Thin cigars of baklava with pistachios, baklava with walnuts and honey, made with nearly translucent filo. Bird’s nest treats with tiny noodles of pastry and juicy whole cashews in the middle.
Tmreya (تمرية) look like granola bars but are dramatically lighter and more indulgent. They’re made out of dates, cardamom and biscuit and covered with almonds, cashews and pistachios. Their richness and delicacy reminds you why nuts or cheese can be desserts, when done right.
These are the Syrian desserts that Marwa Alfandi makes for ELFA — a nonprofit that helps refugees from the Middle East find community and support in Tucson. When she arrived in Tucson six years ago, a friend through ELFA helped her cultivate baking skills using recipes Marwa learned from her mother back in Syria.
ELFA also connected her with a mosque, the Islamic Center of Tucson (ICT). The organization helps new generations of refugees with everything from ride shares to doctor’s appointments to collecting diapers or groceries. ELFA also works with the International Refugee Committee to connect with and advocate for refugees in Tucson.
“I need to say that ELFA needs more volunteers,” Marwa said, “to help the new refugees from Afghanistan.”
Marwa’s favorite desserts she makes are the pistachio bird’s nests “because they’re not too sugary,” she said.
During Ramadan, the holiday of fasting which lasts from April 2 to May 1 this year, she limits her sugar intake. When she breaks her fast after sunset, a practice called Iftar, she savors the bird’s nest with a fresh cup of unsweetened Turkish coffee.
Whether she breaks her fast with her family, or with friends, or at ICT, the food is all homemade: sambusas, soup, kibbeh, chicken and rice, doulmas. “ICT has a program during Ramadan where they cook meals for anyone who wants to break fast with us,” Marwa said. “Refugees, Americans, Muslims,” she said.
While the treats she bakes at home — she’s enrolled in Pima County’s cottage bakery program — are celebratory during Ramadan, Marwa bakes them to benefit ELFA year-round. You can buy them through her Facebook page. She uses PayPal or can accept cash when you pick the tray of sweets up.
Marwa is not the only Muslim making food for her community during Ramadan. Al Madina Halal Kitchen is cooking up halal chicken mandi and lamb kabsa, falafel and shawarma for those breaking their fast (and non-practicing Tucsonans who love Yemeni food). Stores like Babylon Market and Caravan Mideastern Foods supply the ingredients community members like Marwa need to make Arabic delicacies in their homes.
To buy desserts from Marwa, reach out to her through her Facebook page.
For more information about ELFA, check out their website.
The Islamic Center of Tucson is located at 901 E. First Ave. Their Iftar is every day of Ramadan after sunset, around 6:50 p.m.