Rubi wanted two things for his 13th birthday: a bicycle, and to see his dad, Ahmed, again. It was the end of November, and it had been three months since his family was whole, since Ahmed left for Germany with Rashed and other colleagues from Salloura.
Rubi’s days in Istanbul were a steady grind, all blending together in a dim purgatory: wake up at 6 in the morning, get to work at the shirt factory two bus rides away by 7, iron, sew, take the boss’s orders, go home 12 hours later, eat, sleep, repeat. Before Ahmed left, he had been working at the Salloura factory, learning his father’s trade. But due to resulting tensions with As’ad, the patriarch of the 150-year-old sweets business, who up until recently had been his father’s long-time employer, Rubi had to find another job. It seemed like yet another break from his past, yet another root pulled up by Syria’s cruel war.
“I don’t feel like I’m a child,” Rubi told us one Saturday, exhausted after a long week at work.
When he wasn’t working 12-hour shifts, he’d sit on the floor at home watching TV, his back leaning against a brown couch in their family room that doubled as the bedroom. He slept on a thin foam mattress next to his sisters and his mom in their two-room basement apartment in Esenyurt, a working-class district on Istanbul’s outskirts. Sometimes he’d watch American action movies with Turkish subtitles he couldn’t read, only understanding the universal language of heated fight sequences. “Let’s go baby” was a phrase he had picked up, accompanied by a right hook.
It had been four years since Rubi last saw the inside of the classroom, a thought that tortured his mom, Leila. Ahmed’s absence had been hard on them all, but she had to remind herself daily that she had pushed him to go.
“I ask myself, ‘Why did I let him go?’ The kids are without their father, we’re struggling so much financially. But then I remember it’s for their futures, it’s for them to go to school, to learn.”
Five years ago, the Sheikhos were living a completely different life. Ahmed was the head manager at Salloura’s two most popular stores in Aleppo, making a great salary by Syrian standards. He had just bought a brand new home for his family.
“I was a stay-at-home mom, picking fabric for our new curtains, making sure Rubi studied,” Leila sniffled through her tears.
Rubi was going to one of the best public schools in Aleppo, and after school, he was taking English lessons with a private tutor. “I remember how life was in Syria,” Rubi said through a wave of sadness. “I remember our house, going to school…our car, our life. I remember studying, and my mom would yell at me, ‘Come on, Rubi, study!’”
His sister, Ruseel, was in kindergarten then. Little Rivana was just born, “the daughter of the revolution,” they’d later call her. Everything was as it should be – everything they hoped it to be.
“Now look at our lives. What is this?” Leila gestured to the room around her with disbelief. The damp basement apartment on the edge of Istanbul cost them two-thirds of Rubi’s monthly salary of $250. Narrow windows near the ceiling let in a sliver of sunlight for just a few hours a day. The winter cold was setting in as November transitioned into December, and the price of gas was too high to keep the heat on.
If Leila and the kids hadn’t attempted the journey to Europe on their own in September, losing everything they had in the process, life wouldn’t be as difficult. But just a couple weeks after Ahmed set off to Germany, Leila’s brother convinced her to join him on the less popular land route to Greece through Bulgaria, crossing through Turkey’s dark, wooded border in the middle of the night.
“It was like a scary movie on TV,” Rubi recounted, boyish excitement still swirling on his tongue. “The trees were as big as the room.”
In the heaviest darkness of night, Leila carried Rivana on her back, clutching Rubi and Ruseel with each hand as they walked through the forest.
An hour or so into their trek, they were caught by border guards. “We were detained. They kept us in a jail for four or five hours,” Leila recalled. “I was so shocked by the police. They were big scary men in suits, like those secret gangs in action films.”
“Like the Mafia,” Rubi chimed in.
The men – Leila wasn’t sure if they were Greek or Bulgarian or Turkish authorities – took everything Leila and the kids had on hand: money, passports, phones. They were sent back to Istanbul, where there was nothing left for them. Once again, the price of freedom was higher than they could afford.
With the help of Leila’s sisters, who also lived in Istanbul, they found a new place and replaced their furniture; people donated basic appliances, like a fridge and a washing machine. Still, months later, the failed journey hung over them. They had been so close only to now be even farther. Ahmed’s absence became an increasingly dark presence hovering over them all.
“The most difficult time is at about 1 a.m.,” Leila said, crumbling into tears. “That’s when I’m used to Ahmed coming home. I imagine his voice coming through the front door, whispering, ‘Quick, quick, put the coffee on the stove.’ I look at the door now and expect him to come through. I think, ‘How could I let him leave?’”
On Rubi’s 13th birthday, on the last day of November, Ahmed sent him a celebratory voice note over WhatsApp. “Happy birthday, Abu Ahmed,” his father’s voice bellowed from the speaker. The name means “father of Ahmed,” an honorific title the father gave his son the day he left for Germany.
