Like most Syrians who fled their war-ravaged country and made their way to Turkey, Fatma Jabal, a 19-year-old from Aleppo now living in Istanbul, had to get creative in order to make a living. With a baby boy to take care of and her husband struggling to provide for their family while working as a carpenter, Fatma tapped into something she’s been doing since she was a child: baking cakes and cookies.
Making desserts had been something Fatma has loved from early on growing up in Aleppo, which she left in 2014 in the midst of the worsening conflict there. For her, each treat she bakes is a work of art that just happens to be edible. “The first thing I did in the kitchen was sweets,” she says. But Fatma realized she needed to develop her budding baking prowess to start charging customers. Cake-decorating classes would have been unaffordable, so Fatma took to the Internet, learning from YouTube channels and Facebook pages dedicated to teaching the art of fondant, the malleable sugar-based icing used for making visually stunning cakes. Eventually, an experienced professional got in touch with Fatma over Facebook after her seeing her growing talent, helping her to improve.
All the details, shapes and colors that go into each creation bring Fatma joy in her work, but much of the satisfaction she gets actually comes from the joy of her customers, who are bringing her desserts to their celebrations. Since the start of 2019, Fatma has been taking cake and cookie orders from her Facebook dessert shop, Fatma’s Sweets, which she runs out of her small apartment in Istanbul’s Bahçelievler neighborhood. “Most of my customers are from the Syrian and Iraqi communities,” Fatma says, explaining that most have found her through social media. “I started to post photos of my work on Syrian and Arabic Facebook groups, and then started to be contacted by many people.” It seems that made-to-order cakes have found its niche with these communities online.
For Fatma, each treat she bakes is a work of art that just happens to be edible.
Lina, a Syrian journalist based in Istanbul, is a loyal Fatma Sweets customer and has ordered from Fatma several times. “My work in the press is a full-time job, and I do not have much time to make cakes and cookies. Today, I can ask Fatma to do whatever I want, and the taste is excellent,” Lina says. Naturally, Fatma says her sales are dependent on events. “Sometimes I get four orders a day, sometimes four orders a week. Sometimes an entire week goes by without work. But I manage to coordinate my work when I get more orders,” she says.
And coordination is important. Fatma describes how baking requires proper timing and precision. “The fondant-decorated cakes and cookies need a long time and many stages. I start by making the sugar fondant first, whisking ingredients, baking the dough and then letting it cool,” she explains. “Decorating the cookies and cakes are either at the customer’s request or my choice, which really in both cases takes lots of time. I ask my customers to order at least two or three days in advance,” she says.
Being new to the market and the work itself, it was difficult in the beginning for Fatma to price her products. She would visit pastry shops and inquire about costs, getting in as much research as she could before setting her own prices – cookies are 3 TL each, cupcakes and cake pops are 3.50 TL and fondant cakes for four people are 60 TL, with the price increasing with the size of the cake.
Besides entering a new market, running an at-home business comes with its own set of challenges. “My kitchen is very small, like most of the kitchens of apartments in Istanbul. Making sweets requires more space because of the many materials and tools that I use, and this makes me uncomfortable doing this work in my kitchen,” she says.
Then there is the problem of delivery. “Most times my husband delivers the orders after finishing his work. Being the mother of a baby, we cannot leave him alone at home,” she says. Fatma’s husband, a Syrian she met in Turkey and married two years ago, has been a big believer in her business and has played a significant role in pushing her to improve her craft. “My husband supported me and helped me to master this art,” she says. When she must deliver an order during the daytime, Fatma’s husband watches their baby at his place of work. That’s one reason why Fatma chooses to meet her customers at transport hubs.
Though Fatma says she hasn’t seen much profits since she started this year, she is grateful for the impact it has had in her home. “Despite the limited financial benefits of my work, it helped me to help my husband cope with the difficulties of life in Istanbul,” she says.