Baked With Love: The Syrian Refugee Crisis Hits Home

Maamoul+halfThese days, I’ve taken to listening to NPR in place of music when I run. Unlike traditional news, NPR generally provides some compelling insight and human interest angle on otherwise ubiquitous news stories that usually end in me changing the channel or shutting the newspaper with a jaded sigh.

These days, many of the stories focus on the Syrian Refugee Crisis, as hundreds of thousands of Syrian (and Iraqi and African) refugees flee war-torn countries for the safety of the EU and abroad. Even the popular social media handle “Humans of New York” has devoted the past two weeks to chronicling the often tragic and sometimes triumphant stories of these migrants making their way to a new life.

While some of these stories, with their images both horrific and hopeful, have literally halted me in my tracks during my runs, the one that hits me most frequently is the one I stare at all day: A clear cellophane package of Ma’Moul, a Syrian shortbread cookie, sits quietly on the counter at my shop, tied with a white silk ribbon, its simple label featuring what appears to be a cherry blossom sprig above the ingredient list and a tagline that reads, “Baked with Love.”

These cookies come from the hands of a Syrian couple currently residing in Santa Barbara, having fled their homeland in late 2014. Their daughter-in-law, Hala, also a Syrian refugee, approached me back in June to let me know that she had recently obtained a Cottage Food Permit to allow her in-laws to bake Ma’Moul for sale at local shops so that they might send the profits back to their children in Syrian for their impending migration.

Hala herself has worked for the the Four Seasons Hotel chain for years and was fortunate enough to be transferred to the The Biltmore in Montecito, along with her husband Maurice, and away from the chaos in Syria. When we meet, she speaks with warmth, and yet there is a glimmer of anxiety behind her eyes and I try to imagine what she has seen, what she can’t forget, and how the news coming out of Syria daily affects her. To me, it sounds like living the horror of 9/11 over and over again, a sort of ongoing proximate trauma.

But then I glance at the Ma’Moul on my counter and I see the cherry blossom and the bow and the tagline, and I marvel at how love still manages to wriggle through in the midst of chaos and unspeakable horror, how, while the nightmares of Hala and her family are far from over, they choose to shine their hope through a little cookie sitting quietly on a shelf.

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