Monday, April 22, 2019
"A lot of people ask me where I am from. I'm originally from Tajikistan. I consider myself Tajik, even though I was born in Germany and lived there several years. Ever since I was seventeen, I have been out of Tajikistan and traveling all over. Most of my time has been in the United States. I also lived in Spain, traveled to Italy, Portugal, to Russia, and to many other countries. But I still consider myself Tajik, and my parents are Tajik as well. The foods my family eats are Tajik, as is our culture.
We lived in different parts of Tajikistan, but mostly in Dushanbe, the capital. Central Asia is in the heart of the Silk Road, so all of the goods and ideas and products and culture from China to Europe have passed through. I was born in East Germany and we traveled back and forth between there and Tajikistan for a few years. After the collapse of Soviet Union, we were transferred back to Tajikistan. I grew up studying mainly in Tajikistan, and then in my senior year, I studied in the United States, in Alabama.
We moved to Arlington in 2014. My husband is doing his PhD studies at George Mason University. While he has been doing that, I was mainly taking care of our two boys. One is four and the other one is eight. My oldest son goes to Patrick Henry Elementary. My youngest will be starting school this year.
I feel accepted here in Arlington. Thank God my husband and I both got our education in the United States. When we came, we spoke the language. We were internet-savvy. But there was a moment when we were literally on the street with four suitcases with no idea where to go. I was literally standing with four suitcases, my child, and my husband.
When we came to Arlington we found an apartment near Columbia Pike. We had been at a temporary Airbnb, and the time had run out. We had to leave. We had a little money allocated to get a taxi. So we went to that building and we told them, “We’re going to give you the deposit, please let us rent this space”. Getting an apartment was not easy because they do a credit check, and again, I was lucky we had a credit history; many immigrants do not. Imagine if we didn't. We would be on the streets. It must be much harder for folks who didn't have the criteria that we had. So, we passed the credit check. We were standing on the street with our suitcases. Everything we owned was in those four suitcases. Thank God it was warm. We told the contractor, we need our apartment right away. The guy said, “but they're cleaning it right now.” I'm like, “no, no, no, I'll clean it myself! Just leave, we have to go inside.” And they were laughing at us. I was insisting “don't worry about it, I will paint it myself!” 'Cause we were exhausted. My oldest was three and a half years old, and I was seven months pregnant. It was a disaster. We had to leave where we had been, and had been searching for a place to live for two weeks, and there was a deadline. That day we had to have the apartment or we would have been sleeping outside on the street. We still remember. It's a bit funny now.
Later on, I decided to start my own business, to become self-employed, because apparently starting your own business is the best thing to do in the United States. So now I am a very busy person. I started in 2015 working from a farmers market. I registered all my licenses, a very difficult process, especially when you work in the food industry. You have to have special certificates and go through different applications and screenings. I didn't realize it was so much work. If you are producing food for consumption, the regulations are very strict. My first vending event was a Christmas bazaar with the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization.
Now I am out every single Sunday at the farmers market. There are some very harsh days, but other than a severe winter storm, I am there. I have customers who have been buying from me every single Sunday for the past three, four years. We build a relationship. I know them, they know me. I know that they have extended family in Alaska. They buy my products, some of my fruit tarts from the market; and take them to Alaska. Some take things to California. I have people who love this stuff so much they buy it from me, they freeze it, they take it to Colorado, to Florida. Usually it is folks from the neighborhood that come by, especially the Penrose neighborhood, but also from other areas around Columbia Pike near the farmers market. There were some women who were expecting a baby when I just started and now their babies are old enough to buy and eat my products. I know some of the kids from when they were newborn, their mom would come and buy. Now they are three years old and they come and they have their favorite products, they choose them from me at the market.
When I started, my business was called Sweets and Spice. I mixed my own spices, I had almost seventy different varieties. And then, when I was home, just with kids, and my husband would be working, I would always bake. This is something I've been doing since childhood. I would always bake and distribute it to neighbors, to friends, and everyone told me, “this tastes so good, you should sell it, you should make a living on it.” My original business idea was to do spices and sweets. It was end of February of 2016 that I already had all of my licenses in place, all of my applications, taxes. Everything was in place and I started selling for my first time at the Columbia Pike Farmers Market. I had a very tiny table with my spices and sweets. That market is year-round, and It was so cold. But the people who would come to the market were so supportive. I think they are the reason I actually stuck to it. Even if people didn't buy something, they would come just to chat and support me and welcome me. They were like, “oh, you're a new vendor, what you are doing?” Everyone loves talking to each other. So they would encourage me, “hang on, June is coming, the market will grow and you will do much better.” Every single Sunday those people would come just to support me.
During winter season that market has three to four vendors. But when June starts, they're up to twelve vendors and more people come in. I began getting more requests for something more traditional, and that's how I started making savory products. In order to sell different products, you have to have additional licenses. So, I got those licenses as well.
