Of Love and Baklava
“Everyone is welcome” at this bakery run by Iraqi Christians who fled religious persecution
Photos by James Galt
In 2003, the War in Iraq made headlines in every major news outlet across America. Islamic State militants waged war on Iraqi Christians and Americans alike, whom they labeled terrorists. In March, the United States military launched its “shock and awe” bombing campaign on the capital city of Baghdad. It was under these circumstances that Nael and Manar Al-Najjar fell in love.
Nael, 27 at the time, was working in his family’s sweet shop in Baghdad. He had worked there since he was a kid and learned the trade of Middle Eastern desserts early on. While most men in Iraq marry before their late twenties, Nael was in no hurry. But when he attended his cousin’s wedding and saw Manar for the first time, he told his cousin he’d like to meet her.
Manar was 23 and lived with her family in Mosul. When she saw a picture of Nael, Manar thought he looked nice and consented to an introduction. That initial meeting was short and Manar told him she’d need some time to consider marrying him. She then asked around to find out if Nael was a good man. When all reports came back positive, she told him yes.
In Iraq, it is customary for the man’s whole family to visit and meet the woman’s family before a wedding takes place. It was standing room only when Nael brought all 12 of his family members into Manar’s small home in Mosul. They didn’t come empty handed: Nael brought with him 25 boxes of different kinds of baklava from the bakery as gifts. While Manar’s father was impressed, she remained a little wary. She thought it strange that each package had a label that said “Manar” on it. When she asked Nael about it, he laughed. “The shop I work in is called ‘Manar’s Sweets’.”
Coincidence aside, Manar’s family approved of the pairing and the two were married a short two months later. They settled in Baghdad where Nael continued to work at Manar’s Sweets and Manar started work as a chef at Santa Gorg church. Both Nael and Manar were raised in Christian families and brought that faith into their marriage. Soon Nael and Manar’s little family grew with the birth of their son, Daniel, and a couple years following, their daughter, Diana.
Though times were perilous for Iraqi Christians, the Al-Najjars continued worshiping and attending church at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. Then, during a Sunday evening Mass in late October of 2010, six or more suicide jihadis of the Islamic State descended upon the praying congregation. The jihadists first taunted the congregation, calling them infidels and shooting people at random. When the Iraqi army arrived to stop the siege, the jihadists detonated their vests, killing a total of 58 worshipers.
Nael and Manar weren’t there that night, but Nael’s sister and cousin were. His sister made it out, but his cousin was among those killed inside the church.
Despite the horrific attack against their own church and increasing violence against Christians, Nael and Manar were hesitant to leave their home, community, and jobs. That is, until the threat of violence hit home.
The jihadists first taunted the congregation, calling them infidels and shooting people at random.
The Islamic State took notice of Manar’s work at Saint Gorg’s Church, which was run by an American. One day she came home from work to find a note on her doorstep. The note warned Manar that if she didn’t stop working at the Catholic church with the American, she and her family would be killed. Wrapped inside the piece of paper was a bullet.
“I was afraid for my family. My son was in school and I was always scared that maybe they would take him,” she says.
That’s when Nael and Manar decided it was time to leave Baghdad. They packed up all of their belongings and moved to Manar’s father’s home in Mosul.
“Our plan was to get to the United States, so when we contacted the UN, they told us the fastest way to get to America was through Turkey,” says Manar.
Working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) the Al-Najjars said goodbye to their extended families, community, and jobs, and moved their family to Turkey. There they would wait two years to receive their refugee status and visas before immigrating to the United States.
When they arrived in Turkey, the Al Najjars moved into a small apartment. While in Baghdad, they spoke Arabic and English as a second language, but in Turkey everyone only spoke Turkish.
“It was really hard,” Manar says. “I would go to the store in the morning and didn’t know how to ask for tea or sugar or even breakfast. So I would go look by myself, find the tea, and bring it up to the cashier to learn the word.”
The note warned Manar that if she didn’t stop working at the Catholic church with the American, she and her family would be killed. Wrapped inside the piece of paper was a bullet.
Still, Manar was determined to acclimate to their new home. “I went to a bookstore and bought a Turkish/Arabic dictionary and learned Turkish. I am a fast learner.” Once she began to get a hold of the language, she turned around and helped others in a similar position. “I would help others who moved to Turkey get around too. I would go with them anywhere to help translate and help them learn the language.”
Meanwhile, Nael started work at a local bakery learning the ins and outs of Turkish sweets. Soon he added Turkish Delight to his ever-growing repertoire of Middle Eastern desserts.
Although the Al-Najjars had escaped the life-threatening persecution in Baghdad, they ran into Turkey’s generations-old prejudices against Christians. Manar recounted how she became close with her neighbors, sharing meals and tea with them, but when they found out that she was Christian, things changed.
“They came one day and said, ‘You are a very good woman, but you are a Christian so what can we do?’” One neighbor, who told her to call her “Mom” and offered help whenever she needed it, even pulled back when she discovered Manar’s faith. “You’re good, but you’re a Christian.”
Even faced with this response Manar loved her neighbors, choosing to see past the prejudice they showed her family. To this day she raves about how kind and helpful they were.
