On a shelf in the bakery section of Whole Foods, there’s a package of baklava with a label that reads “Prepared with Love by Syrian Refugee Women in Miami.” The journey of getting that baklava on that shelf was a long one led by Christa Tawil, a Syrian refugee who started Zaytouna Foods in 2017.
The woman-owned social enterprise employs female Syrian refugees in Miami to handcraft Middle Eastern cuisine and desserts. Alongside its growing catering business, Zaytouna currently sells baklava and Syrian butter cookies in three Miami Whole Foods locations – downtown, North Miami and Aventura. They are launching in 9 additional stores throughout Florida next week.
Tawil came to the United States in 2012 a year after the civil war broke out in in Syria. Three years later, she landed in Miami and started helping other Syrian refugees by providing pro bono translating services. She soon realized that they needed jobs more than anything. Given their skill sets, the women soon began cooking and hosting dinners called the Syrian Supper Club. As more people started asking where they could order homemade baba ghanouj, zaatar spice, hummus, and knafe, she realized the opportunity.
“I thought that it would be a great mission for us to help these women.”
Tawil received her bachelor’s degree in banking and finance from the American University of Beirut. While in Syria, her focus wasn’t on cooking. So when it came time for the Zaytouna team to start cooking, everybody brought their family’s recipes and together they created a menu representing their hometowns. “They complete what I lack. It’s a perfect balance,” she said.
Zaytouna currently employees a small team women and Tawil also tries to help them adjust to their new lives in the United States.
For Tawil, the ability to help the Syrian refugee community doesn’t stop with employment opportunities. She often finds herself assisting her employees with guidance on Medicare or attending meetings with their lawyers and serving as a translator. When Zaytouna was just starting out, she would pick them up since they didn’t drive themselves. But now, “they’re getting to where they’re standing on their feet, which is exactly what we want them to do,” she said.
While most people are familiar with baklava, the Syrian butter cookies (known as Ghraybeh), are a little more foreign to Miamians. The dessert looks like a plain cookie with a pistachio on top. “You look at them and you’re like, ‘What is this? Why would I buy this?,’” she said about a recent in-store taste testing. “And then the minute people try them, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is so good.’”
The importance of having their baked goods in a major retailer like Whole Foods did not go without celebration for Tawil and the Zaytouna team: “I did all of the victory dances,” she said. “And they excitedly asked, ‘Oh yeah, more work? Is that what that means? Oh great, then definitely yes!’”
She added, “For us, it’s like a dream come true. We’ve worked so hard for all of this to make it happen.”