Feb. 24 marked the one-month anniversary of Aleppo Sweets’ opening on Ives Street.
The shop has a warm and welcoming atmosphere: Copper Turkish tea sets decorate the front of the restaurant, a dozen plants and lamps hang from the azure ceiling and Arabic songs play softly in the background. The restaurant not only serves traditional Syrian baked goods and beverages but also reveals the story of Youssef Arkhtarini, a Syrian refugee who owned a few bakeries in Aleppo and now continues his passion for baking in Providence.
At the age of 16, Arkhtarini was already teaching others how to make baklava, a Middle Eastern sweet dessert pastry filled with layers of chopped nuts and held together by syrup. At 24, he opened a few small sweet shops in Aleppo, selling baklava by the stacks every day, he said.
When he arrived to the United States in October of 2016 with only a handbag of belongings and his rolling pin, Arkhtarini’s mindset was, “I need to open the bakery, as I don’t have anything,” he said.
Sandra Martin, then a volunteer for Dorcas International Institute of RI, met the Arkhtarini family at the institute the day after they arrived in Providence. “It was their first full day in the United States, and it was my first day volunteering at Dorcas,” said Martin, who has continued to develop a relationship with the family.
“It was clear early on that being a baklava baker was part of his identity,” Martin said. After years of watching Arkhtarini make baklava first at home and then in a rented kitchen at a nearby pizza shop, Martin and her husband Victor Pereira decided to invest in a restaurant property last May as a space for Aleppo Sweets. Martin added that Arkhtarini’s baklavas had already gained a small following through his presence at farmer’s markets, but the news of his pastries spread even more quickly after the opening of the store.
While Martin owns the restaurant, she said that when “the Arkhtarinis feel like they’re prepared and ready to fly on their own, and also the business is viable, … at that point (Aleppo Sweets) would become theirs.”
During the month since the bakery’s opening, customers have praised Aleppo Sweets for its variety of dishes, pastries and beverages and have resonated with the baker’s story. “It’s great that you have someone who has been doing this previously in their home country, and … continuing it (here),” said Jin Douglass, a customer visiting Aleppo Sweets last Sunday morning.
Martin explained that this Syrian bakery and cultural hub is staffed almost exclusively by Syrian refugees. “What better way to convey a culture than (through) people from that culture?” Martin said. She added that the bakery has attracted a diverse customer base of various age groups and ethnicities. She noted that a lot of Arabic-speaking people and first- or second-generation Lebanese, Israeli and Syrian customers have visited the store in its first month.
The Providence community has also supported the Arkhtarini family’s adjustment to their new life in the United States. Arkhtarini said that each week, Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment (BRYTE) volunteers work with both his children and those of two other Syrian families at the bakery.
“It’s been great to have people come and be a part of something we created … and (to) feel like people are having the experience we hoped they would have,” Martin said.