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Editor's note • When refugees immigrate to Utah, they arrive with little in the way of worldly goods. They do, however, bring their language, customs and recipes. In Refugee Kitchens, an ongoing series, The Salt Lake Tribune invited immigrants to cook dishes from their homelands as a window into their lives, as well as how they prepare food in a new culture.

Midvale • Yassir Alzoubi loves to cook. His chicken shawarma and falafel are right out of Syria and sing with Middle Eastern flavors.

The recipes Yassir holds close to his heart are among the few things he and his family brought from their southern Syrian village that was practically bombed out of existence near the city of Daraa.

Yassir and his wife, Manal, have three sons, ages 17, 12 and 8, and 15-year-old twin daughters. They now live in Midvale with the children's grandmother, Soubhieh Abdullah, 81.

The family members escaped with little but the clothes on their backs in March 2013, when Syrian government bombers flattened Khirbet Ghazaleh, their suburban town of 30,000. During a pause in the bombing, they caught a ride in a van to the southernmost village in Syria and then walked 15 miles into Jordan. There, they lived in the Zaatari refugee camp for 2½ years.

These days, the Alzoubis keep memories of home alive with traditions, the most sensory of which is food.

Daraa, a city of about 1 million in southwestern Syria is about 55 miles south of Damascus. It is sometimes called the "cradle of the revolution," because protests erupted there when a dozen boys were arrested for painting anti-government graffiti. That, some say, sparked the Arab Spring in Syria and the rebellion in 2011.

Later that year, bombs began to fall in and around Daraa. Many nights, the family retired to the safety of the basement. But it was difficult to sleep with explosions all around, said Mohammed, the 17-year-old.

In 2016, the United Nations estimated that 400,000 Syrians had been killed during the hostilities. Some 5 million have fled the country, according to the U.N. Hundreds of them have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea attempting to cross to Europe. An additional 6 million have been displaced inside the war-torn country.

The fighting and dying continue to this day.

These are troubling thoughts for Yassir as he busies himself in their small kitchen. He has always had a natural proclivity for food, according to Manal. He makes his own yogurt, mayonnaise, pickles — and not least, pickled eggplant.

For his shawarma, Yassir cut boneless chicken breasts and bathed the slices in a sauce made from yogurt, curry, garlic, paprika, cumin, salt, vinegar, olive oil and lemon juice.

With the touch of a natural chef, he then fried the chicken in olive oil until golden brown, explaining the technique as he went along.

Unlike in Syria, here he uses Mexican flour tortillas as a wrap, prepared with a spread of yogurt, mayonnaise and topped with pickles. The chicken is then rolled up in the tortilla. The resulting sandwich is lightly grilled as tantalizing aromas waft about the apartment.

Yassir and Manal were both educators in Khirbet Ghazaleh, which also was home to engineers, physicians and other professionals, he explained proudly.

"It's a special place. People there cared about each other," Yassir said through a translation by Mohammed.

They had built a new house in 2007, Yassir said. "Our home is gone now — bomb."

Yassir and his siblings also owned a small farm nearby, where they grew wheat, olives, tomatoes and watermelon.

"It was good land," Yassir said. "It was good for growing."

As he prepared a large number of chicken shawarma sandwiches, Yassir recalled his older brother, who is still in Syria.

"No place is safe in Syria," he said. "When we got out of there, the situation was very bad. But now it is worse."

Mohammed translated for his father: "The government does not help people," he said. "It turned against them and started killing them."

These days, Yassir is a stay-at-home dad, while Manal works part time at Deseret Industries, the thrift store owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She works diligently to improve her English. In the fall, she also will begin work as a teacher's assistant at East Midvale Elementary School.

Like many refugees, they get by on little and are thankful for a safe place to live.

Learning a new language is much easier for youngsters. Mohammed and his siblings speak English well, even though they have been in the United States for only 15 months.

Mohammed, the twins, Salam and Raghad, and brothers Abdul, 12 and Mahmoud, 8, all had intense English-language training in the Jordanian refugee camp before they immigrated to the U.S.

The Alzoubis were sponsored by the International Rescue Committee, through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They also have had support from the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Women of the World (, which helps refugees adapt to a new land and culture.

They appear relaxed and well adjusted and, like most refugees, are polite and generous.

Although they put on a hopeful face, the transition to a new country and culture is not easy.

"We didn't know anyone here," Manal said. "But people in America are very nice. We are happy to be in Utah."

Nonetheless, she pines for her homeland and the brother and sister she left behind. "My hope is that my family can join us here."

Yassir, too, misses Syria. "It's sad," he said through Mohammed. "I spent most of my life there, so it is hard to leave."

For the youngsters, the transition is a bit easier. The girls enjoy school. Their brothers love soccer.

Yassir is quick to point out that the twins and Mohammed have made the honor role at Hillcrest High School.

Not surprisingly, everyone craves dad's Syrian cooking.

For the falafel, Yassir had prepared a humus of chickpeas, onion, garlic, parsley and coriander, with a little salt, baking soda and an egg. He then rolled up several dozen dollops, a little larger than pingpong balls. Into the hot olive oil they went until nut brown.

A taste sensation that takes them home.