Interview with The Great Oven

Ahead of our upcoming print with Richard Long, which is raising funds for The Great Oven and The White Helmets, Migrate Art Founder Simon Butler caught up with Nour Matraji to find out more about The Great Oven's incredible work.

Last April I had planned a trip to travel to Syria with the artist Sara Shamma to see her home city of Damascus. We were flying to Beirut on the same plane and we planned to then take a two hour taxi across the boarder from Lebanon into Syria. It got to the day before we were due to travel and my Syrian visa had still not arrived. Unsure what to do, I made the decision to take the flight to Beirut and I would wait for my visa there, so I could jump in a car and cross the border as soon as the visa arrived. Unfortunately I never made it to Syria, but I did end up spending two remarkable weeks in Beirut, during which I met The Great Oven team. When I heard about this organisation, I sent them an Instagram message and was very quickly invited to The Great Oven headquarters that evening to see what they do and have a meal with their team and the groups of displaced people they cook for every evening. The experience was profound, and to say I was impressed by their work was an understatement. I immediately knew I wanted to find a way to support them. When the recent earthquakes hit Turkey, Syria and Northern Lebanon, The Great Oven kicked into gear to support the thousands of people that have been impacted by this disaster. It felt like the right time to support their work, and we were lucky enough that we could adapt our upcoming print with Richard Long to do exactly that. Below is a short interview with Nour Matraji from The Great Oven, who powerfully explains their work:

Can you tell us a little about The Great Oven and what you are doing to help survivors of the devastating earthquake in Syria?

The Great Oven is a community space based in Lebanon. We started off by building giant ovens, decorating them and placing them with communities in need for food relief. Today we’ve grown beyond just that. We are a space bringing together people from all walks of life who work together to support their own communities and others. Our team is diverse, all with their own stories of resilience and overcoming hardship.

We strongly believe that only a community knows what it needs most. That is why we make sure all of our projects and activities are guided by the community itself. Which brings us to our current response to the earthquake.

We have partnered up with several grassroots organisations like ourselves in Lebanon to raise funds and in-kind donations to send to Syria. We are working with volunteers on the ground who keep us updated about the biggest needs. With this joint effort we have managed to provide hundreds of cans of baby milk, diapers, medicine, winter clothes and sanitary pads. We have not stopped our earthquake response work, we will keep providing for the shifting needs for as long as we can. 

What are the current challenges The Great Oven is facing in their relief efforts?
Lebanon is currently going through its biggest economic collapse in its history. Inflation rates have hit 123.53% as of January 2023. The Lebanese pound has witnessed a severe devaluation going from 1,500 for 1$ to 80,000 for 1$. This rate changes daily, even hourly. This is a big issue as Lebanon imports most of its market products. Food prices for example will fluctuate hourly to the point that shops no longer display prices as they are subject to constant change. These changes also affect prices of petrol, gas, medicine, housing etc. This has led on many occasions distributors to hoard these products making them disappear completely from the market for months at times. In addition to that, the government has been unable to provide any electricity or water for the past 2 years. For that we need to rely on private generators and companies making those bills reach up to 400$ monthly per location.

We are constantly trying our best to adapt to these changes making our work more challenging. We fortunately have an incredible team on the ground that can work magic. We are eager for things to get better in Lebanon so that this magic can become entirely community focused.

How will the donation from the sales of this print help?/What are you hoping to achieve with the donation from Migrate?
We are hoping to keep our operations running and our doors open. We have two main Great Oven locations, Beirut and the Bekaa Valley.

The Bekaa is run by five incredible women from the community, Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians. These women run the kitchen and have been for the past 3 years feeding 400 people in need from their community. In addition to that, they started an initiative called “Women revolutionaries” where they’ve gathered over 25 women from the community of different ages to do empowerment classes. They offer a safe space for these women to share and talk about things that they would otherwise not have the courage to. We’ve received amazing feedback from the women saying how much they feel their mental health has improved since joining these classes.

The Beirut location consists of a big fully equipped kitchen, a workshop and big multi-purpose hall. The space is open for free for anyone or community that requires a space to work, train, improve skills, cook etc. With real estate prices soaring, and many landlords preferring to keep their property empty rather than renting cheap, comes a housing crisis. Many people, especially marginalized communities are finding it very difficult to find spaces in the capital to work or host their activities. This is where we come in.

The Great Oven Beirut is located in the heart of the capital. Our hall has transformed itself many times to cater to demand. It’s done training, soap making, sewing, cooking, dining, therapy, birthdays, funerals and will keep adding. These donations from the sale will help us keep all of this alive.

Like Migrate, The Great Oven believes that art can change the world. Can you describe how you have seen the power of art in action?
A favourite story is how we met one our first and core team member Mustafa. Before the idea of Great Oven came about, a group of us decided to do an arts project with LA based artist Shrine. We arrived in the northern city of Tripoli in Lebanon, a place that suffered many years of clashes. Two neighbourhoods had a spill over of the Syrian civil war, with one neighbourhood fighting for the regime and the other witnessing recruitments by radical organisations such as Nusra and ISIS. After the end of the clashes, many of the youths from both sides were sent to prison on terrorism charges. Many becoming even more radicalized in prison.

We arrived in Tripoli under the wing of an organisation that had been doing beautiful work with the ex-fighters in deradicalization, skills training and job opportunity. We asked them if we could have a group of ex-fighters from both sides, who would work with Shrine on murals across what used to be the front lines. One of those ex-fighters was Mustafa. He arrived with a rough exterior, barely smiling, doesn’t fully trust us and very obviously the alpha of the group. He had recently finished serving a one-and-a-half-year sentence over terrorism charges. We started painting together, and slowly over the days, this soft, animated, super talkative person emerged. And to both his and our surprise, a very talented artist also emerged. After we left, he created his own art team and would go around with paint brushes across the neighbourhoods painting his own murals.

In his own words: “I felt like I was finally really good at something, and that something makes me feel good in return.”

How can people support The Great Oven going forward?
Any form of help is welcome and appreciated. What the Great Oven needs most is funding, cash assistance to keep our doors open and our team members on board. We also welcome other forms of help. We are always eager to get our communities to advance in various skills and learn new things that could help their careers. We would be interested in people coming to host workshops in their areas of expertise and sharing their skills with the communities.