Promise of Love
“Hot tea?” a lovely professional woman in modern American dress with long dark hair and blonde highlights immediately offers as we enter the cozy apartment on a rainy Seattle day. Not far behind, another smiling beautiful woman, Sheelan, donned in more traditional Islamic abaya and hijab joins us. Another sister lives with the two, their mother, and Jinan, a spunky girl, their niece, who share their humble three bedroom space. I note one absolute within the family: warmth.
The sisters Zozan and Sheelan have been in their Des Moines, WA apartment for almost 20 years. The first night they arrived was on November 19, 1996, during the snowstorm that left many in the Seattle area, including the Shamdeens, without power for days. With some potatoes, logs and a pot their apartment manager brought over, they prepared food in their fireplace. Surprised at their resourcefulness the manager asked “How’d you learn that?” “We are from Iraq,” Sheelan reminisced playfully. Her truthful response amused her this many years later.
Cooking and baking is a gift and an exquisitely honed skill the sisters share. Food is a thread that weaves its way through their lives — from family traditions to wartime food preservation, and now to neighborly encounters in King County. Yet Sheelan and Zozan Shamdeen know so much more than how to cook over a fire. It is their genuine kindness and humanity, their ability to see the beauty in others, regardless of homeland or religion, that sets them so distinctly apart.
Perhaps the sisters’ humanist traditions began with their upbringing, as their family, the Shamdeens, is a giving one. The girls grew up among a total of 8 siblings and their 8 cousins and aunt who came to live with them when their uncle passed away. Two orphan children, who their parents fostered, completed the clan of 18 children in the home. “To my mother, whoever comes in has to eat a lot. Imagine some people came to our home and hadn’t eaten for days. It is our culture, the hospitality, and to be sharing and generous.” Zozan explains.
The tradition lives on. Our tea is refilled and she offers another delicious savory pastry, one that resembles a small palm sized pizza, topped with eggplant, vegetable lahmacun.
The sisters self- identify as Kurdish people from Northern Iraq, a cultural and ethnic group, historically and presently persecuted, and the largest nation in the world without a state. Currently this region is being protected by and fought for by the Peshmerga, the anti-terrorist military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan. The women grew up during Saddam Hussein’s regime, an especially dangerous time for Kurds.
Over beautiful savory pastry, they speak lovingly and honestly about growing up with a large family, in a fertile region of Kurdistan. As I bite into a chewy moon shaped cheese filled pastry, called kahdeh, Zozan shares equally vivid memories of picnicking and picking pomegranates and figs in their yard, juxtaposed with air raids on the way to elementary school.
During the Gulf War, the Shamdeen family like most Kurds were forced out of their homes. After Hussein threatened the lives of all Kurds, the family headed from Mosul, a city in northeastern Iraq, to Zakho. When the trade embargo was imposed on Iraq by the UN, they had to make everything from scratch, from drying fruits hung from the ceiling, to grinding their own cous cous.
Zozan tells the story of how her family and over two thousand other Kurdish people fled for their lives that night of September 15, 1996, as millions of refugees around the world have done so, suddenly, and yet so many years in the making. Despite the incredibly dangerous and harrowing experience of fleeing for safety and the ugliness of discrimination and persecution of years preceding, the sisters choose to focus on other memories. With a smile they both share how sunny the weather was in Guam, the kindness of the military base families, and the opportunity at a new life in King County Washington.
While admittedly “Life is not easy here [in the US],” the sisters both give back to their community, our community, in a big way. After arriving to the US with only the basics of English, Zozan is now a Kurdish and Arabic language interpreter. Both Zozan and Sheelan work as teacher’s assistants at Highline College. Sheelan also started a program called Highline Cares in which people at the college donate household items for families in need. The sisters break down barriers and provide supports to other newly arrived immigrants and refugees like they once were. Even their mother, who still hopes to one day learn English, gives back by knitting hundreds of blankets and warm items for children at Seattle Children’s Hospital every winter.
We are offered an unequivocal masterpiece of rich filo pastry topped with honey, custard , apricot jam and pistachio, aptly named “birds nest” kunafa.
Kunafa and baklava, another traditional Middle Eastern baked good, is what Zozan bakes tirelessly for weddings, funerals, family gatherings, and any neighborhood gift. “When someone dies you give food to your neighbors on all sides [North, South East, and West] 7 houses down in each direction,” explains Sheelan.
As the pastry is layered, community begins to form, and as the honey hardens, connections too are solidified. The sisters share homemade food with neighbors, co-workers and the homeless. “We have shared [cooking] with our Vietnamese, Somali, Mexican, and Chinese neighbors, and they now share with us too,” Zozan explains.
Graduates of the Project Feast program, a non- profit social enterprise in Tukwila, WA, that provides free catering and vocational cooking programs for refugee and immigrants- the sisters dream to one day open their own bakery in South King County, WA.
What brings such positivity and resilience in human beings? Is it the kindness of one’s family, the cultural traditions of a homeland, the hardships and oppression of one’s people? Or could it be an innate ability to look beyond the overwhelming personal and worldly challenges one has faced? Whatever it may be, the graciousness of these sisters pervades, brings joy to all they encounter, and adds an undeniable sweetness to their baked goodies.
The sisters currently run a small catering business through word of mouth, called Soozveen which translates to “promise of love.”