A warm October afternoon glow streamed through the windows and into the commercial kitchen at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. Green cutting boards and knives of various sizes sat neatly on the wooden tables that were arranged in a U-shape around the kitchen.
Shahd Baeij stood in front of the class with a red polka dot apron and a tan hijab neatly framing her face. Her warm brown eyes looked around the room at her students, the corners of her eyes creasing when she smiled in their direction. Her translator, Azhar Jamal, stood attentively at her side, her long black hair pulled into a ponytail.
Baeij is a woman who believes anything is possible. She bridges language barriers through her passion for cooking and sharing recipes with the community.
The theme of the JCC cooking class was Syrian specialties. The recipes on the lesson plan were Syrian salad, yogurt with cucumbers (which is also known as Tzatziki sauce), vegetarian kubeh, and oozy sorar (phyllo) with Syrian rice.
The students introduced themselves before participating in the interactive cooking class. Every student had a different level of cooking skills. Some students were passionate and cultured cooks; others had never eaten Syrian food before.
Baeij, a Syrian refugee, celebrated the first-year anniversary of her move to Tucson in September. Last year, she arrived in Tucson after leaving her war-torn home in Syria with her four children and husband.
When Baeij first arrived in Tucson, she was worried about the cultural differences. “Since she wore the hijab she used to hesitate when she first came here … like how [people] will perceive her and all of that, but now that’s not a point of worry at all,” Jamal said, translating for Baeij.
When she first moved into her apartment complex, her neighbor used to look at her a lot from afar. But, now they drink coffee together in the morning, their children play together, and her daughter even spends the night.
Although a lot is different, some things in Tucson remind her of home. “When she went to Mount Lemmon that’s what reminded her of home because it’s green and that’s how Hama is,” Jamal said.
Baeij loves to teach the cooking classes at the JCC because it gives her an opportunity to learn more English and connect with the community.
“They know even if we’re Muslim and she wears the hijab, that doesn’t mean that there [are] any barriers or any differences,” Jamal translated. “That they know that we’re actually one in the same.”
The students gathered in a circle next to the commercial kitchen as Syrian music blared through speakers. Jamal and Baeij smiled excitedly as the students joined hands. Jamal taught the class several dance moves, counting to the beat of the music as everyone walked in a circle.
As the music progressed and the steps grew harder, Baeij stepped into the middle of the circle, gracefully turning and moving her hands to the beat. Eventually everyone joined in, swaying and dancing in the middle of circle, pulling in someone new each time.
Hedda Levin is a frequent JCC visitor and heard about the Syrian cooking classes through their event catalogue. “It just sounded good, fresh, and vegetarian,” she said.
Levin has eaten Middle Eastern food like tabbouleh before, but some of the dishes made during the class were new to her. She said she’ll definitely use the recipes from the class because she loves rice and potatoes.
One of the things that surprised her were the different uses of pomegranate seeds, juice, and sauce. “I think all cultures have a little bit of a similarity to [them], but certainly the types of spices she uses [are] new to me,” Levin said.
Levin attended the previous Syrian cooking classes with Baeij, where students learned how to cook Syrian salads and appetizers. One of the reasons she keeps coming back is Baeij’s teaching environment. “She engages everybody because usually you don’t know people, and you’re strange, and you don’t want to start talking,” Levin said. “But she gets everybody, you know, talking and comfortable and it’s very nice.”
“I feel good coming here because this is like my second home,” Levin said.
After much laughter, chatter, and chopping, the students gathered around the two circular white tables to enjoy their creations. Baeij brought out the main dishes, which were arranged in intricate, colorful designs and smelled just as good as they looked. The students spent the next 30 minutes learning about each other’s lives and sharing stories. When it was time to go, they thanked Baeij and Jamal with hugs and left with a plateful of leftovers.
Baeij is grateful for the support of the JCC, and wishes the classes were held regularly. “It’s an opportunity for her to stay close to people and get to know them more,” Jamal said.
The cooking classes also help her support her four children. According to Jamal, Baeji’s family has been facing a bit of a rough time because her husband isn’t working as much. Jamal said these classes help pay for her youngest son’s early childhood education.
“There is a saying that she has. It literally translates to a woman who doesn’t know impossible,” Jamal said. “But it is just for me when I say it [translates to] she’s a woman who believes that everything is possible.”
Keep an eye out for future Syrian cooking classes with Baeij and Jamal. The JCC updates their cooking class schedule regularly. The next class is a farm to table cooking class with Tucson Community Supported Agriculture on Sunday, October 29, at 11 a.m. Register on the Tucson JCC website.
If you didn’t make it to one of the Syrian Cuisine Cooking Classes, check out Baeij’s recipe for Oozy Sorar below.