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The smells of fresh baked bread rise over South Lansing as a new halal bakery run by Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees brings authentic Middle Eastern baked goods to the culinary scene.
Opened in late October, Siraj Bakery and Grill specializes in a variety of traditional Middle Eastern pies, including meat, spinach, potato and “zaatar” — an earthy blend of sesame, thyme, marjoram and oregano spices.
They will also serve Middle Eastern favorites such as falafel, hummus, tabbouli, baba ghannouj, grape leaves and moussaka.
“When I was young, I started working in bakeries in Jordan and always dreamed of opening up my own business,” owner and baker Khaled Eshkuntana said.
As a Palestinian, Eshkuntana sought refugee status in 2008, but was denied until he married his Iraqi wife, Insaf Alrubaiey.
“Back home, we didn’t have any rights to a house, business or a life,” Eshkuntana said.
Searching for acceptance in the United States or Europe, the couple landed in Lansing in 2012 after four years of waiting.
“We were able to adjust quickly to life in Lansing,” Eshkuntana said. “There is no comparison between the life I lived in Jordan and Palestine and the life I live here. The simplest rights we didn’t have back home we found here, like the right for our children to go to school.”
Haimen Al-Sumaidaee, a job developer with St. Vincent Catholic Charities, helps refugees get the necessary job training and logistical support to find work in the United States. He works with the Eshkuntana family closely.
“Some refugees have skills and degrees. We help them here to translate and evaluate these to be more useful and have a job,” Al-Sumaidaee said.
According to St. Vincent Catholic Charities’ website, the organization resettles 600 refugees per year.
What Siraj Bakery is doing is special, Al-Sumaidaee added.
“They made a big move and were really courageous with their passion to have their own business and do what they like, which was cooking, baking and serving the community.”
The name Siraj is symbolic to their journey, he said. Siraj is the arabic word for lamp.
“From their own life story, they came from their countries and faced all this trouble and sadness and living in darkness,” Al-Sumaidaee said. “Once they got out, they got out to live a free life in the U.S. and start over. They found the light here and this is a symbol of their life experience.”
I’ve never had this opportunity and want to give this bakery to my family in the future, Eshkuntana added.
“Everyone should try us one time and I promise they will never regret it. My food is fresh, clean and authentic, coming from the heart.”
Customers can pick up single small pies under $2 each and $10 a dozen.
All Eshkuntana quotes translated by Al-Sumaidee from Arabic to English.