A Sweet Way to Help Syrian Refugees in US

Namoura. Ma’amoul. Barazek. The names are unfamiliar to American consumers, but the tastes of honey, cinnamon and nuts are not. 

These Syrian pastries are for sale at the Syrian Sweets Exchange in Phoenix, Arizona, held at local farmers markets and a series of special sales like one recently at Changing Hands Bookstore. Bake sales are a fundraising fixture of American life, so it was no stretch for a group of volunteers who wanted to do something to help the 300 Syrian families in the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas.

Syria is famous for its sweets, but program co-founder Tan Jakwani said volunteers learned about them firsthand.

“When the volunteers would visit the Syrian refugees … to bring them donated furniture, they would bring out delicious sweets to greet the volunteers,” she said.

Through the exchange, the bakers’ skills have been turned into revenue. All proceeds are given back to the 20 bakers, who are licensed by the state of Arizona to bake goods at home and sell them.

The bakers

“I sell my sweets every Saturday in the farmers market … and it sells very well,” said baker Noor al Mousa. “I have customers every Saturday coming for me for selling my sweets and thank me. And I thank them.”

Al Mousa was an engineer in Syria. Now, her husband supports the family of seven — four children born in Syria and one in the U.S. — by driving cars at the Phoenix airport while she bakes.

“We send a lot of money to my family in Syria and in Jordan,” Al Mousa said. “My sister and my aunts and the brother of my husband are all in Syria. … I am very worried for them.”

After al Mousa and one of her young daughters were shot in Syria and their house collapsed, the family walked to Jordan overnight where they stayed for four years before arriving in the U.S.

“I made sweets just for family in my country,” al Mousa said. “Now volunteers help me sell my sweets in farmers markets.

“When I bake, I am happy. I am very happy,” she added. 

The volunteers

The sweets exchange is part of a larger group called Refugee Connection Phoenix, whose volunteer members have grown from 60 to 800 over the last year. The Facebook-based group also has other programs, such as helping expectant mothers and teaching refugee children to read.

The Syrian Sweets Exchange founders and other volunteers, who drive the bakers to the sales and interpret for them, are mostly women who come from various walks of life and from different faiths. 

Tan Jakwani’s motivation to help refugees stems from her own background. Her father — a major in the South Vietnamese Army — was evacuated at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and took refuge in the U.S. It was 10 years before Jakwani, her mother and three siblings arrived in the U.S.

“When we came, he already had a small house for us. So we did not have to go through the phase of living as refugees,” Jakwani said. “But my dad always told us about the time when he first came. He had a family sponsor who helped him with getting his driver’s license, getting a library card, and helped him get a job.”

Refugees have a lot of needs, Jakwani says, but she adds that if everyone does a little, “a lot can be done” to help.

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