For Chowhound. January 2018.
Khaled and Ruwaida had a deep-rooted life back in Damascus, Syria. They owned two apartments and a few electronic shops. Khaled worked, while Ruwaida took care of their two kids. But political unrest forced them to leave their home country and walk across to Jordan, where they lived as refugees for four years. They lost their assets, sold most of their possessions for survival, and arrived in the United States with almost nothing. One of the few things they could carry with them—a wooden cookie mold from Syria that belonged to Ruwaida’s mother and grandmother—became the foundation of their future.
Once the family arrived in Georgia in 2016, refugee resettlement organization New American Pathways and Holy Trinity Parish helped them settle in. Initially, they relied on the help of the community for food and shelter. Amanda Avutu, one of the volunteers who has now become a close friend of the family, says, “I wanted to help stock their kitchen for them when they arrived at their new apartment but was totally lost! I went with an arbitrary shopping list to an Indian grocery store not really knowing what Syrians eat,” referring to how little knowledge she had of the country’s cuisine.
Not knowing English and having no transferable working skills, Khaled turned to minimum wage work, while Ruwaida baked cookies for her neighbors, the only way she could say “thank you” for their generosity. Little did she realize; her small sweet tokens would lead her to start her very own business and support her family.
The idea of “Sweet, Sweet Syria” was birthed during a neighborhood music festival where Ruwaida sold 45 dozen cookies in three hours from a friend’s porch. “Refugee cookies! Refugee cookies!” her 10-year old son yelled from the porch. It was the first time Ruwaida (now 29) had received money for her work and it took some getting used to the idea of being the first Arabic businesswoman in her family. “I was so excited and my kids seemed so proud of me” she says, smiling shyly.
“We Syrians think about food since the time we wake up,” Ruwaida says, and recalls fond food memories of her home country. She has been baking traditional Mamool cookies since she was 12 years old. Her mother taught her how to make the shortbread dough, season it with orange and rose water, and stuff it with dates, pistachios, chocolates, and coconut. The recipe has passed on through generations. It’s a 10-step labor intensive process and good quality ingredients are crucial. The cookies are delicate, flavorful, yet not too sweet.
“Do you want to work?” Ruwaida’s new American friends asked, and sought permission from her husband to be sensitive to her conservative cultural background. He immediately said, “Yes, but only in the house.” With much help from a Google translator, her advisors helped set up her website, took her for English language lessons, and enrolled her in a business accelerator program.
Since they did not have an outlet to sell, Avutu would sit at a neighborhood coffee shop to meet with customers and deliver the cookies they ordered through word of mouth. “I felt like a smuggler of cookies!” she laughs. The owner noticed this and signed up for a weekly order and gave Avutu a corner at the shop to meet with customers.
Next, they bought a tent, table, and sandwich board and headed to the farmers markets. The entire family was positively motivated when they saw people from all walks of life enjoying their homemade delights. They started receiving messages from people across the country who were eager to try the cookies, and they shipped the cookies via UPS.
Ruwaida’s friends also started a crowdfunding campaign to help her rent a commercial kitchen. She now supplies cookies to local coffee shops and farmers markets in Atlanta, and takes online orders ($10 per dozen). Her husband/sous chef assists in running private Syrian dinners at friends’ homes that serve as a place for cross cultural exchanges. The kids get a chance to see other American homes and share their own backgrounds.
In less than two years since their move to the US, Khaled and Ruwaida are loving their new entrepreneurial lives and eventually want to open a small brick and mortar Syrian restaurant.
“The cookies are not sweet themselves,” Ruwaida explains. The sweetness she is referring to is the recollections she has of Syria. She wants people who taste her cookies to have a positive experience, and not associate the country with only death and destruction. So, she named her business “Sweet, Sweet Syria.”
Header image courtesy of Sweet, Sweet Syria.
Written for Chowhound. January 2018.