ELLICOTT CITY, MARYLAND - When Syrian immigrant Khaldoun Alghatrif's daughter was nine months old, he searched for the right memento to mark her birth. He found it online, part of a poem on the side of a set of ceramic coffee cups. In flowing Arabic calligraphy, one of the cups said, "Her name is Shaam" — the Arabic name for the city of Damascus. Along with the other two cups, the set read: "She is beautiful." "I love her." "Her name is Shaam."
The poem was an ode to the city before Syria's devastating war.
Now three, Alghatrif’s daughter's name is Shaam.
Alghatrif derived something else from those cups — inspiration to start a business promoting Syrian artisans, like the artist who created the cups, in an effort to get by in war-torn Syria.
"We wanted to start showing America the other face of Syria, the beautiful face of Syria, something they don't see in the news," Alghatrif said.
Today, Syriana Café and Gallery in Ellicott City, Md., features the cups and sells other Syrian heritage handicrafts — exotic mosaic works, mother of pearl inlays, Damask textiles and brocade silk.
"When I think of Syria today, I think of it as a war-torn country," said shopper Martin Viteri. "But when I come to a place like this, and I get to see all the beautiful culture, it is really cool."
The taste of Syria
Alghatrif immigrated to the U.S. in 2015, following his brother Majd, who had come to the U.S. a few years earlier. Together, they opened Syriana Gallery in December 2017 in an 18th-century building on an Ellicott City street lined with stone buildings dating back to the town’s origins in 1772. The brothers say it resembles their hometown of As-Suwayda in Syria.
"This building is built from natural material around you and the great sense of community in this area. People made us feel this could be our home," Majd says.
Majd says the gallery has two missions — preserving Syrian heritage and supporting artisans by establishing a market for their products.
"Artisans work in the tourism industry mainly, and with a lack of tourism, there is no prospects for making the living," he said. "That was one of the main drives for people fleeing the country, besides being attacked by the war itself."
Recently, the Alghatrifs have expanded their Syrian cultural experience by adding food. Syrian coffee traditionally boiled in heated sands is a specialty. Majd’s wife, Rasha Obaid, operates the café inside the gallery.
"All of our recipes are homemade and Syrian, very authentic," she said. "And all of our workers in the kitchen are Syrian refugee women. I am trying to train them to work in the business environment here."
Gayle Killen lives nearby. “I love the rich ingredients. I love having authentic cuisine. And the artwork, the craftsmanship, is beautiful.”
The Alghatrifs plan to further expand by sponsoring workshops in Syria and in the U.S. to help Syrian artisans and refugees.