straight!

Since late last year, Nayran has also dedicated herself to her role as a Cooking Instructor at Free to Feed – it is this casual position, and social enterprise, that we spotlight today for an incredible Dream Job story.

Amelia and I were fortunate to join Nayran, Free to Feed co-founder Loretta Bolotin, volunteer assistant Daniella, and course participants for Nayran’s Syrian Breakfast class last month. In between spoonfuls of the best muhammara ever tasted, and bouts of her contagious laughter, Nayran shared the next chapter in her story.

‘My heart jumps, because I now feel myself to be Australian.’ – Nayran Tabiei.

And the finished spread! Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Nayran arrived to Australia in October, 2012. Class participants Osta, Leeanne and Klim came across Free to Feed Googling ‘best cooking class in Melbourne’ – they weren’t disappointed! Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Loretta Bolotin, the co-founder and creative director of Free to Feed, alongside Nayran. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Photography – Amelia Stanwix.

I landed this job by…

I was doing some casual cooking at Tiggy Café in Collingwood and it was Sarah, the owner of Tiggy Cafe, who introduced me to Loretta Bolotin, the co-founder and creative director of Free to Feed.

I remember when I first went to meet Loretta I thought she had a coffee shop not a cooking class, so I bought cupcakes and a mud cake to show her! I also had my books, records with photos of all the volunteer cooking, teaching and catering I had done – one for sweet, and one for savoury!

She was surprised, saying, ‘You did all this?’. After that she told me I was perfect for the job, and to ‘Come tomorrow!’ I started straight away, which was in November last year.

A typical day for me involves…

I work as a casual employee at Free to Feed. I am also a supervisor/facilitator for two playgroups, and as well as that, I’m teaching women’s groups two days per week.

Most weeks with Free to Feed, I have one cooking class day and one catering day – it’s  just beautiful! Beautiful because, when I open the door for a class I see people who have a passion for cooking and who love to learn and want to understand my cuisine and culture – with the spices, we all fly to Damascus! They smile, clap their hands, are engaged as I tell my story, and we share the experience of all cooking together for one another. This just gives me such a great feeling.

I wake up early, because I always have many things to do! I feed my chickens and collect their eggs and spend time with my husband and daughter. If I am teaching a Saturday morning brunch, at 7.00am I travel from my home in Braybrook to our space in Thornbury to start the preparation.

When our guests arrive for the class, we chat and I explain the food. Then we prepare it, before sitting down to eat together and talk some more. The guests learn about me, I ask them questions too, and then we tidy up together. After they’ve left we do our final cleaning, making sure the Free to Feed volunteers take any of the extra food home, and then finish by around 2:30pm.

Nicholas, Klim, Keren, Jordan, Osta and Leeanne learn to prepare Syrian breakfast staples like hummus with meat, tabouli, shakshuka and muhammara. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Details of the Thornbury cooking studio. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The diverse spice and grain supply. We were intrigued to learn about (and try to pronounce) burghul, as well as Nayran’s  baharat 15-spice mix (!!). Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

‘We are about sharing and celebrating the culture, food, stories and histories of people who are newly arrived in Australia, from refugee backgrounds,’ introduces Loretta Bolotin, who started Free to Feed with her husband Dan in 2016. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Photography – Amelia Stanwix.

The most rewarding part of my job is…

… knowing beautiful people and having a lovely time. These are the main things!

Also, for the people of Melbourne to know these beautiful guys – Daniella, who is often my assistant, and Loretta who started this special project. All the time I am telling them how great they are. Because, I started with nothing and they supported me… and they’ve even made me famous! Although we don’t really talk about the money or the publicity, Free to Feed is about much more than that.

On the other hand, the most challenging aspect of my job is…

… needing to fill more and more forms or get certificates, whether it be for my cooking work with Free to Feed, my own catering business, and then just for everything! I don’t know to deal with this kind of thing so easily. I have the all the certificates for food handling, but there’s always another one you need or an update, and it can be expensive too.

On Job Day at school, I dressed up as a…

… a dentist! I loved my teeth to be bright and white all the time. But as I grew up I wasn’t so good with maths and preferred reading. In Syria, we have two streams: science-based or reading-based, I went with that one!

My colleagues always say I’m…

… a good heart. ‘You are always helping without thinking,’ they tell me.

The perfect workplace is…

… Free to Feed! It would be so wonderful if it could continue to grow, and that teachers from other cultures could join us to offer different experiences. They could all teach their different cuisines and help to build peoples’ understanding.

‘This is an opportunity for us to meet people in our community who we wouldn’t normally get a chance to meet, AND a chance to enjoy lots of really delicious authentic food,’ adds Loretta. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Photography – Amelia Stanwix.

The best piece of advice…

My grandmother was always saying, ‘Be a good heart, don’t judge!’, because you can’t always know what people are going through. And then my Dad, he was always talking about unity – ‘Don’t strive to be the lone branch, the tree gets its strength from its intertwined roots,’ he’s say. Among our community in Syria, we lived together; we didn’t think about someone being Sunni (like me), Shia (like my husband), Christian or Jewish… we just gathered as one. We wouldn’t be thinking about backgrounds, we would just be being!

Over the past nine months, things at Free to Feed have…

… become busier, and we’ve become more professional! The organisation is now working with 65 staff/volunteers. It’s great; start with small, and grow!

The public is more aware of us now and that gives us more opportunities. Loretta finds clever solutions to help us grow up in the community, especially for our dinners, spices and events. Originally, we were just considered to be a cooking school, but now we’re recognised as a really professional catering service too.

In the next five years I’d like to…

I’m not a dreamer, you know. I’m not a dreamer, because of the way I came; I left everything and just came here.

But in the future, I just want my whole family to be together. I also want to keep spending my time with good people, and feeding them good food!

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