Taghreed Ibrahim: Cooking for Survival

The U.S. responded to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by invading Iraq, with the intention of toppling the country’s longtime ruler, Saddam Hussein. The invasion and subsequent occupation destabilized much of the country and gave rise to multiple militias. Thousands of refugees like Taghreed and her family fled the country.

We were waiting for that night [when the Americans came]. I was pregnant, 5 months, I couldn’t sleep that night. We wanted to be done with Saddam Hussein. My family wasn’t really target or suffer from anything, but we were scared all the time. You never know. People had a lot of dreams and hopes that it will be better.

My family’s house was in the north of Baghdad, we saw [the Americans] when they first came. People are waving, so excited. I think [the Americans] were kind of scared, there was kind of tension but we didn’t realize that. I think they didn’t know if they are welcome or not.

My family house and garden in Baghdad

First few months was really good relationship. All the problem happen when some militias start to target [the Americans].

My husband is a graphic designer. He work in the TV after the war, and the first TV channel after the war is run by American military. Some groups of people, they start to target people who work in the media. They look at them as a traitor, so they kill many of [my husband’s] friends. There’s many threats. He decided to move to Dubai. He found a job there and after 6 months I follow him. At that time I had only [my oldest son].

 It was hard for my husband to separate from family. He has 11 brothers and sisters. His mom was so close to him. She didn’t realize how dangerous it was until he left. She knows his friends who work with him, and when she saw they have been killed, she [realized]: ‘I’m glad he’s away.’

It was a really hard time for him, he had to start from zero. We had to sell everything. Iraqis, when they get married, they go to the carpenter and they choose a design for bedroom, and that will stay with them for the whole life. It’s kind of tradition. My mom still has her first wedding bedroom. When I sell my bedroom after two years, I cry. When we came here, we learned to keep it very simple. I don’t get emotionally involved with anything I buy.  

We lived 8 years in Dubai. After the first year we are in Dubai, we apply [as refugees], so it took us 7 years to come here. [My husband] have a good job in Dubai but we couldn’t stay. What if they cancelled our visa, which happened to many people. He would have to go to Iraq and we can’t do that. Even my son, my youngest, he was born in Dubai but he can’t be citizen there.

[While we were in Dubai] in summer sometimes I would be able, me and the kids, to visit my family [in Iraq]. Each summer it’s getting harder, dangerous. I was there one of the summers when there is a bombing, car explosion. I was there in the kitchen and the door, everything…. it is hard to explain. We all just freeze. And thanks god the kids was in a safe area away from the windows, all the windows just shattered. It was scary. So my father, after one or two days, he’s like, ‘okay, we’re done, go back to your husband!’ He feel very worried about us. We visit them maybe three years and the last two years I couldn’t do it.

All the time in Dubai, I have depression. It was hard because I’m so close to my parents. That’s how I got involved in the baking. I was feeling worried; I don’t feel safe, I couldn’t sleep until the morning. My mom said, ‘you love baking, try to do that.’ So I started baking. It helped me a lot! I spend all the nights [baking]. The hallway in our building always smell like vanilla. It made me feel really good. Especially Christmas time, I took the cookies to my son’s school, I bring them 200 cookies! One of his teachers call me, ‘you’re like Santa Claus!’  

I started to look for recipes and that’s when I improve my English. I found the best books were the English ones, like Barefoot Contessa, Martha Stewart. My husband encourage me a lot. He took me to this huge Japanese bookshop in Dubai. We spent all our weekends, he and the boys in the section with the cars and comic books, and me in the cooking section and baking. And I end up buying a lot of books. When I came here I have to ship [them], I would not come here until I have my books first!

[When we got to Seattle] it took us a while for me and my husband to have a job. I started at Safeway for a couple of months. Then [my husband] gets hired at KOMO-TV as a graphic designer. I struggled with childcare, because [my younger son] wasn’t in kindergarten yet, so one of us had to stay with him. Then I get an email from Annie from IRC [International Rescue Committee], the organization who bring us here. Because we talked about I love baking and cooking, she sent me an email about Project Feast. I went and met [them] and I loved the program, and I signed the paper!

Maqluba recipe
Maqluba recip

The training was in the morning. My husband’s shift was night, so we work our schedule so I can go take the classes, and he help me little bit with the boys. It was difficult. In our community, they judge the men, like if you help your wife they don’t consider them like really men. Well, we need to work, both of us, and I am a stubborn person, I do what I want, what I see is better for the family. So he was really great.

I graduate [from Project Feast], I get apprentice at Lifelong, for 6 months. I love it, it was amazing experience. [They serve] seniors and low income, and people who have AIDS, and heart diseases, diabetes, who have special diets.

I decide I want [to study] baking, and search the school which is the best program. I go to school at South Seattle College Pastry and Baking program. I don’t know how I did it, but I did. I finished my program last August, and get hired to Bakery Nouveau.

I choose to work in the kitchen, this career exactly, because if you get a job in the kitchen you can work anywhere.

cardamom cookies-2
Shakar lama

There is a lot of things happening in your life and you forget these beautiful memories. But when I come here, I remember how I [baked at home] with my mom. Especially the sugar cardamom cookies, shakar lama. Kind of like sugar cookies, but filled with fresh ground cardamom. As a child, she put me on the table beside her and I roll them a little bit, small balls and she flatten them and make them, they’re so beautiful. She gave me the recipe, and I make them, ahh, it smell like home. I try to do the same thing with my kids, I know maybe they don’t realize it now but they will remember that and appreciate it.

[My older son Ali] had a lot of memories. He surprised me a lot, I didn’t realize these tiny details they pay attention to. When we first came here, me and Ali were in the street and it was raining. And he smell and he said, ‘you know what, it smell like Baghdad’, like the ground and the air after rain. That make me cry. I was surprised, ‘you really remember?’

traditional tea glasstagheed1

Most of our tradition and culture is about family, about gathering together. Every family in Iraq, they do tea time. Families gather together and sit around the table and have their tea and tell each other about their day. Friday is our weekend, when most of the family came to family house and they all sit together around the table to have lunch, like dolma or macluba or something big. When power is cut in Baghdad, that’s when all the families sit together and they talk as a family. [Now] what we try to do [with our kids], especially in winter, we turn off the lights, and we have a  lamp, a small one, or candles, and we talk about the past time, how we live, our memories. It’s so beautiful.


We going to apply [for citizenship] next October. Almost there! The only thing that will be different for me is to have a passport, because I can travel, see my brothers. I can visit my country. I don’t want to take my kids now, it’s not safe. Nowhere is completely safe. The area where [my parents] go shopping, groceries and everything, has been bombed many times.

I can’t feel American 100 percent. I wish and I try to, but there is this part of culture and history that you can’t deny. So I try to balance and take the best of both of them.

Taghreed’s father, Kadum Ibraheem, standing next to one of his paintings. He also painted the feature image for this article.

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