Sweet Dreams: Woman flees war-torn Syria, starts baked goods company in South Florida

(WSVN) - They were forced to flee fighting and war in Syria. At first, the group of women you’re about to meet struggled as refugees here in South Florida, but now they’re living out their “Sweet Dreams.” 7’s Kevin Ozebek shares their story.

Forget a mixer or any type of machine.

Christa Tawil, founder, Zaytouna Foods: “Sleeves up, hard at work.”

In this South Miami commercial kitchen, the filo dough is laid, the butter is spread, and the almonds are topped — all by hand.

Christa Tawil: “Always made by hand. That’s why Syrian cuisine is so different, because it’s a lot of handmade stuff.”

Christa Tawil is the founder of Zaytouna Foods. Until 2012, she was living in Aleppo, the culinary capital of Syria, famous for its fragrant, spice-filled markets.

But then war broke out.

Christa Tawil: “I would sleep to the sound of gun shooting. I would hear the planes in the background. I would hear bombing.”

As Syria’s civil war raged on, Christa was granted refugee status in the U.S. She moved to Miami, but couldn’t find work.

She filled her time connecting with other Syrian refugee women, teaching them English and helping them meet their new South Florida neighbors by offering them Syrian treats.

Christa Tawil: “These women need jobs, and there are people asking for this food, so why don’t we create something?”

Zaytouna Foods was born.

Christa hired the refugees she was helping. They started off catering events and creating a mail order website.

It didn’t take long for one of the country’s largest grocery chains to hear about the company.

Christa Tawil: “Eight months later, I was able to talk to Whole Foods, and then we got into Whole Foods.”

At first, Whole Foods started selling Zaytouna’s cookies and baklava at three South Florida locations. The sweets quickly became a success and are now sold at 20 Whole Foods stores across the state.

Christa Tawil: “Yes, we make a great product, but it’s more the mission behind it. It’s more what we’ve been able to do, empowering these ladies and to be able to give them this sense of liberty.”

In Syria, these women did not work. For the first time in their lives, they are earning their own money.

Eman Alfayyad, Syrian refugee, translation of: “It allows me to be independent. It gives me a reason to wake up in the morning.”

Monna Aljarra, Syrian refugee, translation of: “Our food is very good. Our flavors are amazing. It is so from the heart.”

And these women are proud to unveil their first Americanized kitchen creation.

Kevin Ozebek: “Is there a proper way to eat this, or do you just go for it?”

Christa Tawil: “You just go for it.”

It’s rose water and orange blossom baklava loaded with chocolate.

Kevin Ozebek: “Look at all the chocolate in the middle of that!”

It’s proof that success truly is sweet.

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