It’s been five years since Chef Mazzin left his restaurant, his home, and many of his loved ones in the city of Homs, Syria. Mazzin and his family spent most of those years in a refugee camp in Jordan waiting for the U.S. to grant them asylum. At an art opening this month at Yale University called “Refugees: Stories of Lives, Dreams and Scars”, Mazzin saw drone video footage of his hometown reduced to rubble.
Mazzin and his wife stood before a flat screen TV on a white pedestal. They watched the skeleton of the Homs skyline flash across the screen.
Mazzin’s friend, Mohamad Hafez, curated the art show. Hafez translated as Mazzin explained how the images made him feel.
“It’s very sad and very devastating,” Mazzin said in Arabic. “We live here now and we often forget what people are going through there, so we pray that god be with them and grant them patience.”
The destruction of his city is an emotional reminder to Mazzin of the conditions in his home country.
“The tears escape my eyes but for the sake of... securing my manhood, I have to protect myself from weeping,” Mazzin said.
Mazzin spoke under his first name to protect his loved ones in Syria.
Hafez explained that the Syrian regime has enforced strict censorship over its citizens, and it’s difficult for Mazzin even to agree to have a picture taken of him at the art show. The photos could be used as propaganda for either side of the civil war.
Even though seeing the destruction on display at the art exhibit is painful, Mazzin said it’s good that stories about Syria are being told.
“Of course, nobody likes to look at devastation,” Mazzin said. “But it’s of course a great thing to do it in an artistic form, to raise awareness and tell people what is going on, and what people are going through there.”
Mazzin said although he can’t return to his hometown and his restaurant, he’s thankful to have come with his family to New Haven last year.
“He’s very glad that he moved here because he has secured the future of his kids,” Hafez said, translating for Mazzin. “They came from very tough areas in the Middle East to countries that secure their future, and their liberties and securing what they want to do in their life.”
Mazzin and his wife moved to New Haven with their son, 15, and two daughters, 13 and 8. The children are attending school in Connecticut and Mazzin’s taking English classes, too. He said it’s a first step to starting his own catering business and working as a chef again.
“It’s not easy to start all over again, and he’s still working on that.” Hafez said. “He hopes to get back on his feet and doing what he’s done back home. But it takes a lot of time learning English and getting acclimated to this new country.”
Mazzin hopes to bring traditional Syrian cuisine to his new country.
Hafez asked Mazzin to prepare a sweet Syrian dessert to serve alongside the bitter topic of the exhibit: refugee’s showing their lives, dreams and scars. In the lobby, Mazzin presented a piece of yellow cake to Hafez. Mazzin started to explain what's in the cake, but Hafez stopped him.
“Don’t give the entire recipe out now, that’s your secret sauce!” Hafez said.
“This is a famous dish,” he explained that it's the kind of dessert Syrians often eat when company visits. “It’s more of a pound cake but with coconut flour with it.”
Mazzin says he and his family were nervous about coming to the US, but friends like Mohamed Hafez helped them adjust. He said they were most worried about his wife wearing her head cover, but she hasn’t encountered any problems yet.
Mazzin says people in New Haven have made Connecticut feel like home.
“He loves the fact that everybody smiles,” Hafez said. “He likes seeing people smile and it gives him hope.”
Hope. Even during the winter months in New England.
“He could argue you know there are some people that are not so cheerful, but in general people are smiling,” Hafez said. “You've got to realize when you are socializing in Jordan with only Syrians after they’ve gone what they’ve gone though, chances are people are not smiling often.”
At his latest art exhibit, Hafez is hosting a free screening of the documentary, “Salam, Neighbor” on Friday at 7:00pm at The Harts Gallery in New Milford. Hafez said the film can help people can learn more about the experiences refugees have gone through and what it's like to be living in camps in Jordan.
Hafez said for refugees like Mazzin who have lived in these camps, to "see people smiling on a normal basis [is] a special event."