Ahmad and Evelyn AissaPhoto Credit : Erica Follansbee/courtesy of Aissa Sweets
In 2009, Ahmad Aissa was living in Damascus, Syria, when he met Evelyn Bresinger, a Tufts graduate student. After falling in love and ultimately fleeing the Syrian civil war together, they now live in Evelyn’s home state of New Hampshire, where Ahmad runs Aissa Sweets, a bakery whose Syrian pastries are sold across the country. We recently caught up with them to hear more of their unforgettable story.
Q. How did you two meet?
Evelyn: Ahmad was friends with my roommate [in Damascus]. That whole summer, we were just friends. I went back home to finish my degree and came back with the intention of living in Syria permanently. Ahmie and I started dating within a few weeks, and we got engaged in early March 2011.
Q. That’s the same month that the Syrian revolution began. When did you know you had to leave?
Evelyn:Things got bad enough by May that we decided the best thing to do was to get married so we had a chance of leaving together if we needed to. We got all our paperwork for Ahmad’s visa into the embassy in July, and then it immediately closed down for a month. I had a friend who worked there, so as soon as the embassy reopened, we got an interview and they cleared him for a visa almost overnight. But we didn’t tell anyone we were leaving the country. We were worried the authorities would find out and somehow block us, so we just crept out.
Q. Ahmad, what was it like to suddenly find yourself in New Hampshire?
The most wonderful thing was meeting my in-laws. They’re such a beautiful family, so welcoming. But it wasn’t easy, because your mind is still back in Syria and you’re here and you want to navigate a new life, new culture, new language. I had to ask, Who am I going to be in this country?
Q. And how did you go from your former career, as the owner of a clothing shop, to opening a bakery?
It was pretty ugly news, what was happening in Syria. I wanted to tell people something more beautiful about my country, to give a different perspective of the culture. Baking had been a hobby. I love the desserts in Syrian cuisine. So I wanted to really learn it. I needed to perfect the recipes and think about how we could make this into a business. I started renting space in a shared kitchen in Dover, where I made samples and went around to local specialty stores and groceries.
Q. How quickly did it take off?
Ahmad: The largest step forward was when we added Whole Foods to the list. They gave us eight stores at the beginning and increased a little bit and then they said, “Can you produce enough for the entire region?”
Evelyn: We were truly handmade. We were hand-chopping filo dough. Hand-molding the maamoul cookies. We asked all of our friends and family to make thousands of hand-pressed cookies. It was literally 24/7.
Ahmad: After we made the first order by hand, we got paid and we bought equipment and we had the ability to mix and process cookies. We started to slowly buy machines. We are still growing, and there is a long way to go. But I love where I am and I love where I’m going. The most important thing is that I am with Evelyn. Leaving everything I had in Syria gave me an ability to be more resilient and cherish what’s really essential.
Our visit with Evelyn and Ahmad Aissa is featured on season six of Weekends with Yankee, which debuted this spring on public television stations nationwide. To find out how to watch, go to weekendswithyankee.com.