Millions of Conversations is committed to sharing the stories of partners whom we feel are working to transcend divides in America today. Below is a recent interview with Farrah Moussallati Sibai, founder of Afia Foods. Farrah’s story exemplifies what we believe it means to transcend divides through shared common values. Afia Foods uses both their product and business model to show how food can be a means for change. Please read Farrah’s story and share your thoughts with us!
Millions: Please tell us a little about yourself. How did you decide to move from the UK to the US? How has your background shaped your life experiences?
Farrah: I was born and raised in the UK, into a large Syrian family. I was studying business whilst raising my 3 daughters when in 2009 my life took a change for the worse. I lost 2 of my 3 daughters, and my remaining daughter was diagnosed with a life-changing kidney disease. At the same time, war had taken a hold of Syria and our family lost so much of what we had there.
I moved to Austin, Texas in 2012 when I married Yassin, and this was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. We combined our families, and I’m fortunate to again be in a large family, with our daughters and in-laws. I was determined to show the girls that anything is possible…that we are strong women and that starting from the ground upwards and succeeding is possible. It was this belief and determination that shaped my move to Austin. I wanted to make a difference, be successful, and help. I spent the first few years of my move to Austin volunteering with local non-profit organizations to help a huge influx of refugees.
M: Tell us about Afia Foods and the little black recipe book. How did you find this book, what did it do for you, and what do you hope Afia does for others?
F: At Afia, we pride ourselves on making the most authentic, flavorful, and nutritious Mediterranean food, and in particular our falafel and kibbeh which are available in multiple flavors. The idea for the company came to me when I would shop for my family in Austin. I couldn’t find many of the Mediterranean foods that were familiar to us and our community. My mother-in-law, like many refugees, struggled when she moved to the states, but the one place she found comfort was in our kitchen. She cooked amazing meals that brought the family together, using her black recipe book. This book is full of recipes from many generations in our family. When my mother in law fled the war in Syria, she had only hours to pack her life in a bag before the borders closed. She packed her most priceless possessions and sentimental items, one of these items was her black recipe book. It’s filled with recipes handed down from generation to generation, full of authenticity and tradition.
With women empowerment in mind, I aspired to start my own business. I hoped to start a business that would be successful and also enable me to employ and support refugees. I believed this love and warmth that you could taste in her food must be shared. Afia’s generation-old traditional recipes are combined with modern flavors to create a delicious fusion of Mediterranean classics, and we pride ourselves in using only simple ingredients like chickpeas, parsley, garlic, and other herbs and spices. I hope that with Afia we can introduce authentic Mediterranean cuisine to Americans, while serving and empowering the community.
M: You mentioned that Afia works to actualize change through providing people with jobs and opportunities. Tell us a little more about your experiences volunteering and working in Texas and how you chose to make Afia Foods a space for progress and possibility.
F: As I found my footing in Austin, I volunteered to help refugees in the community. Although I am not personally a refugee, I experienced pain and despair in many of the ways that they did, through the loss of belongings and loved ones, by starting from scratch in a new city, and by adapting to a new culture and lifestyle. I empathized with them, their pain, and experiences. Helping the refugees in Austin learn English, translate, and adapt to this new lifestyle was gratifying and the least I felt I could do. I wished I could do more and with Afia my wish came true. Not only am I able to help them with their transition but now I am able to support them by employing refugees at the company and by continuing to donate products monthly to refugee and hunger non-profit organizations. I hope that as we grow we can support many more members of our community.
M: The goal of Millions of Conversations is to transcend divides. Have you had a difficult conversation or encounter? How did you transcend divides?
F: When volunteering, we definitely talked about the difficult conversations that can sometimes be had when people from different cultures meet and get to know each other. Something important to us at Afia is that we are one community. Afia has a beating heart and our hard-working employees and refugees are at its core. They are diligent individuals with families to support and bills to pay, and lifting them is important to Afia.
M: How do you think Afia Foods transcends divides?
F: America is the land of opportunities and it’s the people that make America as great as it is. Afia takes pride in employing refugees who work hard in providing hundreds of thousands of Texans and people across the country with our authentic Mediterranean food. We’ve been fortunate to see so many people enjoying the flavorful, delicious falafel and kibbeh we make, and with food as a universal unifier, we do see people of varying backgrounds come together to share their enthusiasm for what they are tasting.
M: What do you hope for yourself and your organization ten years from now?
F: In 10 years from now, I would hope to have an established well-known brand nationwide. I want to grow Afia’s team by employing and supporting hundreds of people, all while continuing to encourage and empower women and supporting communities and refugees all around the states. We are not here to make a quick buck, but to make great food and contribute to the greater good.
M: What do you wish people would know about you? What do you wish you could know about other people?
F: As a female leader at a female-majority owned business, I am always interested in connecting with fellow entrepreneurs in the retail and food category, and with fellow female business leaders who too value community and empowering teams.