“Rubi is the man of the house now,” Ahmed explained during our visit to him in Germany. “I told him, “…You’re taking care of our family. You’re in charge.””
Rubi told his father not to worry, that he had everything under control. But the then-12-year-old had two small demands in exchange for carrying the torch.
“He asked me, ‘Can you please just get me a new pair of sneakers or a bike when all this is over?’” Ahmed recalled with a sad laugh, reminded that his child was exactly that: a child.
With the excitement of a boy entering his teenage years, Rubi looked forward to celebrating the milestone, albeit in exile. “You have to come and celebrate with me,” he insisted to us two weeks before his birthday.
Leila was heartbroken that she couldn’t afford a cake for her son. Back in Syria, they would mark every birthday with one. When an Istanbul pastry chef heard from us about Rubi’s story, she was so moved that she donated a cake. Leila, overwhelmed by the kindness of a stranger, cried as she carried the cake to her son. Covered in a layer of green icing, the cake was a confectionary monument, a prayer to the future they hoped to have: a German flag, made out of red, white, and black icing, covered its face, along with edible photographs of days gone by. The candle flames danced as Leila walked towards her son. Rivana and Ruseel danced around Rubi as we all sang Happy Birthday.
Abu Ahmed closed his eyes, made a wish and blew out all the candles. For that moment, he was only and fully Rubi.
Two weeks later, we got a call from Leila.
“I have some news!” she excitedly announced. “We’re going to Germany!”
There were rumors swirling that the migrant trail to Europe would be sealed shut come 2016. The clock was ticking.
“If we don’t go now, it could be years before we go to Germany the legal way,” Leila said. She discussed their ever-slim menu of options with Ahmed and they agreed: even one more year out of school and separated would be too detrimental for Rubi and his sisters.
Ahmed, swallowing his pride, asked his new benefactor – the investor who paid his way to Europe – for help. The money would be taken out of Ahmed’s salary once the new pastry shop in Germany was up and running.
Once they received the money, things moved swiftly. Leila hurried to get some last-minute supplies for the journey: thick socks, warm boots, waterproof jackets and extra diapers for Rivana. They could spend hours on the boat between Turkey and Greece, and the five-year-old’s bladder might not hold up against the fear of the rocky seas.
Within days, they were ready to go. First, they’d take a six-hour bus journey to Izmir, a Turkish coastal city. There, they’d wait for the smuggler’s signal to board one of the small, overfilled boats across the Aegean Sea to Greece.
“I’ll refuse to get on a rubber dinghy…I’ll only ride a real boat,” Leila said, fear seeping into her voice as she waited for the midnight bus from Istanbul to Izmir. We reminded her to get proper lifejackets for herself and the children; faulty ones had flooded the market.
Leila sat anxiously, tapping her boots. Buried deep in her bag was the Quran she had brought with her from Aleppo, her only possession from a previous life.
“This will protect us, just like it has so far,” she said. The kids buzzed with excitement, more eager than anxious. They took selfies while they waited for the bus to arrive.
Midnight struck. We walked them to their bus. Leila had tears in her eyes, unable to say goodbye. The girls danced to the beat of nearby drums. Turkish mothers were kissing their sons as they left for military service, goodbyes falling from the sky like rain.
As Rubi approached the bus, he stopped and looked back. His face was awash with precocious adult resolve – the result of months of living out his new name, Abu Ahmed. But innocent, childlike wonder sparked through his deep brown eyes. Once again, he was only and fully Rubi. And he was ready for his new life to begin.
A month later, he sent us an ecstatic WhatsApp dispatch from Germany with a wave of new photos. He was gripping the handles of his new bike, riding around their camp. Nearby were Rubi and Ruseel, perched on their father’s leg, smiling and waving.
After a roller coaster of hope lost and found and lost again, they were finally reunited. Their journey is just beginning, the road ahead long and less familiar than ever before. But at least they’re back on it together.
While this is the last installment in our five-part series chronicling of the evolving story of Salloura – the family and its enduring craft of sweets-making and the workers who carry on the family’s trade – Dalia and Lauren will continue to follow the journey of the 150-year-old bakery and its resilient workers. Stay tuned.
(Editor’s Note: This piece was reported with support from The GroundTruth Project. Dalia Mortada was GroundTruth’s 2015 Middle East Fellow and Lauren Bohn is GroundTruth’s Middle East Correspondent.)
Molokhiyya with chicken
A staple in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, molokhiyya is a dark green leaf characterized by its bitterness. While the leaf has a name in English – the jute leaf – it’s not widely known or available in the West. When it’s cooked and flavored just right, with the help of sautéed garlic and cilantro (and, of course, a generous shake of salt), the leaves lose their bitterness and become rich with savory goodness.