One of the main savory goods is the sambusa, it's like the samosa, but it's a Central Asian variety. All of the foods in my country have more of a Mediterranean flavor. They are not as spicy, and our sambusas are baked instead of being fried. My first flavor was herb and spice, made with my own spices. People just loved it. The first time I ever made it, my sambusas were gone in half an hour. Over the years, I realized that people are trying to stay away from sugar, and they wanted more savory products, something to grab for lunch, for dinner, so I expanded my menu. People would come to me every Sunday on Columbia Pike. My customers would tell me, “we are tired of waiting for you just to show up on Sundays. We want to be able to buy this food during the week. Why don't you open your own store?” In 2017, I changed my company name to Taste of Eurasia and started to look for a storefront. My husband and I went through Arlington, along Columbia Pike. There's not a single business location that I didn't visit, because I wanted to ask them if they could let me either buy their business or let me take over their lease. It was impossible. The rent along Columbia Pike is very high and businesses know that it's a very good place to do business, so they stick to their leases. In the end, we opened our own carryout in Alexandria, in Del Ray.
I have been cooking and baking for about two decades. I just had a passion for it, but I never ever thought I would end up doing this for a living. It was my hobby since I was ten or eleven years old. I would try to make something in my mom's kitchen. I would mess up something. But by the time I was thirteen, I could bake cakes. We grew up making everything from scratch, fast food is not very popular, every family cooks for themselves. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. This is something that's part of our nature. We know how to cook because we were raised that, if you want to eat, you have to cook it yourself. Of all of my sisters and my brother, I think I enjoyed cooking and baking the most.
I lived in Montana for almost six years. I got my bachelor's in political science and Spanish. I did my master's degree there as well, in public administration and international development. I say that baking and cooking have always been my hobby, but I never thought about doing business with it. Back home, I never saw myself as a business owner. Here, it seems so much easier. Yes, there are a lot of regulations, so many tasks and check marks, but if you do it, if you get this and that, you can work, you have a way of growing, and that's what happened. When I started, my table was just three feet square. Now I have two tables and during peak seasons, I have seven markets, most of them in Arlington. So I have Columbia Pike, Old Town, Clarendon and sometimes I go to the Courthouse farmers market. I was trying to expand and it worked.
The number one reason I thought this would be successful is because a lot of people, especially in this neighborhood, are very conscious about healthy eating. They are trying to get foods that are all natural, and they want to support local farmers, so that's what I do. We make everything from scratch, we use non-GMO, unbleached products like flour, and we work with local farmers from Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia to get our produce and eggs. We work with local butchers here on Columbia Pike to source all of our meat products which come from local farms. I know this great halal butcher on Columbia Pike, behind the Irish pub. I meet the farmers through the markets and through some of my customers. It's all through communication with people. I think the number one reason I actually dared to open my own place was the people who were coming and encouraging meand my husband who supported me all the way. They gave me strength to do this.
I see that the community along the Pike is changing a bit. I definitely am seeing that there are more businesses that are coming to the area. Right now you see more smaller businesses coming here. Before it was chain businesses. I see a lot of small, self-employed people who are trying to open their own spots. There are some people who work with kitchen design, some photographers, some hair salons and other stuff that are opening. People are realizing that it is possible to own your small business and grow.
We have a lot of people here now who just moved to the area. They are usually a younger population, and they are very curious about the farmers market. There are a lot of people who try to eat local and support local businesses, so this is something that has been growing. It’s good news for my business, because this is what we want to do, and obviously people want to support this. And now over the years I see that the support is growing.
My mom and my dad are very good in cooking. My father had a restaurant in Tajikistan, in Dushanbe, so I had a little experience of the business. Right before coming here, I helped him to open a little café, made the design more modern, the menu items were a little modernized. When I came here, he told me that the cafe was a big success, that were people lining up outside.
Of course, when I was at home, I would watch how my mom and my grandma would make stuff. There’s a special type of bread, naan, that we make in a clay oven. My grandma taught me how to do that. Once a week it was my duty to make bread, because we were a big family. Usually in Central Asia, there's not a single table that doesn't have bread on it. People love bread, it goes with everything. We have rice as well, but bread is more popular. You have to have bread on the table. I would knead the dough and at first I made it in a standard kitchen oven. But then my father built a clay oven for me outside of our house. My grandma taught me how to bake in the clay oven. You have to light the fire inside, you have the dough, and you reach inside the hot clay oven and slap it down on the sides of the clay oven. They stick there and they bake under fire. I enjoyed it. I've been doing it since childhood.
For Eid celebrations, every single household had to bake something, cook something, so the table is almost filled with maybe twenty-five menu items. You would have at least two hot dishes, something like soup. And then something like plov, the traditional rice dish, or something on the side, something that is not liquidy. Then you would have sweets, you would have melons, watermelons, you would have tons of different fruits, salads. You would have little cakes. It was a good time. Neighbors would go to each other and see who baked what, and what their skills are. Sometimes you would have around one hundred people coming into your house.
