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Sky and Wheat

Photo by Jama Abdirahman

Photo by Jama Abdirahman

The most popular theory of the Ukrainian flag design, a banner of a vibrant yellow band under a bright blue band, is that it represents the typical sight of endless fields of wheat under a blue sky. The following is not a story of blue skies over fields of wheat. This is a story of a slight but powerful woman, energized, resilient, a world traveler, a baker, a businesswoman, an asylee from an industrialized city, and above all, a mother who would do anything to provide freedom and safety for her children.

With a stack of photos in one hand and a gorgeous vanilla frosted fruit- cake in the other Inna Stetsenko greeted me with a large smile. “Sorry I could not have you come to my home, my children are having a sleepover!” The photos are the only physical remnants left of a flourishing restaurant that Inna and her husband owned in Donetsk, an industrial city of almost a million people in Eastern Ukraine. Their successful restaurant was named Sky, where Inna baked all desserts fresh daily.

Her mother a professional chef, Inna learned of her own aptitude and passion for making sweet pastry at a young age. “I tried to bake something at ten and I thought to myself, I like to do this. I read all the books and magazines and anything I could find. You know we didn’t have access to Internet because of communism, so I couldn’t look up recipes this way. But then when we finally could use Internet, it was too expensive in my country.” Inna is referring to December 1, 1991, the day when Ukraine voted for independence, after the fall of the USSR. That day, her home country became recognized globally as an independent state, and free information exchange, including the Internet, became available.

Photo by Jama Adbdirahman

Photo by Jama Abdirahman

Photos by Jama Abdirahman

While Inna is rightfully skilled at baking more traditional Russian -Ukrainian pastry spreads;  -including sweet fruit piroshky (baked or fried stuffed buns) and Napoleon torte (layer cake with puff pastry dough), she prefers to bake a variety of international inspired treats tweaked and perfected with her own personal twist. Today Inna’s éclairs, coconut macaroons, stollen, peach strudel, and pastry puffs are confectionary proof of her creativity, and globe-trotting culinary investigations, including European vacations with her husband.

Fresh, high quality and real ingredients, baked all from scratch, another trademark of Inna’s baking, is what made Sky restaurant a success. This trademark is also, unfortunately, what made their family business a target for corrupt persecution several years ago.

Inna describes the circumstance that led her family to flee Donetsk in 2012, just six months before civil war broke out in the region:  “When you start a business and you are successful and other people see it, they want it for themselves. We were doing so well. We wanted to open other locations in the city. There was so much corruption. We can’t solve these problems, and they started to entreat our family. But these people wanted to be owners. But our names were on the papers of the restaurant. Because we lived in post-communist country, people and the government don’t like personal businesses so much. “

Photo by Jama Abdirahman

Photo by Jama Abdirahman

In Eastern Ukraine, growing corruption began to pervade both religious and political sectors. The negative influence of this invasive extortion on such varied levels within society became impossible to confront or challenge.

“Every day these people were coming to our house, knocking on our door telling us we have to sign papers off to someone else. It was so scary.”

Donetsk is the unofficial capital of the region closest to Russia, now known as the “lawless city”, where Inna’s parents and older sister still live. The Donetsk People’s Republic, the Russian separatist organization in Ukraine, controls this now half empty city.  -Bombs and executions are common occurrences. “Every time I call my family, they say there is more attacks. Nothing good is going on in this place,” she tells me in a whispered tone.

The couple chose to come to the US with what savings they had, and their then three children to seek asylum status, in hopes that their family would one day belong in their new country. “Everyone in the US is an immigrant. Many people will understand how we started. Everyone is from somewhere else. Anyone can come to the US and can become an American. But in other countries, you will never be equal.”

Seeking asylum is both complex and stressful. Without authorization to work, to take English classes or apply for any sort of assistance, the process is neither short nor guaranteed. Applications can take a year or longer. Inna’s story proved to be more complicated than she expected, as she found out immediately after coming to the US that she was pregnant with her fourth child. “ It was so crazy, I didn’t think it was really happening, and we had such big stress. We didn’t have insurance or ever understand what people were saying and I knew it cost so much to go to the hospital to have a baby.”

Photo by Jama Abdirahman

Photo by Jama Abdirahman

Her husband now works day and overtime for Uber, so Inna can stay at home with their four children, the youngest being only two and a half years old. ” I want to make sure they have enough love,” she genuinely stated.  She bakes when commissioned to by a Greek restaurant in Renton, a connection she made after her 6 week training and apprenticeship experience with Project Feast.   And when not at home, she has been busy attending Ventures’ Business Development Training. This Seattle based organization holds the mission to empower future aspiring entrepreneurs with limited financial resources, like Inna, through micro-enterprise training and access to capital. Both she and her husband have high hopes of opening another bakery café, this time in Seattle.

Before we part ways, I thank her for sharing her story and ask how her children feel about their very changed lives. After assuring me that they are each adjusting in their own way, she adds, “There’s something our children just don’t understand. We have done this all for them.”

To commission Inna for pastries please contact her by email at ole3014@gmail.com.

 

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Promise of Love

Photo by Logan Sayles

Photo by Logan Sayles

“Hot tea?” a lovely professional woman in modern American dress with long dark hair and blonde highlights immediately offers as we enter the cozy apartment on a rainy Seattle day. Not far behind, another smiling beautiful woman, Sheelan, donned in more traditional Islamic abaya (long sleeved dress) and hijab (head scarf),  joins us. Jinan, their spunky niece, who lives with the women, a third sister and their mother in their humble three bedroom space completes our hostess crew. I note one absolute among the three: warmth.

