From war in Syria to pastries in Tallinn

After cooking from home for two years, three refugees from Syria and Palestine now offer popular Middle Eastern pastries at their own restaurant in Estonia.

Amer, Mohamad and Nermiin. ©UNHCR/Max-Michel Kolijn

Brazak, qurabiya, khafeh, baklava – these are only some of the treats on the menu at Ali Baba, a restaurant specializing in Syrian and Mediterranean food and pastries that recently opened in Tallinn, Estonia.

The woman behind the operation, Nermiin from Syria, is thrilled. In fact, her love for cooking goes back to her youth. “I’ve liked cooking since I was a little girl; I always used to help my mother in the kitchen,” she says. “I’m so glad that we did this, we’re all happy about it,” she adds, referring to her husband, Mohamand, and their friend and business partner Amer, who is also from Syria.

Nermiin joined Mohamad in Estonia three years ago. Not long after they arrived, they started to look for a place to start a café. It wasn’t easy: nobody wanted to rent to them. “Maybe it’s because I’m not Estonian – I’m a refugee here – or maybe because of the language barrier. I’m different color too,” Mohamad says.

Nermiin adds that it was also difficult getting used to living in one of the most secular countries in the world: “It was hard in the beginning, people would look at me and just see the hijab – that I’m a muslim. But at some point you just have to get used to it.”

“I’ve liked cooking since I was a little girl; I always used to help my mother in the kitchen,” Nermiin says. ©UNHCR/Max-Michel Kolijn

As Palestinians, Mohamad and Nermiin saw no life for them in war-torn Syria: “There’s no work or future for my children there. My son Ahmad wants to become a doctor, but he wouldn’t be able to open his own medical cabinet there – he’d only be allowed to work in a hospital. But here, it’s okay for him. He can study. I didn’t come here for me, I came for my children.”

Mohamad came to Estonia through Russia, by swimming across the bordering river. “I followed the GPS with my friends,“ he recounts. “When I arrived in Estonia, I was moved to Harku detention centre for two months and then to Vao refugee centre for a year, before Nermiin arrived with the children. Then we found an apartment in Tallinn.”

For more than two years, Nermiin was taking catering orders and cooking from her own kitchen: “It was really difficult for me. But people liked our food and encouraged us to open a restaurant.”

Finally, they found a place tucked in a local shopping mall in Tallinn’s biggest suburb. Business is shaping up nicely, but every day proves to be a challenge—some days the restaurant has 30 customers, and sometimes only a few. During the summer, they often cater at street food festivals all over Estonia and their cooking seems to be gaining popularity.

Despite the challenges, Mohamad and Nermiin are hopeful – mainly about their children’s futures. Their oldest son, Ahmad, 13, already speaks fluent Estonian, and is proud of his accomplishments at school. “I finished with honors. I’d really like to study to become a doctor, but I’d also like to become a translator – I speak four languages,” he says.

Amer, their 27 year-old business partner, applied for asylum in Estonia when he arrived, though he would have preferred to live in Sweden where his uncle is. After staying there for two months, he was sent back to Estonia. “I was disappointed at first, but now it’s ok. I can visit my parents and two brothers, who live in Denmark, and my father has visited me here too.”

With Nermiin, Mohamed and their family, Amer has now started to find his place in Estonia. He thinks of the many refugees who have fled the war in Syria. “Many people have lost everything,” he says. “They don’t have anything anymore. But here in Estonia, we have work. We have our own business!”