Right now it's a little different, but when I was growing up, that was the tradition. You would have maybe five hundred kids coming by, too, it's like Halloween. They are dressed up very nicely, but the idea is that they come and greet you with Eid and you give them either candy, hard boiled eggs, or you give them money, you give them some sweets, gum. Everyone is dressed up and they go to each other's houses and all of the doors are always open. Here, Eid is not celebrated so much publicly, but we do some of that for our kids. We tell them, “okay, now you need to go outside.” We give them their own bags, and we say “come and knock on the door.” So they come and knock our door, and they say "Happy Eid!" and we give them sweets and stuff. We imitate the tradition, yes.
Yesterday was Nowruz. It's a big holiday in Tajikistan. Over here, we try to celebrate it. Last night we had a special dinner, desserts, and everything, with our family. Back home, it's a huge celebration. There are special foods for Nowruz. One dish, like a dessert, is called sumanak. Some people call it sumalak, also. You sprout wheat, and when the wheat sprouts, you cut off the green part, and make a pudding. It turns out very sweet, but it doesn't have a drop of sugar. The process takes at least twenty-four hours. Families, everyone, has to come and stir the pot because if you don't, it will stick to the bottom. It's not a one-person job. You have to be constantly stirring the pot. We'd mix it and go home and then someone else would come. Everyone had to mix it for at least several hours. When I was growing up, each neighborhood would have its own sumalak pot. Everyone would come and make a wish for the new year, say thanks to God, and wish happy Nowruz to everyone.
There are other Tajik people in the area. There is a big community in Fairfax. This week, there's a Nowruz celebration. There's an association called Tajik American Association and they have Nowruz celebrations every year. They invite people and mostly Tajiks can go there, they have plov served, they have some bread, some traditional foods, or they make a potluck, everyone makes something traditional and brings it.
My children’s school is very diverse. Every classroom has a mix of at least five different ethnicities. They all speak English, they all have common interests like sports. But they have standard subjects where they all speak one language, everybody's learning one thing. But when my son came home from school, that was a challenge for me. I wanted my kids to speak my native language, but as soon as my oldest child went to school, he would come home and start speaking English to me. A lot of parents start responding to their kids in English and that's when the kids lose their native speech. In my language we say “mother tongue.” So whatever language the mother speaks, usually the child will speak that language. So, we have a rule in our house: inside the house, everyone speaks our native language. At school; English. If we are outside with family members, we always speak Tajik.
They also have started learning Spanish at school. I also want my kids to speak Russian, so they watch Russian cartoons that we choose. So, four languages, but the base is Tajik. When they don't understand a word in English, they know the word in Tajik. I made sure that they have the basic knowledge of their native language and then they build on other languages.
We definitely want to go back home to Tajikistan, but I don't know what's going to happen. My husband is doing his studies, I'm having my own business, but we want to go back home. I still miss it, but I have no idea. I've been out of Tajikistan since I was seventeen years old, but I have my roots there. For right now, we're here, and we're trying to make best out of it, to use all of the opportunities that are available. Just like last week, I registered my own real estate company. I'm noticing so much potential in this area.
I want it to be not like a regular real estate investment company, but one that will have fair options for families. As an outsider, the way the mortgage system is set up in the United States seems so unfair to me. People end up losing their homes. I have this idea of how to help people with getting their homes. I've been thinking about this idea for years. I want to focus on Arlington because I know some families who are losing their homes and it just breaks my heart. I feel it's so unfair to be living in one property, paying taxes, making down payments, and it's gone, you have to get out of there. I have this humanitarian worker in me. I used to work with the United Nations, for the UN High Commission for Refugees. It's still part of me. I always want to do something that helps community.
In 2016, I registered my own charity organization here in Arlington, it's called WE-CAN. It mainly focuses on women and children. They face difficulties and they don't know what to do. So we help them, we show them the options, there are these services, you need to apply here, this school, this agency. Because some people just move here, and they don't have a lot of money, they don't know what to do, and they might end up on the streets. So this non-governmental charity organization, counsels those people. They have no idea there is a Department of Human Services here. They don't know it's possible to find help. Some come with children with disabilities. They don't know there are services for them, because from where they come from, services are not developed. Here, it's a matter of showing the person where that is, and you can see them soar. They become so independent, they see that there is hope, that there is help in the community.
That is what I've been doing. It's part of me. My business part is one thing, and the other part of me is a humanitarian worker. I spent a lot of time developing the WE-CAN website; it has a lot of useful information. It contains links to where to apply for Medicaid or Medicare or any healthcare options, where to apply for housing assistance, shelters, resources for victims of domestic violence, how to get free language courses. There's so many free services available, people just don't know they exist. On my website, I clearly state that we speak Russian, we speak English, we speak Spanish.
The beauty of living in the US is that if you're persistent with something, you can grow. We have recently purchased our own property. My husband is doing his studies, he's working with the World Bank. I'm focusing more on growing the businesses, but also on the charity organization. I want to do something different. I'm still brainstorming, because every time I see something that doesn't feel right, I want to do something about it.
Interview and photography by Lloyd Wolf.