Little Baghdad, California: Refugee restaurant owners bringing Iraqi cuisine to San Diego County
Early on a Sunday afternoon, upbeat jazz plays in the background of Zad Mediterranean Cuisine as families surround tables, passing dishes of shawarma, pickles, rice, salad and fresh saj bread that was baked behind a glass window just moments before. Restaurant owner Hassan Frangoul surveys the scene, holding a coffee thermos, sunglasses still on his head from running errands that morning.
“I did this myself,” he says, gesturing around him at his 6-month-old restaurant . “It was not easy. But in the end, I feel like I’m a successful man.”
Six years ago, Frangoul (whose name was legally recorded as Frankol during his immigration process, though he prefers to use his true family name, Frangoul) arrived in the United States as a refugee with his son and pregnant wife. They were among 3 million people forced from their homes because of the Iraq war. More than 18,000 of them resettled in San Diego County. As San Diego rents have gone up, refugee resettlement agencies have moved new arrivals into less expensive areas farther east, often in neighborhoods known for their conservative politics. (Duncan Hunter, congressman for California’s 50th District, was recently re-elected after accusing his opponent of ties to radical Islam.)
Still, the growing Iraqi population in Frangoul’s neighborhood has led to a vibrant food culture in East County, particularly in El Cajon, which has come to be nicknamed Little Baghdad. “You can feel home here,” one Iraqi customer says. As earlier refugees like Frangoul become more established, they have begun to open restaurants like Zad, offering a diverse American crowd an authentic expression of Iraqi cuisine.
“I hope my sons learn from this,” Frangoul says. “I hope they learn that life is not easy, and you need to depend on yourself to build your life.” Before him is a spread of glistening veal shawarma, ground beef kefta kebabs and skewers of chicken shish tawook. Though the food and flavors are the same, his life looks very different here in the United States. His two sons go to great schools, love In-N-Out and speak mostly English.
Zad is the Arabic word for provisions or food taken for travel. Frangoul sees food as a way to shorten the distance — create connections — between different places and people. “The universe is not only the United States,” he says. By eating at restaurants like his, people can learn about another culture’s “mentality, how they live, how they help people, how they eat food.”
Farther north in El Cajon, Mazin Majeed owns Al Azayem, a more casual, diner-style Iraqi eatery. Customers pay at the counter, but in true Iraqi hospitality form, servers run around the tables providing tea, bread, soup and salad free of charge with all sit-down orders. While still offering classics like biryani, chicken cream chop, basturma and shawarma, Majeed also serves specialties like liver tikka cutlets and kubba saray baghdadiya, a tomato-based soup with spiced meatballs. Arabic news blares from a TV on one wall, while American flags and “I Voted” stickers (gifts from Majeed’s customers) adorn another.
“Hadhihi hayati,” Majeed says, laughing. Reem Esttefain, Majeed’s right-hand employee and a fellow Iraqi refugee, helps translate. “This is our life,” she says.
Two doors down from Zad Mediterranean Cuisine, Manar AlZibay and her husband, Nael Alnajjar, run Al Hamdani Sweets. The dessert shop is a popular destination for the diverse Middle Eastern communities of San Diego . The selection includes custard-filled znoud el-sit, cheesy kunafa, Iraqi delight and Turkish-style sweets that Alnajjar learned to make in Turkey while waiting for his refugee visa to process. Locals know to arrive before noon to catch a fresh-baked, syrup-soaked kahi with clotted-cream geymar, an indulgent and traditional Iraqi breakfast. “Oh, my God, my heart is a big one,” says AlZibay, an exhausted smile on her face.
In September, President Trump announced a historic low cap on annual refugees for 2019. His policies have also resulted in fewer refugees arriving in the country from Muslim majority countries, including Iraq. At the close of the 2018 fiscal year on October 30 , San Diego county’s annual incoming Iraqi refugee count is 12. Though incoming refugees are dwindling, the cultural influence of a home country 7,000 miles away continues to bloom in Little Baghdad.
“It’s really something that you would sacrifice your life to see your kids raised in such an environment,” Frangoul says, as Zad swells with the noise of Arabic and English conversation. Above his head, a sign written in swirling script reads, “Thankful.” “I hope that every Iraqi person will have the opportunity to raise his kids safely in the United States, or in any safe country.”
Zad Mediterranean Cuisine, 3515 Sweetwater Springs Blvd., No. 1, Spring Valley, (619) 340-0000.
Al Azayem, 550 E. Main St., El Cajon, (619) 588-5374.
Al Hamdani Sweets, 3515 Sweetwater Springs Blvd., No. 7, Spring Valley, (619) 303-8687.
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