Mariam Shaar, a Palestinian entrepreneur, holds a bouquet of flowers after the screening of the documentary in Beirut, Lebanon March 4, 2019. Picture taken March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir Image Credit: REUTERS

Beirut - Entrepreneur Mariam Shaar’s idea of using Palestinians’ national cuisine to provide hope and opportunity for refugee women has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.

Shaar’s project “Soufra” - which means a table laden with food - drew the attention of Hollywood actress and social activist Susan Sarandon, whose documentary - also called “Soufra” - was screened for the first time this week in Beirut.

The film tells the story of Shaar’s efforts to set up a food truck and harness the culinary talents of the women living in the refugee camp of Burj al Barajneh, which was established in a southern suburb of Beirut in 1948 and is still home to thousands of Palestinians.

The documentary premiered at the Al Gouna film festival in Egypt in 2017 and created a stir that helped Shaar’s NGO, the Women’s Program Association (WPA), to raise funds to build a pre-school that will create jobs and educate about 100 children.

Visiting the ‘Nawras’ school on Monday, Sarandon expressed her joy at Shaar’s success.

“It just goes to show you that when people pull together, you know, things get bigger and bigger and bigger - and especially the school, how fabulous to have that happen,” said Sarandon as she sang English nursery rhymes with the kids.

With the United States “whipped into a fearful state of being” over immigrants and asylum seekers, she added, it is vital “to redefine the word ‘refugee’, to put a face on that story and show how important it is to support people was are displaced or trying to survive in very difficult circumstances.”

Shaar, who escorted Sarandon around the camp, said she also had plans now to establish a small restaurant which could serve as “a safe place for women to come and relax mentally and physically, to come to eat, drink and express themselves more”.

Another NGO, Al Fanar (Arabic for beacon), helped the WPA to set up Soufra, providing management support, funding and training.

Al-Fanar executive director Myrna Atalla said the Soufra project was all about giving refugees the tools to take charge of their own lives.

“Otherwise we’re just throwing money at problems and not actually empowering people to shape their destiny,” she said.

Echoing that view, the documentary’s director Thomas Morgan said the project had helped to change how Shaar and the other women viewed themselves, “like they were contributors for the first time, (that) they were able to do something”.

Later Shaar, Saradon, Morgan and the refugee women watched the documentary at a screening also attended by US actor Ben Stiller, local artists and philanthropists.

Morgan gifted the “Soufra” team the awards that the film has garnered worldwide over the past two years.

Nearly half a million Palestinian refugees live in mostly overcrowded, impoverished conditions, in 12 camps in Lebanon.

They are descendants of families who fled or were forced to flee during fighting which created the state of Israel in 1948.