Molokhiyya is a hearty home-cooked meal, a regular in many households, and is best known for its Egyptian incarnation: finely chopped and cooked into a deliciously soupy slime. In parts of Syria and Lebanon, the soupy version is served with white vinegar and raw onion drizzled on top. But in most parts of Syria, a lesser-known drier stew prevails, and that’s the recipe below. Cooked this way, the leaves are sturdy and not slimy at all, the chicken tender and sharing an equal role in the dish.
Serves 4 generously, or 6 small bowls.
½ tbsp olive oil
1 large onion cut into eighths (or 2 small onions quartered)
1 whole chicken, about 2-2.5 lbs, cut into eighths
2 tsp salt
6 pods cardamom
½ tsp all spice
½ tsp white pepper (black pepper fine for substitute)
1 stick cinnamon
1 bay leaf
Water (enough to cover the chicken)
200 g dried whole molokhiyya leaves (see note)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup chopped cilantro leaves and stem
1 medium head of garlic, mashed or minced
1 whole lemon juiced
1 whole lemon sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
Note: Molokhiyya is popular in two forms: finely chopped (usually frozen) and dried whole leaves. For this kind, it’s crucial to use the dried whole leaves.
2 tsp butter
¼ cup small vermicelli noodles
1 ½ cup rice
3 cups water
Make stock (see note): In a large pot, sauté onion until translucent. Add bone-in chicken pieces. Sprinkle salt, all spice, and pepper on top and give it a quick stir. Add the cinnamon stick and bay leaf and cardamom pods. I like to put my loose cardamom pods in an infuser so they’re easier to take out at the end.
Cover the chicken with water. Bring to a boil on medium-high heat, and then turn down to medium for at least an hour to 90 minutes to make the stock. Remove the chicken from the pot. It will probably be falling apart by now. Once it cools, remove the meat from the bones and set aside. Using a slotted spoon or a sieve, fish out the cardamom pods, cinnamon stick and bay leaf from the stock, but be sure to leave the onions.
Note: you may not use all the chicken and stock for this recipe, so make sure you have some containers to save the stock and chicken for later.
Molokhiyya (see note): While the chicken is cooking, clean the molokhiyya. To do this, fill a large bowl with cold water, and add batches of molokhiyya a couple of handfuls at a time. You’ll have to clean in it in batches. Swirl it in the cold water and let the dirt settle in the bottom. If there’s a lot of dirt coming out, repeat the process a few times, emptying and cleaning out the bowl each time.
When your confident the molokhiyya is clean – the water should be relatively clear, maybe with a greenish tint – set it on a stack of paper towels and gently pat dry. You don’t want to break the leaves too much. In the cleaning process, you’ll also pick out thick twigs and cut off any thick stems from the molokhiyya leaves.
Once the stock and chicken are ready, you can start cooking the molokhiyya. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a heavy-bottom pot. Add the garlic and cilantro and sauté until the cilantro is bright green and the mixture is fragrant. Scoop out half the garlic-cilantro mix and set aside.
Add the molokhiyya leaves to the pot that has the olive oil and half the garlic-cilantro mix and gently stir so that the garlic and cilantro are well combined with the molokhiyya. You want to be careful not to break up the leaves too much, which will become less brittle as they cook. The leaves cook down significantly, so don’t worry about having “too much.” (There’s no such thing!)
Add about half the pulled chicken and ladle in some broth. You don’t want the stew to be soupy, but with enough liquid to serve over rice – I’d start with 1 to 2 cups of broth. Let the pot stew for 15-20 minutes, while you make the rice.
Add the remaining sautéed garlic and cilantro, mixing it in at the end. Drizzle lemon juice – start with 2 tbsp and add to taste – and sprinkle salt to taste.
Note: Depending on what kind of molokhiyya you have available, it could be relatively clean and already picked over so there aren’t many twigs and stems, or it could be filthy and require lots of cleaning. I’ve experienced both.
Vermicelli rice (see note): Heat butter at the bottom of a pan. Add the baby vermicelli and sauté until golden brown. Add rice and cover in remaining butter, mixing in noodles thoroughly. Add salt, then water. Bring to a boil on medium-high heat, keeping the pot uncovered until water disappears from the surface of the rice (you’ll see little dimples form on the surface of the rice). Reduce heat to medium-low and cover for about 20 minutes.
Note: Make sure to wash and soak the rice before cooking. It gets rid of the excess starch that can make it sticky. I like to let the rice soak in cold water for 20 minutes, and then rinse it in a sieve before cooking it.
Serve molokhiyya over vermicelli rice with lemon wedges on the side.