This is how 10-year-old Yousif Ibrahim describes his mother, Taghreed, who in 2013 was resettled by the International Rescue Committee in Seattle with her husband and two children after fleeing from the war in Iraq. It took them seven years and countless security and health checks before they were allowed to travel to America.
For as long as he can remember, Yousif has shared a passion for baking with his mother, who now works as a pastry cook. The two are a dynamic duo in the kitchen, making traditional Iraqi dishes and sweets to help them savor memories of their homeland.
Yousif dreams of one day cooking a special meal, “to be at a dining table, a giant one, with our whole family.” For now, he shares his story of his love for his family, and cooking, below.
Every morning, the house smelled like vanilla
When I was little, I saw a Wonder Woman cup and I started to think about my mom and how she is this really amazing person...a super mom, a super chef. That’s why I started to call her Superpan! (She mostly cooks with a pan!)
If I did not have my mom, I would not be here. She really cares about us and works hard to keep us safe, especially when something big and scary is happening. I feel like that’s very brave.
My family left Iraq in 2013 because of the war. They were in danger. I wasn’t born yet, but my older brother Ali was two years old. My mom said she was very scared at the time.
They first traveled to Dubai in 2006. That’s where I was born. My mom was really sad about leaving Iraq and couldn’t sleep, so she started to bake in the middle of the night to make her feel happy. It reminded her of home. I was really little in Dubai, but I remember every morning the house smelled like vanilla. It was really nice! But we couldn’t stay there forever—my mom was afraid we’d have to go back to Iraq, so that’s when we came to America.
We are best friends in the kitchen!
I was scared because it was my first time on a plane and I didn’t really know what America was like. I remember Ali told me that we were going to our new home. I felt excited because we were together as a family going to a safe place.
Family is truly something big and important for me. I’m reading a book called Night Divided. It’s about how a girl’s family is divided because some are living in East Berlin and some are in West Berlin. They’re separated because of the wall.
I feel sad for her because I’m someone who always wants to be with my family and I never want to be separated from them. But I also think she’s very courageous…she’s trying to go back to her family.
I like exploring new worlds in books and using my imagination. That’s how I feel when I bake too…happy, confident and creative.
I love baking with my mom because it’s a lot of fun and we get to spend time together. We are best friends in the kitchen! When we have a lot of family over and they are in our small kitchen, my mom kicks everyone out except for me. I’m her best helper.
I like experimenting and it’s fun to learn about new ingredients and the science behind baking and cooking. I love how our home smells when we bake cookies, and I’m just always really happy. My heart feels good.
Cardamom makes me feel like I’m home
My favorite things to make are traditional Iraqi recipes. Since I wasn't born in Iraq, I don’t feel a connection to it like my family does. Making traditional Iraqi food helps me have a relationship with my homeland and my heritage. That’s really important to me because that’s where I am from, and where my family is from. I know it’s kind of a dangerous place, but it’s a place that my family really loves. Also, Iraqi food smells and tastes really good!
My favorite cookie to make is shakar lama (cardamom). It’s my grandma's recipe and I haven't seen my grandma in a very long time. I love cardamom a lot—it makes me feel like I'm home—we use it for everything... tea, food, cookies! It's like our family’s signature. It’s been passed down generation to generation. My mom and I want to share the recipe with you:
Shakar Lama Cookies
By Taghreed Ibrahim
Serving Size: 25 cookies
- 1 cup vegetable shortening, softened
- 1 and 1/2 cups superfine sugar
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon whole cardamom, ground
- Pinch of salt
- Almonds or hazelnuts for garnish (optional)
Preheat oven to 375°F. Mix the butter and sugar in a small bowl, using an electric mixer, until light and fluffy (2 minutes). Blend in the dry ingredients, mixing carefully to incorporate.
Using a spoon, form the batter into 25 or so small, walnut-size balls. Place each ball onto a cookie sheet and use the palm of your hand to flatten each into a round cookie and garnish with a single nut (if desired). Bake 10–15 minutes. Allow cookies to cool completely on the baking sheet before removing to a plate.
The most important thing is to love each other
My mom has taught me a lot of things, like hard work. “It’s who we are and our story,” she tells me. “We left everything, left our country and started a new life just for you, so you have to appreciate it and also work hard. We had a long journey and we still have a lot to do.” She tells me, “Remember, you have to stay strong.”
...I want my entire family to be together again—and I’ll cook for us all.
But the most important thing is to love each other and accept people for who they are. Love is very important.
I wish for my mom to have a good career and life. The one thing I really want is one night to be at a dining table, a giant one, with our whole family. I love my family, they are my life. And I want my entire family to be together again—and I’ll cook for us all.