Bakery helps young Syrian refugee chase his American Dream
Savory Syrian pastries of thyme, mint, sesame and olive oil aren't easy to find in Kalamazoo. But every Saturday morning since November they've been a draw at Victorian Bakery, where a refugee student sells the treats to help support his parents and four brothers.
Molhem Tayara, 21, nimbly crimps the crusts of the round Zatars. Spinach Fataye are a traditional triangle-shaped puff, brushed with egg to brown nicely.
His mini pizzas, though, look just as American customers would expect. Those were practically a staple at the refugee camp in Jordan where Taya spent three years. It was in Jordan that he learned to bake the traditional pastries, and worked at perfecting his skills as he was vetted for entry into this country, he said.
He will only be allowed to continue high school this year, Tayara said, before he becomes too old, but during any spare time he must work to provide money for the $1,000 rent his family pays on their house in Kalamazoo.
"I want to go to college. I want to own a restaurant. I want to start a bakery. I want to do a lot of things," Tayara said.
Toward that end, he is working with Maria Brennan, owner of Victorian Bakery.
At noon his shift ends. He will be paid for his work, and will collect his tips -- which often include the generous donations from people who want to help the family, Brennan said.
Brennan met Tayara through one of his neighbors, a customer of the bakery, who brought Brennan a sample of the young man's baked goods last fall. She found them delicious, and unique.
"I got in touch with him, invited him down, and posted about it on Facebook," she said. "The whole election atmosphere at the time was so negative, I wanted to do something positive."
She said that first Saturday, a fundraiser to support the family of refugees was a huge success. People swarmed to thank Tayara for his work, exclaiming that it's unlike anything available in Kalamazoo. Seeing the market for his pastries, and the family's need, Brennan thought she should try to make the Syrian baked goods a regular offering.
It wasn't easy to arrange. Tayara, who spoke no English when he arrived in this country, is now a full time student at Kalamazoo Central High School, hoping to earn a GED. After school, he works at Shawarma King restaurant on South Westnedge Avenue.
Saturday morning was the only time that worked. Tayara doesn't own a car, so Brennan's husband picks him up every Saturday at 6:45 to get him to the bakery on Crosstown Parkway at 7 a.m.
At the bakery the other regularly scheduled employees clear out a spot for him and they all work around each other in the kitchen's sometimes tight quarters.
"I have to give kudos to my employees," Brennan said. "They are so gracious."
The welcome Tayara has found in his employers, his coworkers and his customers should offset what he hears and does not understand on national news, Brennan said.
"It's sort of sad when he comes to me and says: 'Why do people hate me?'" Brennan said.
"It's heartbreaking. These are people who are running from atrocities," she said, "who are still thinking ... this is greatest country in the world, it will always open its arms to refugees. And now we have refugees asking why do people hate us?"
Brennan said her customers have been as supportive as her employees to show a different face of America. The Saturday after the travel ban on Syrian refugees was announced, Tayara's pastries sold out in an hour.
Brennan herself is an immigrant.
Born in Ireland, she moved to Kuwait and worked there for many years before moving to the U.S. with her husband, a U.S. citizen and military veteran.
"I came from the Middle East, and I was vetted, I went and did the whole fingerprint thing," she said.
"If that's necessary then so be it," Brennan said. "But I think we have to remember that America is built because of immigrants."
Brennan is also an entrepreneur, who who launched her bakery out of a the basement of her home before moving to its current location in December, 2010.
She said she hopes Tayara's customer base will continue to grow, and that he will be someday be able to make a viable business out of his work.
Although Tayara's father was able to find part-time work sorting vegetables, at 21, Molhem Tayara's income is vital to the support of his family, Brennan said.
"The U.S. is probably the only place a person can start as an entrepreneur and succeed as well as we do," Brennan said.
"It is the American Dream. You work so hard but people appreciate it," she said.
"America is safe," Tayara said.