When Mohammed Aref Rawas, Rawaa Kasedah and their four children first arrived in the United States in 2015, they never imagined the family would work in the food business.
In Syria, Kasedah did not work, as her husband made enough to support the family.
“When we were in Syria, we had a great life before the war,” the couple’s daughter Batool Rawoas said (her last name is spelled with an “o,” unlike her father’s because of a mistake on immigration papers). “Dad had two businesses. We were comfortable financially.”
Back in Syria, Rawas ran two successful clothing businesses, but with the upheaval of the Syrian war, the family left their home country in 2012. “We left everything we owned — the factory, our car, our home. We didn’t even say bye to some of the family members,” Rawoas said. After spending three years in Jordan, they got on a plane to Oakland, with only a few suitcases for the entire family.
They were one of the first refugee families to resettle in Oakland from the conflict in Syria. A few months after arriving in Oakland, they made friends within the local Arab American community. Many were curious about Syrian food.
Fattoush, a Middle Eastern salad topped with fried pita; kibbeh, a football-shaped crispy croquette made of bulgur wheat, ground meat and spices, traditionally served with adas, a red lentil soup; and baba ganoush, perhaps the most familiar dish, made of smoked eggplant — these are just some of the traditional Middle Eastern dishes Kasedeh makes.
The family started cooking for relatives and friends by request, and soon, their culinary skills spread through word-of-mouth. “Other Arab people were curious to try our food,” Rawoas said. “Before the war, Syrian food was famous among Arab countries. There were many well-known restaurants.” Some of the dishes are “like art,” she adds.
Soon, they started getting phone calls from people within the local Arab American communities to cater birthday parties and other celebrations. Then, even those beyond the Arab communities were curious.
“At that point, we thought, maybe a catering business would be successful,” Rawoas said. Old Damascus Fare was born.
The company, still in its nascent stages, is named after the capital of Syria, where the family is from. The “old” refers to the traditional recipes that were passed down from Kasedah’s mom and mother-in-law. “We had so many amazing things, the culture, the food, and we would love to keep it alive even though it’s getting destroyed now because of the war,” Rawoas said.
This March will mark the eighth year of the ongoing war in Syria. More than 460,000 Syrians have died in the war, and more than 12 million have been displaced. In recent weeks, more than 500 people died, the majority of them women and children.
Coming to the U.S. has been a struggle. While Kasedah did not work in Syria, she now has to. She is concurrently taking English classes at local community colleges, while Mohammed is an Uber driver, and together, they are launching their food business. Rawoas is currently in college, studying public health and psychology at a community college, and hopes to transfer to UC Berkeley. At the same time, she is also helping her parents run the business side of the company.
“In Syria, we didn’t have to worry about rent,” Rawoas said. “Here, if you don’t work or find a good job, you’ll end up on the street.”
Although the family didn’t anticipate that starting a new life in the United States would involve cooking, they’ve embraced the business. In the upcoming months, Old Damascus Fare will apply to La Cocina’s program, an incubator mostly for women of color from immigrant or refugee communities who hope to be in the food business.
On Friday, March 9, Old Damascus Fare will serve food at a fundraiser for “Stand with Refugees: A Benefit for 1951 Coffee Company” at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. Funds raised will support 1951 Coffee‘s barista training program. In the past two years, the nonprofit organization has trained 100 new refugees on how to make lattes and other espresso drinks through its barista training program. 1951 refers to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a UN treaty that set rules to project refugees around the world.
When 1951 opened its café in Berkeley in January 2017, Rawoas was one of its first baristas. She went through the training program soon after she graduated from high school. The founders, Doug Hewitt and Rachel Taber, say that new refugees often come to the United States with no employment history, no paper trail of work history, thus making it harder for them to find a living wage job.
“We want refugees to feel like they are getting respect and dignity,” Taber said. Hewitt and Taber both previously worked at the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement organization. Refugees from all parts of the world, including Afghanistan, Syria, Bhutan, Eritrea and elsewhere have graduated from the barista program at 1951 and have gone on to work at local cafes and coffee businesses.
For the March 9 fundraiser, Old Damascus Fare will serve kibbeh, yalanji (grape leaves or zucchini stuffed with rice, parsley, tomato, onion, pomegranate molasses and mint), hora’ osba’o (lentils and noodles topped with fried pita and onions, garlic and cilantro), hummus and fattoush.
“The food is amazingly fresh,” Taber said about Old Damascus Fare’s food. “It’s made with such quality and care. And the colors are vibrant. You feel like you’re getting a great meal from this loving family from Syria.”
As the family gets ready to launch their business, locking down final permits and such, they are hopeful. “So many people are liking our food,” Rawoas said. “I think that’s a positive sign for our future.”
Food by Old Damascus Fare will be featured at “Stand with Refugees: A Benefit for 1951 Coffee Company.” The event takes place from 6:30-9 p.m., March 9, at the David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley. For catering requests, email Batool@olddamascusfare.com, or call (415) 702-0177.