Taking Refuge

Kindly reprinted with the permission of Dimah, Orange Blossom Water

A Place to Call Home

The interview for this story was conducted in Arabic and kindly translated by Marina Shalabi, research associate at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

February 1, 2016

Before the rise of Assad and, subsequently ISIS, Maryam's life was good. She lived a comfortable life in the western Syrian city of Homs with her husband. Her marriage was strong and she and her husband were financially secure. Maryam had no complaints.

Her first son was born one month before the war broke out. As we know, Homs quickly emerged as a center of opposition to the Assad regime. Government crackdown was brutal, killing at least 587 civilians between April and August in 2011 alone. Security forces used machine guns as they fired indiscriminately into neighborhoods, annihilating both people and infrastructure.

Within this first year, Maryam's home was searched and destroyed. Left with neither shelter nor food for her baby, she and her husband knew they had to leave.

In 2012 - one year after the start of the war - they traveled to Jordan, where they lived in an apartment in Amman. They stayed for three years - three excruciatingly long years during which her husband was unable to find work. During this time, Maryam gave birth to twins, another boy and girl to love, but also to feed.

Maryam doesn't know why her family was chosen to resettle in the United States, when she could have instead been one of the 300,000 making the lethal journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. Worse, it could have been her toddler washed up on the Turkish shore in a red shirt, lying face down and lifeless last summer - about the same time Maryam stepped off the plane into sunny Texas.

I could hear Maryam's children intermittently crying and playing in the background during our phone conversation. They sounded full of life, as young children should, painting a diametrically opposed image to those we see in the news on a near daily basis now.

Maryam thanks God everyday for her new life. She and her husband have yet to find jobs, but she is hopeful. Maryam would love to work with children, "but any job will do," she says. She is just relieved for her own children, and optimistic that they will be privy to a worthy education and successful, peaceful lives in their adopted country, which has become a place to call home.

Kindly reprinted with the permission of Dimah, Orange Blossom Water

Kindly reprinted with the permission of Dimah, Orange Blossom Water

Kindly reprinted with the permission of Dimah, Orange Blossom Water

Kindly reprinted with the permission of Dimah, Orange Blossom Water

Nammourah Esfanjiyeh

After our interview, I was unable to get back in touch with Maryam (largely due to the language barrier) to receive her recipe. I've decided to share a popular Syrian dessert, nammourah esfanjiyeh, in an effort to bring a little sweetness into all our lives. This recipe was reprinted with the permission of Dimah at Orange Blossom Water.

For the Sugar Syrup:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • Zest of 1 orange
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

For the Cake:

  • Ghee (similar to butter), for greasing the pan
  • 1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup semolina flour
  • 1 1/2 cup desiccated coconut, plus more for garnish
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup full fat milk
  • 2 tablespoons ghee (similar to butter)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Zest of 1 orange
  • Zest of 1 lemon

  1. To make the sugar syrup: Put the sugar and water in a pot on the stove. Turn on the heat and stir to dissolve. Keep stirring every once in a while. Add the cinnamon stick and orange zest to the syrup. Once the mixture boils, add the lemon juice. Let the mixture boil for 5-7 minutes, then turn off the heat and set aside.
  2. To make the cake: Grease a round aluminum baking pan (12 inches diameter; 2 inches tall). Combine the all purpose flour, semolina flour, desiccated coconut, and baking powder. Set the dry ingredients aside.
  3. In a large bowl, put the eggs, sugar, milk, ghee, vanilla, orange zest, and lemon zest. Use an electric mixer to beat the wet ingredients together until pale in color.
  4. Gradually, add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, beating between each addition until well combined.
  5. Transfer the batter to the baking pan. Bake at 355 °F for 20-22 minutes, or until golden brown in color.
  6. Once you take the baking pan out of the oven, immediately use a sieve and pour the sugar syrup through the sieve over the cake. Then garnish with the desiccated coconut.
  7. Allow to cool completely and then cut into squares. Serve and enjoy.