Sweet Relief

Tucsonans demonstrate appetite for assistance at bake sale benefiting Syrian refugees

The line for Syrian Sweets Exchange, 2.0 was wrapped around the block by 9:45 a.m., 15 minutes after it opened. The band Kyklo played melodic world music while people waited anxiously, empty boxes in hand, ready to fill with homemade goodies.

The tents set up outside Grace St. Paul's Episcopal Church were full of Syrian-refugee families who'd spent days baking their traditional sweet and savory treats. Jody Holmes, a member of Arizona Welcomes Refugees, stands at the entrance, holding a donation jar, telling people what they can expect inside.

Members of Arizona Welcomes Refugees, a grassroots group started by state Sen. Steve Farley, helped organize the two-hour event on Dec. 17, the second such event in less than a week.

A school bus borrowed from the Islamic Center of Tucson's Al-Huda Islamic School made rounds earlier that morning, picking up the Syrian bakers, many of whom arrived in Tucson in the last six months after fleeing civil war at home.

Nada Alkhiat came to Tucson two-and-a-half years ago, when she was four months pregnant with her son Jad. After fleeing Syria to Egypt with her husband, she was only able to get a U.S. visa for herself. She's still trying to get permission for her husband to join her, but meanwhile, she looks after little Jad and works at a school cafeteria.

Alkhiat prepared food for three nights for the Sweets Exchange, including Ma'amoul, a small shortbread pasty with a filling, traditionally made during holidays. She said it's hard being here without her husband but so many churches in Tucson have offered her assistance.

"I'm Muslim," she said. "I go to mosque, but all the churches here are helping me."

Everyone involved in the Sweets Exchange is grateful to Grace St. Paul's for donating the space for the event, said Holmes, who also volunteered at the first Exchange on Dec. 11. An estimated 200 to 300 people attended the first one, and Holmes said the Syrian families felt overjoyed by the turnout.

"It obviously wasn't just about baked goods," Holmes said. "They were overwhelmed by the generosity of Tucson."

Members of Arizona Welcomes refugees estimated about 500 people attended the second event.

It's great to see so many locals taking an interest in the Syrian culture, said Rania Kanawati, one of the organizers who's originally from Syria and has lived in the U.S. for 24 years.

"Being here shows people are accepting—willing to help anyway they can," she said.

Refugees usually arrive in Tucson with what little they can carry and a small stipend to cover their first month's expenses. And once they get settled, many of the families are supporting multiple children on one minimum-wage income.

Melanie Cooley, one of the event's organizers, sees what is happening in Syria and feels helpless. But being a friend and support to the refugees who've made it here is something tangible she can do to help.

"What I can do is love the heck out of everyone here, which they're pretty easy to love," she said.

Syrians love to feed people, Cooley said. They're happy for the opportunity to share their food with the community.

"It's a way to tell them we love them, and they're welcome, and they're not isolated," she said.

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