Access Kitchen – Women helping their communities & advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities
In a calm neighborhood nestled between the busy streets of Mar Mikhael in Beirut, a heartwarming haven known as ‘Access Kitchen’ flourished. It is Lebanon’s first community kitchen led and run by a group of women with disabilities. It provides income-generating jobs for 58 women and offers daily 138 hot meals to vulnerable people in nearby areas.
When you enter the kitchen, the aroma of freshly baked dreams and the sizzle of determination create the perfect recipe not just for meals, but for the empowerment, inclusion, and boundless potential of the women working in the kitchen.
Women of all ages, some with various disabilities, and some caring for family members with disabilities meet at this kitchen, each bringing their unique skills and stories to the table.
This inclusive space is the result of a partnership between UN Women and the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities (LUPD), established by the Government of Austria as part of a joint project with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), “Emergency Livelihoods for Affected Marginalized Populations in the Beirut Explosion Area”. The support was continued with the support of the Government of Japan and the Government of Australia.
Paving the Way
Sylvana Lakkis’ journey towards becoming an advocate for the rights of persons, particularly women with disabilities started at a young age. “I realized at an early age that the hardship I was facing were not solitary battles but were related to unclaimed rights,” explains Sylvana.
Sylvana has a disability resulted from Polio, she, herself has experienced first-hand discrimination because of having a disability. A notable moment for Sylvana was after graduating from college, only to find that employment opportunities were almost non-existent for persons with disabilities. “This is where I kicked off and began the activism journey,” she says.
Sylvana became the President of the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities (LUPD). Motivated by her own journey, coupled with the plight people with disabilities face in Lebanon, the prevalent biases they confront and the Beirut blast resulting in disabilities, she made it her mission to foster inclusivity. This is how Access Kitchen was born.
“Access kitchen, which includes women with different types of disabilities coming from various nationalities and different backgrounds, is an opportunity that paves the way towards inclusive employment and therefore an inclusive economy,” she says.
Sylvana endeavors to connect with women living with disabilities in Lebanon on both a personal and professional level. She reaches out to them directly or engages with organizations and municipalities, particularly in the aftermath of the Beirut Blast.
Driven by Determination
Luna Yammine is a spirited graphic designer. She has a mobility impairment and has faced various challenges, specifically at the community and family level around social and gender norms. “I was born in a society that marginalizes persons with disabilities and this created many challenges for me. In our society, women are already vulnerable let alone women with disabilities,” explains Luna.
Luna continued to struggle with the perceptions placed on her, especially when it came to searching for a job. “My parents rejected the idea of me joining the workplace, they wondered who is going to hire a person like me,” says Luna. Recognizing her right to work and driven by her determination, Luna did not lose hope and kept searching for job opportunities, until she joined Access Kitchen as a graphic designer.
With her keen eye for design, she lends her creative touch to the kitchen. She crafts vibrant posters and campaigns, spreading the word far and wide about this unique initiative that was bound to stir hearts and change lives. Luna is determined to prove that her disability is not a barrier to her talents, “I can work like everybody else and be an active community member,” Luna says.
This experience is benefitting her on many levels, “this project has empowered me, boosted my self-confidence, and enhanced my financial stability,” Luna says.
In a nearby corner of the same kitchen, there is Aya Ezzo – A woman with a visual impairment, who discovered Access Kitchen through an outreach Facebook post. It was Aya’s first-ever job, as a kitchen worker. She has embraced her tasks and become an integral part of this community, “Access Kitchen changed my life; I became more independent physically and financially. I can pay my university tuition fees and offer financial help to my family,” Aya says.
The challenges Aya faced as a person with a disability were not limited to employment, she speaks about challenges at school, at university, and while moving around in the streets.
Aya is proud of what she has learned through this impactful experience, especially through sessions on disability and gender-inclusive rights, and the labor laws in Lebanon. “I now know my entitlements as a woman with a disability. I am more confident, and I can express myself without feeling ashamed of my disability.”
Be the Change
Operating since June 2022, Access Kitchen became a vibrant hub of camaraderie and shared aspirations built on the common challenges of women. Its members empower one another and break down barriers with each day passing. “Not only did I exchange cooking-related knowledge with other women working in the kitchen but also ways to stand against obstacles”, Aya says.
“Sharing their individual experience on overcoming challenges and discovering solutions among these women became a valuable lesson for others, marking a significant step towards embracing inclusive employment. Access kitchen is one of the main ways to fight hunger and poverty and to contribute to Lebanon’s advancement,” Sylvana says.
“To all women out there who continue to face the challenges of discrimination and marginalization, believe in the power within you. Seize your rights with unwavering determination. Your potential to contribute, thrive, and stand on your own is boundless. Every and each one of you can be productive, active and independent. Be the change,” Sylvana sends a message to all women.