News Ticker

Syrian bake sales make sweet connection for refugees, community

By Debra J. White –

Dozens of people lined up outside Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Paradise Valley on Sunday, April 30, for the Syrian Sweets Exchange bake sale. The sale was scheduled for 1-3 p.m. but by 1:30 p.m. nearly all the home-baked goods were sold out.

Eager guests quickly snatched boxes of desserts such as baklava, barazek and ma’amoul that were baked and sold by Syrian refugees to supplement their family income. Baklava is made with phyllo dough, syrup and pistachio nuts. Barazek are cookies made with sesame seeds, honey and pistachio nuts. Ma’amoul is a shortbread with dates, walnuts or pistachios.

In less troubled times, Syria has been known for its sweets and for its hospitality. So Tucson resident Rania Kanawati, formerly of Syria, helped to organize a successful bake sale in that southern Arizona city in December 2016. The idea spread to Phoenix and local resident Nancy Speidel soon jumped on board. An IT management specialist, Speidel has traveled extensively in the Middle East and is quite familiar with the region and its customs. She saw the Syrian Sweets Exchange as a way to get involved with Syrian refugees who need assistance adjusting to a new life in the USA.

The first local event in February 2017 “was sold out within an hour,” Speidel said. “People walked up and gave us donations to keep the project going, even if they didn’t buy anything.”

Speidel said the bake sales give the public the chance to see refugees as real people. The project has inspired both the volunteers and the bakers. “It empowers us all,” she said.

Baking is a way for the refugees to connect and form friendships. They also share their food and culture with their new friends and neighbors. The bakers earn money for rent, utilities, food and clothing. Volunteers receive the personal satisfaction of being part of their lives and watching them grow. Those who adopt families learn about each other’s lives by sharing holidays and meals together.

At the event on April 30, the bakers shared their personal stories with concerned guests. Many Syrians lived for years in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon before immigrating to the USA. They experienced the hardships of war before leaving everything behind.

Hanan (who declined to give her last name) is a young mother who fled Aleppo with her family. They scratched out a living in Turkey for four years before receiving approval to come to the USA. “I’m thankful for the chance to be here,” she said, and the income from the bake sales is a blessing.

Barbara Thompson said she came to the sale to support the refugees. A neighbor told her about it and she was pleased to spend money on homemade desserts while helping others.

Pam Paige, a volunteer with the sweets exchange, adopted a Syrian family originally from Daraa. They fled the ravages of war and lived in a Jordanian refugee camp for five years before they were allowed to enter the USA. “It’s a joy they’re in my life,” Paige said. “They appreciate everything the USA has done for them.”

Speidel said the synagogue wants to be more involved with the Syrians by adopting families and hosting future bake sales.

Arizona is home to about 300 Syrian refugee families. The Syrian civil war began in the spring of 2011. At least 500,000 people have died. Around 1 million experienced injuries and 12 million have been displaced internally. Much of the country lays in ruins, with no end in sight.

For more information about the Syrian Sweets Exchange, visit Bake sales have been held at mosques, churches and synagogues. All proceeds benefit the bakers.


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