After two years, the Al-Najjars received visas to make the final journey to San Diego, CA. A cousin living in the area took them in temporarily when they landed. Nael and Manar researched the area thoroughly before deciding to settle in El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego that is home to a large Iraqi community. With the cousin’s help, they moved into a new apartment in the neighborhood.
Within the first week of living in El Cajon, Nael had a job. Manar had been scouring the Yellow Pages and found a Turkish bakery just minutes from their apartment. She called and asked if they needed help, then told them about her husband’s strong work ethic and experience making sweets. Having learned he was an expert at making baklava, the bakery hired him on the spot. He started the following day.
“You’re good, but you’re a Christian.”
Even though things were falling into place for the Al-Najjars, the first six months in the States were painful. Manar recalls feeling lonely and homesick for familiarity. “It was hard on the kids too. We put them in school right away, but they didn’t speak any English.” After only a month, however, their daughter Diana came home speaking fluently. “She’d talk too fast for me and I’d have to tell her to slow down. Now she corrects me when I say or pronounce a word wrong!”
With her husband at work and her kids at school, Manar didn’t want to sit around. “We don’t like to stay home and do nothing,” she says. She began looking for a job so she could contribute to her family’s future.
Six months after moving into their apartment, she enrolled at Grossmont College and began taking classes to become a pharmacy technician. “It was very good for me because I don’t just want to stay home and go shopping. I want to do something for my future. I studied very hard.” She was offered a job with CVS a short time after graduating. But on the same day she was offered the job, she got a phone call from her husband.
“I found a store,” Nael told her over the phone. “Just please come see it. And if you tell me yes, we can sign the lease today!”
Though Nael was happy working at the Turkish bakery, the dream of opening up his own store never left him. But Manar had many doubts about starting their own business in America, especially after only living there for such a short time.
“So many people told me that starting a business was very hard and so many things could go wrong. If you screw up or do something wrong, you could become homeless. And I did not want that! Besides, we had only lived here for a couple years. Others had lived here 10 to 20 years before opening their own business!”
She agreed to visit the location Nael had found. The space was an old hair salon located in a strip mall between a hookah lounge and a cell phone repair shop. “When I saw it, I thought, ‘There’s nothing here—just a hair salon with a hookah lounge next door! But he told me, ‘If you tell me yes, we can do anything together. If you help me, we can make a big store.’ It was his dream, our dream. I was scared, but I told him ‘Yes, let’s sign.’”
That day, Nael and Manar signed the lease to a salon that would eventually be converted into Al Hamdani Sweets, named after the town in Iraq where they were married. Over the next few months, the couple toiled to make their dream a reality. They tore down the salon, pulling out styling chairs and hair washing sinks. Nael and Manar both went to banks to get loans, but the biggest help of all came from the International Rescue Committee, a local refugee services organization.
The IRC gave the Al-Najjars a loan through their matching program. But far more valuable was the job training and social services the IRC provided that helped them navigate opening a business in a foreign country. “They taught me everything,” Manar says. “Whenever we had a question, we would call them and they would advise us on the best thing to do.” Today, whenever the IRC’s San Diego branch has a meeting or a business party, they place an order with Al Hamdani Sweets for boxes of desserts.
For the first six to seven months, business was extremely slow. Nael was still working at the other bakery full time, but had received permission from his employer to use their kitchen to make his own sweets after hours. Manar would then take those desserts to their store and sell them during the day. “Everyday, only one or two people would come and they would only buy one or two pieces,” she recalls.
To get word out about their new store, Manar passed out fliers. She also put together little gift boxes of their treats and gave them to local businesses with their business card. Around the eight-month mark, things began to take off. They started receiving large orders and were able to hire their first employee. Soon, they were able to purchase the industrial equipment they needed to make the sweets at their own store and Nael quit his job at the Turkish bakery.
Nael and Manar now manage five employees and countless orders. They ship their pastries to stores around San Diego and as far as Tahoe, Denver, and Seattle. Not only does Al Hamdani Sweets thrive, but so do the Al-Najjars. Nael and Manar no longer fear for their family’s safety. “This is home now and I feel safe,” Manar smiles. “I can dream of a good future for our kids.”
Daniel and Diana both attend school and often work in the shop to earn extra money. Nael and Manar have discovered immense joy and pride in working hard and working together. They want their kids to learn the value in this as well.
The Al-Najjars have faced immense grief and loneliness, from death threats and persecution in Baghdad, to family members scattered all over the world, but those things have not destroyed their faith or their love for others. They continue to love God and their neighbors through unconditional hospitality. Despite the persecution and isolation they knew in Iraq and Turkey, Manar and Nael have made Al Hamdani Sweets into a physical representation of Christ’s expansive, all-inclusive love.
“I’m good with all people,” says Manar. “Some come from Israel and are Jewish. They are welcome. Some Saudis come. They are welcome. I don’t care if you’re Saudi or Jewish or Muslim or Christian. I smile for everyone. I do sweets for all people; not just Christians or Muslims. I have Mexican, American, Jewish, and Saudi customers. Everyone is welcome.”