12 Junio 2017 17:22
The story of Radwan and his baklavas
If you ask Radwan Kalaaji how his day’s been, he’ll stare into the distance with a look of concern. Then he’ll reply with something about nuts and honey, about baklavas, the sweet Middle Eastern desserts which he bakes compulsively on an almost daily basis. It’s as if the 62-year-old Radwan possessed an inner compass that is permanently pointing towards his kitchen and his hot oven. That same compass points to his birthplace, which today lies in ruins.
Radwan is originally from East Aleppo, one of the cities that has been most devastated by the war in Syria, but, for the last 33 years, has lived in Colorado, in the US, 10,000 kilometres from the street he was brought up in. His home, he says, ‘no longer exists’.
Radwan has decided to embark on what might well be an mission with no end.
As a sad and inconsolable pastry chef, he does the rounds of Fort Collins, his adopted city, with boxes brimming with baklavas. He offers the pastries in exchange for donations, which he then sends to Syria: ‘Last week I cooked for 15 hours straight, or maybe more, for five consecutive days. It’s hard because I have a bad back, but I have to do it. I have to send money to Syria”.
Gastronomy and survival
It’s not the first time that Radwan has used traditional Syrian cuisine to solve his problems.
When he arrived in the US at the age of 29, recently graduated as a civil engineer, he couldn't find work, and, as it transpired, would never work as an engineer in America. At that time he didn’t even have enough to feed himself. Some friends, other Muslim students based in Colorado, recommended that he put his culinary skills to good use:
‘We felt like a family. We had meals together. That was when I realised how much they liked my cooking. My friends encouraged me to sell what I made,’ he explains. ‘I began making falafels and selling them as people left the mosque after Friday prayers. That’s how I survived. I don’t do it for my survival any more, but for that of my people in Aleppo.’
‘My income is very low but I can’t just sit there on the sidelines. What’s happening in Syria is real, it’s not a film’
In reality, Radwan needs the money he raises with his baklavas. He suffers from asthma and has a congenital bone disease that stops him from working. He lives on a small pension and the help of his seven children: ‘My income is very low but I can’t just sit there on the sidelines. What’s happening in Syria is real, it’s not a film.’
Some of his friends and neighbours are concerned for his health. They don't think its good for him to be waiting on the bad news that arrives from Syria every day, or, failing that, cooking. Some would say that Radwan is a man obsessed: ‘I’m always on my phone. I live through the tragedy day and night, while I’m awake and while I’m sleeping. Sometimes, I’m on the brink of collapse, but actually, I’m happy.’
To send the money to Syria, Radwan has come up with a system that, for all intents and purposes, makes him a kind of one-man NGO.
First he bakes the baklavas - ‘the best in the world’ -, then he collects donations visiting community centres, schools, libraries, universities, participating in all kinds of events that take place in Fort Collins, while telling ‘Americans about what is happening in Syria’. He also sends batches to local media and anywhere else that puts in a request. ‘My baklavas are my trademark. I take them everywhere, when I go to pick my grandchildren up from school, when I go to the doctors, everywhere.’
‘My baklavas are my trademark. I take them everywhere’
The last stage of the process consists in sending the amount raised to his niece Ayah, who is a doctor at the Al-Taaluf Hospital in Aleppo. 'Ayah tells me about the most urgent cases and families most in need. I assess the situation and decide how to share out the money.’
That is how Radwan manages to use his baklavas to help the people of Aleppo.
A recent example was that of an elderly woman suffering from severe pneumonia whose medical treatment he is funding. ‘My niece told me that she was in a bad way and needed 37,000 Syrian pounds because the hospital’s international aid had been cut. She told me: “You cannot imagine how this lady felt after you paid for her treatment.” The lady rang..’ Radwan cannot hold back the tears. ‘I have a talent and must use it. I know I can’t help everyone, but at least I do what I can, which is better than not doing anything.’
Last year the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) confirmed that connectivity is vital for these people, after a report was published by Accenture, which concluded that access to the Internet was as critical to refugees’ safety and security as food, shelter and water.
Radwan shares this idea: ‘My relatives in Aleppo can live for a time without water and food, but not without the Internet.’
Consider the agony people are put through when they lose their homes or part or all of their family, and then have to survive in a city in ruins under the constant threat of bombings or chemical attacks. Whether or not they have a mobile phone may seem a little frivolous or petty, particularly in comparison with what millions of Syrian refugees are having to deal with. However, this tool has become a basic necessity.
‘Do you remember Aladdin? The magic lamp? Do you know what a crystal ball is? These are magical objects that allow you to see people who are far away. This is now a reality thanks to mobile phones’
‘Even when I hear that my family are being attacked with barrel bombs I can speak to them directly. My nephews hid in their bedroom and I could hear the sounds of war, from the big bombs to the bullets. They were less afraid if I was with them.’
Radwan asserts that the Internet is a great psychological help ‘inside and outside’ of Syria. He himself represents that duality, between the distress caused by the distance and the solace that the mobile phone allows him: he sleeps every night phone in hand, in case the device vibrates with a news alert, but also because the screen has become the face of his whole family: ‘We’re all connected, we share the new births in the family, illnesses, the good times and the bad. Tragically, it will never be the same again, we’re all spread around the world and the city has been destroyed. I don’t think we’ll see each other again in this life.’
In 33 years, Radwan has only returned to Syria twice. Once in 1988 and seven years ago, a few months before the Arab Spring erupted. ‘I had no idea when I left that I had to say goodbye to my family, to that beautiful city and ancient ruins, to all the things I had there. I had no idea.’
For this civil engineer, Aleppo was much more than an ancient city. The old part was an irreplaceable ‘treasure’, and the market, where he used to go to buy baklavas when he was a kid, now seems like something he might have dreamt.
‘When I arrived at the airport in Aleppo in 2010 and saw all those people, I thought it was a demonstration. But it was my family. Nephews who I had never met were saying halo, halo ('uncle'). They came to welcome me, they embraced me and I hardly knew any of them. We then visited the citadel and they sat on the stairs, and I talked to them as if I were a wiseman. What’s so sad is that that was going to be the last time.’
Radwan says that he will carry on baking baklavas until Syria no longer needs them, and when anyone asks him how he makes them so tasty, he just offers a smile. Faced with the bitter hardship of living more than 10,000 kilometres away, this Syrian has set himself to relentlessly cooking pastries, and is convinced that the Internet is a basic ingredient for the link he maintains with his land and his past.
‘Do you remember Aladdin? The magic lamp? Do you know what a crystal ball is? These are magical objects that allow you to see people who are far away. This is now a reality thanks to mobile telephones. It’s like the air we breathe.’