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  1. Hillsborough

Syrian refugees in Tampa combine their cooking skills to become financially self-sufficient

From left to right, Nisreen Abdulmajed, Jommana Berrem, and Samar Wahoud of Radiant Kitchen mix ingredients for sfeeha on Thursday, June 20, 2019 in Tampa. [ANGELIQUE HERRING | Times]
Published Jul. 11

Samar Wahoud had finished kneading dough she was about to stuff with a fragrant ground beef mixture she and her two coworkers, Nisreen Abdelmajed and Jommana Berrem, had prepared.

In matching pink jackets and gray hijabs, the women, who fled Syria as refugees three years ago in the midst of a brutal civil war, chopped parsley, onions and tomatoes. They worked in the industrial kitchen they had been lent to use by the owners of a Wesley Chapel catering business, Dash of Salt N' Pepper.

They spoke softly in Arabic before beckoning their manager and translator, Mohammad Al Mousa.

Al Mousa, who also fled Syria in 2016 as a refugee and is now a Hillsborough Community College student, walked over to Elyana Jadallah, who with her parents runs Dash of Salt N'Pepper.

"They need," he said, before pausing and pantomiming a rolling motion.

"They need a rolling pin?" Jadallah asked with a laugh, before finding one.

For the last two years, the three women, along with three other Syrian refugees, have operated a catering business, Radiant Kitchens.

The business started after nine women were banded together by Radiant Hands, a Tampa-based nonprofit that works to resettle refugees and their families from Muslim and Arabic-speaking countries.

After the last Syrian refugee arrived in November 2017, when the ban on refugees from 11 countries that was later reversed went into effect, the organization switched its focus from immediate resettlement to ensuring the new refugees are financially self-sufficient.

"(The ban) was really sad, but at the same time it gave us the chance to think about the people who had already been resettled, but who hadn't been able to be totally independent," said Ghadir Kassab, a member of the organization's board. "We started to analyze causes of why these families can't be self sufficient."

Wahoud said starting over in a new country with her children proved to be challenging.

"The language, the culture, the environment — everything changed," she said, as translated by Al Mousa. "Everything is not familiar. It's a different life."

Language, Kassab said, was the first obstacle. Many of the women, she said, didn't have high levels of education. But they did have skills.

Kassab began to notice a few women advertising their cooking services individually to families. That's when she had the idea to bring them together: it would lessen competition, and with each woman from a different city in Syria, they could specialize in what they do best. So she banded together first nine women, which later became six, and asked them to each prepare a dish at a luncheon Radiant Hands was hosting, with their names and contact info.

Abdulmajed, who was 33 when she left Daraa, Syria with her five children, had helped her husband at his restaurant. Her trademark was shawarmas, slices of roasted meat typically served in a pita with pickled vegetables and sauces. Berem, who left Aleppo when she was 38 with her four children, specialized in kibbeh, a fried croquette of cracked wheat stuffed with minced meat and onions or vegetables; baba ganoush, a smoked eggplant dip, and desserts. Wahoud, who left Homs at 38 with her four kids, took on sambusas, stuffed pastries with a savory filling.

After the event, the orders began rolling in: one organization placed an order for 250 people for a bingo night. Kassab, who had been taking orders for the women over the phone and helping coordinate, realized she wouldn't be able to keep up with it.

She enrolled the women in financial literacy and business courses taught in Arabic through Project Prosper, which offers programs designed to teach skills to new immigrants, and got them certification in commercial food handling and safety. Al Mousa was hired to take orders, and he developed an app that would allow people access to the menu and the ability to directly place their orders with the women.

Initially, they prepared orders separately from their own homes, but after Jadallah's mother heard about the business and catered part of her son's wedding menu from them, she offered them the space.

She too had been given a small space when she was starting out more than 10 years ago. She wanted to pass on the good karma.

"Especially as Arabs, we kind of have to help each other and make people see we're not just what's on the news," Jadallah said.

Growing up the last 22 years in Wesley Chapel, she said her father was a Vietnam-era veteran and on her school's parent teacher association. She said their business has been welcomed by the community, but knows not everyone has been as lucky. A Quran school that opened three doors down from theirs started getting complaints about people wearing hijabs. Within a year, they left, when someone offered their house instead, she said.

Jadallah walked by, overhearing the women in the kitchen.

"Are you looking for zataar?" she asked.

They nodded.

She disappeared into a corner of the kitchen before emerging with a small bag of the green spice blend of thyme, oregano and sesame seeds.

"Every Arab has zataar," she said, pouring some into a bowl.

She took their cookie sheets containing the neatly crimped meat pies and stuck it in the oven.

"How long?" she asked Al Mousa. "Ten minutes?"

Al Mousa consulted with Wahoud before answering.

"She said they will see," he said. "They don't have a time, but they will check and see."

Jadallah shrugged.

A few moments later, Wahoud opened the oven and sampled a pie. She nodded and tried to feed one to Abdelmajed who laughed and ducked away.

While they're cooking, Wahoud said, they are happy. It's what they love to do best.

Their busiest season, the month of Ramadan, had come to an end and orders had fallen into something of a lull, but the women's hopes for growing their business hadn't. Over the last two Ramadans, they earned about $15,000 in business, though most other months, each woman takes home about $1200, Kassab said.

She is applying for the women to become caterers at USF dining facilities and is seeking grants to buy them a food truck, to expose them to a larger number of people.

"You need people to believe in you," Kassab said. "Some people argued with me that this is a business and if it's a real business you should expect competition. But competition comes when you have equal opportunities.

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com or . Follow @divyadivyadivya.

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