The sisters Zozan and Sheelan have been in their Des Moines, WA apartment for almost 20 years, since the first night they arrived on November 19, 1996, during the snowstorm that left them without power for days. With some potatoes, logs and a pot their apartment manager brought over, they prepared food over an open fire in their fireplace. Surprised at their resourcefulness the manager asked “how’d you learn that?” “We are from Iraq,” Sheelan reminisced playfully.  Her truthful response amused her this many years later.

Dried herbs, photo by Logan Sayles

Dried herbs, Photo by Logan Sayles

Cooking and baking is a gift and an exquisitely honed skill the sisters share. Food is a thread that weaves its way through their lives – from family traditions to wartime food preservation, and now to neighborly encounters in King County. Yet Sheelan and Zozan Shamdeen know so much more than how to cook over a fire. It is their genuine kindness and humanity, their ability to see the beauty in others, regardless of homeland or religion, that sets them so distinctly apart.

Perhaps the sisters’ humanist traditions began with their upbringing, as their family, the Shamdeens, is a giving one. The girls grew up amongst a total of 8 siblings and their 8 cousins and aunt who came to live with them when their uncle passed away. Two orphan children, who their parents fostered, completed the clan of 18 children in the home. “To my mother, whoever comes in has to eat a lot. Imagine some people came to our home and hadn’t eaten for days. It is our culture, the hospitality, and to be sharing and generous.” Zozan explains.

Vegetable Lahmacun and Kahdeh

Photo by Logan Sayles

The tradition lives on. Our tea is refilled and she offers another delicious savory pastry, one that resembles a small palm sized pizza, topped with eggplant, vegetable lahmacun.

The sisters self identify as Kurdish people from Northern Iraq, a cultural and ethnic group, historically and presently persecuted, and the largest nation in the world without a state. Currently this region is being fought for and protected by the Peshmerga, the anti-terrorist military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan. The women grew up during Saddam Hussein’s regime, an especially dangerous time for Kurds.

Sheelan with homemade cookbook

Sheelan with homemade cookbook, Photo by Logan Sayles

Over beautiful savory pastry, they speak lovingly and honestly about growing up with a large family, in a fertile region of Kurdistan. As I bite into a chewy moon shaped cheese filled pastry, called kahdeh, Zozan shares equally vivid memories of picnicking and picking pomegranates and figs in their yard, juxtaposed with air raids on the way to elementary school.

During the Gulf War, the Shamdeen family, like most Kurds were forced out of their homes, from Mosul, a city in northeastern Iraq to Zakho, after Hussein threatened the lives of all Kurds. When the trade embargo was imposed on Iraq by the UN, they had to make everything from scratch, from drying fruits on the ceiling, to grinding their own cous cous. Zozan and Sheelan were in their teens. Zozan tells the story of her family and over two thousand other Kurdish who fled for their lives that night, September 15, 1996 to Silopi Turkey, as millions of refugees around the world have done so, suddenly, and yet so many years in the making.

Despite the incredibly dangerous and harrowing experience of fleeing for safety and the ugliness of discrimination and persecution of years preceding, the sisters choose to remember positively the sunny weather of Guam, where they awaited refugee status, the kindness of the military base families, and the opportunity at a new life in King County Washington.

While admittedly “Life is not easy here,” [in the US], according to Sheelan, both give back to their community, our community, in a big way. After arriving to the US with the basics of English, Zozan is now a Kurdish and Arabic language interpreter, and an ESL teacher’s assistant at Highline College.   While Sheelan is also as a teacher’s assistant at Highline College in the Adult Education Program, she developed a program called Highline Cares in which people at the college donate household items for families in need. The sisters break down barriers and provide supports to other newly arrived immigrants and refugees like they once were. Even their mother, who still hopes to one day learn English, gives back by knitting hundreds of blankets and warm items for children at Seattle Children’s hospital every winter.

Photo by Logan Sayles

Photo by Logan Sayles

We are offered an unequivocal masterpiece of rich filo pastry topped with honey, custard, apricot jam and pistachio, aptly named bird’s nest kunafa.

Kunafa and baklava, another traditional Middle Eastern baked good, is what Zozan bakes tirelessly for weddings, funerals, family gatherings, and any neighborhood gift. “When someone dies you give food to your neighbors on all sides [North, South, East, and West] 7 houses down in each direction,” explains Sheelan.

As the pastry is layered, community begins to form, and as the honey hardens, connections too are solidified. The sisters share homemade food with neighbors, co-workers and the homeless. “We have shared [cooking] with our Vietnamese, Somali, Mexican, and Chinese neighbors, and they now share with us too.” Zozan says.

Zozan with traditional Kurdish dresses

Zozan with traditional Kurdish dresses,  Photo by Logan Sayles

Graduates of the Project Feast program, – the sisters dream to one day open their own bakery in King County.

What brings such positivity and resilience about in human beings? Is it the kindness of one’s family, the cultural traditions of a homeland, the hardships and oppression of one’s people? Or is it an innate ability to look beyond the overwhelming personal and worldly challenges one has faced?

Whatever it may be, the graciousness of these sisters pervades, brings joy to all they encounter, and adds an undeniable sweetness to their baked goods.

The sisters currently run a small catering business through word of mouth, called Soozveen which translates to “promise of love.”

Erika Deianni

 

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Looking Back and Looking Forward

In a few months, Project Feast will be three years old. As we get close to this milestone, we’ve taken time over the last couple of months to assess what we have accomplished and where we want to take our programs next year. We’ve had a two part mission from the very beginning: empowering refugee and immigrant cooks by providing pathways to employment in the food industry and to be a platform for intercultural exchange thus enriching the entire community.

iraqi pop up dinner at project feast

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