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Across the divide: Serving falafel together

At Ofra's Kitchen in Vancouver, Ofra and her Iranian server-assistant welcome people, unmindful of the political tensions between Tehran and Jerusalem.
Thirty years ago, Ofra Sixto immigrated from Israel to Canada and four years ago opened the Ofra’s Kitchen.

Thousands of kilometers away from the Middle East, where political tensions and wars rage all the time, a cozy kitchen in downtown Vancouver, B.C., is a shared space for an Israeli restaurateur and her Iranian server-assistant.

I visited the restaurant recently and Ofra asked if I wanted to do an interview or have something to eat. I said I wanted to have an interview and also enjoy a Turkish coffee.

Just a few blocks from the majestic Pacific Ocean on beautiful English Bay, a young Iranian woman with her hair tied back sweeps up yellow leaves at the entrance of the restaurant. She arrived in Vancouver just two months ago and has started working at Ofra’s Kitchen as an assistant to Ofra.

“I’ve been working here for 20 days,” said “Eli” (her name has been changed in keeping with her wishes) in Persian. “The tension between Iran and Israel doesn’t matter to me, like race, colour, or religion. I believe in a world without borders.”

Ofra is having a busy day, with a mix of online orders and in-person customers; some here to pick up their food and others eagerly awaiting meals to be served fresh from the kitchen. 

Ofra comes to the corner table where I am seated with a delicious Turkish coffee.

“It’s a dream I had all my life to have my own business and it has always been in the back of my mind to one day open my own restaurant,” Ofra says, beginning our conversation.

Ofra Sixto emigrated from Israel to Canada 30 years ago and opened her restaurant four years ago, around the time that the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world.

“I made quite a bit of friends in the neighbourhood,” Ofra recalls. “And because it was a place that was sort of home to many, it became very popular very fast … in the West End.”

Before Eli came, another Iranian immigrant used to work in the kitchen, Ofra said. “I had another Iranian girl, and she was a Muslim who prayed in the back. She put down a rug and prayed, I think, three times a day. She came and asked me if I needed employees and I said, Yes!

“It was very difficult, but her English language was good.”

Joy of working together

The previous employee left to return to Iran over a family matter, but just two days before she left, Eli came and inquired about a job. 

“I asked if she had experience, she said no,” Ofra said. “I asked, ‘Do you speak English?’ She said no – but I said, ‘OK, let’s try.’ Because I had the other one who spoke Farsi, she showed Eli in a day or two how and what I needed to be done.” 

Ofra believes in Eli and describes her as intelligent and quick to catch on. “English language is not necessary a lot of times because she knows what to do and she does it,” Ofra says.

“It’s a pleasure to work with her. I have no colour, race, shape, or anything in my life. I love all good people and I feel bad for the not-so-good people.”

Dusk is settling over the city, and the crowds on Denman Street are getting ready for the weekend. The hustle and bustle of people on the sidewalk and the sound of shrieking seagulls can be heard inside the restaurant. 

Through the din, I speak to Eli.

“Ofra is like a mother to me, and she supports me. Ofra always tells me to be strong; in my mind she is a strong woman,” Eli says in Farsi. She’d studied in a medicine-related field in Iran before immigrating to Canada last September. This is her first job in her new country. 

A few days earlier, Ofra attended a rally in support of Israel and was shocked to see an Iranian flag (the lion and sun flag, which is from the 1979 revolution in Iran) placed amongst Israeli flags. “I didn’t know we have Iranian friends and I’m very happy to know that,” Ofra says. 

I smell falafel, and it reminds me that the dish is popular in Iran as well. How does she keep the restaurant as a place of peace?

“I serve amazing food. People of all countries come here, and they are all welcome. Palestinians are welcome, Iranians are welcome and all the other nationalities. 

“I’m active on Facebook and Instagram. I voice my opinion freely without fear. Many people know where I stand. If they want to engage in conversation and I have time, I speak freely of how I feel about the situation.

And sometimes they support, and sometimes they don’t. We live in a free world. The only thing we cannot do is act on our beliefs. If they are destructive, if they’re going to come and kill somebody because they believe the opposite, this is a big ‘No’.”

A long shadow

An Israeli flag placed in the restaurant’s window draws the attention of passersby. Some just glance at it and continue on their way, some express their support for Israel and some people have a different reaction.

“Yesterday I had two ladies coming in asking me, ‘Where is your Palestinian flag? You killed 7,000 children’,” Ofra says.

“She told me I killed 7,000 children. I did not engage because I don’t engage with ignorant people. I just asked her to get out of here.” 

I drank the last sip of my coffee while she said: “There are some Palestinian businesses here that lots of Israelis go to. And if they allow them to just come in and eat and enjoy their food, conversation or whatever, I think that’s what needs to be done.

“I hope nobody closes the businesses for Israelis or Jews in general or threatens them or other bad stuff. I just hope that everybody here is going to respect each other. We are not politicians, we are restaurant owners.”

As she spoke, Ofra was behind her kitchen counter and Eli was packing orders for customers waiting to pick up their food. 

By  now, the seagulls were silent, the streetlights were turned on and I looked up at a map of the Middle East on the wall. In one corner of the map was the burned city of Aleppo. I could see Kabul, now under the Taliban, post-2003 war Iraq, Iran after the Women, Life, Freedom movement, and Gaza and so on. Clearly, the shadow of the Middle East affects its citizens around the world.

Shortly after my visit, I learned, the Iranian woman parted ways with Ofra for reasons that had nothing to do with the current conflicts in the Middle East. I confirmed this with both of them. 

“I left because, due to the winter season, customer traffic was considerably low, and working part-time wasn’t enough for me. I need a full-time job for life in Canada,” Eli said in an email to me.

She hopes to get back into being a medical technologist, but she is also interested in pottery and handicrafts, actively seeking local community markets to showcase her handmade items like leather keychains, earrings, and pottery.