Resiliency and a recipe book
The story of Afia Foods includes the Syrian civil war and priceless mementos
At 33, Farrah Moussallati Sibai has lived through the loss of a child, the near-loss of another and an estrangement with the third.
The British-born Syrian has survived violence in her home and her family's home country, but she found new love and life in Austin, where she is the owner of Afia Foods, a frozen food company that employs Syrian refugees and whose product recently hit the freezer section of about 200 H-E-B stores throughout Texas.
It's not the life she expected when she was a 23-year-old mother grieving the sudden death of her 15-month-old daughter or when she was a single mom embarking on a new career, but it's a life she's grateful to call her own, and it's all thanks to a little black recipe book and a heaping dose of resiliency.
The long road to Austin
Moussallati Sibai's dad passed away when she was 5 years old. Born to a poor family in Aleppo, he started with nothing, got his first job at 13 and didn't finish school. As a teenager, he moved to Sudan and then Nigeria to work in the textile industry and send money back home. That’s where he met Moussallati Sibai's mom, a Russian-Polish-Syrian who was living in Nigeria at the time.
Business took them to England, where Moussallati Sibai and her siblings were born and where her father died of a heart attack, leaving her mother to raise the children on her own. When Moussallati Sibai was a teenager, she met her ex-husband, and in 2002, they moved to Syria, and Moussallati Sibai had her first daughter, followed by two more girls.
In 2007, she had major complications at the end of her pregnancy with her youngest, Lu-Jaine, and was in a coma for the first few days after she was born.
Moussallati Sibai didn’t leave the hospital until a few weeks later, but despite the troubles at her birth, both Moussallati Sibai and Lu-Jaine regained their health. But other troubles were brewing. She and her sister had married two brothers who left them at the same time, taking the family assets with them. Moussallati Sibai and her daughters had moved in with other family members while they were sorting through the split.
In April 2009, Lu-Jaine started breathing erratically, and despite trips to the hospital, doctors didn’t know what was going on. When Lu-Jaine ended up in the emergency room and had to be admitted to intensive care, there were no beds available at that hospital in Aleppo, so Moussallati Sibai drove 25 minutes to a different hospital where she could get treatment.
“They took her into a room and the nurses wouldn’t let me go in,” she says. When doctors gave her medicine so that she could breathe, they gave her an overdose. She died immediately. “There are no words to explain a situation like that. That lives with me every day.”
At the same time that Lu-Jaine suddenly became ill, her middle daughter, Sereen, was in the hospital for a kidney disorder. Three days after her sister died, Sereen’s blood pressure spiked and her heath took a turn for the worse.
That’s when knew she needed to relocate her daughter to England, where she’d have better access to doctors and medical care. After days of negotiating with Sereen’s father, he relented and signed the papers that would allow them to leave the country.
Sereen’s health improved in England, and Moussallati Sibai decided to relocate there permanently, along with her mother. A messy divorce and custody battle ensued, and her ex won custody of her oldest daughter, a loss that continues to linger. With a daughter to support, she needed to find a way to make a living, so she learned how to work as a currency trader and was able to get on her feet.
With family in France, Morocco and England, Moussallati Sibai had never considered living in the United States, but friends introduced her to Yassin Sibai on Facebook. He was living in Dallas, working as a computer engineer. “We checked out each other's profile and started talking,” she says. Chatting turned into video calls, which turned into family FaceTiming.
Eventually, they decided to get married and blend their families, so Moussallati Sibai and Sereen moved to Texas. The only problem was: She hated Dallas. “I told Yassin, ‘I don’t know whether I can do it,’” she says, recalling her first few weeks in America. He had plans to move to Austin, where he promised that she’d like it better. “As soon as I stepped off the plane in Austin, I knew he was right.”
The little black book
A year after living in Austin, the civil war broke out in Syria. If her husband’s parents wanted to try to leave the country, they had to flee within a matter of hours before the borders closed, so they packed up whatever they could carry, and his mother, Fadia, grabbed her black recipe book.
“You pick up what is priceless to you,” Moussallati Sibai says. “So they packed a little bag with photos, personal items that have sentimental meaning, and one of the things was this black recipe book" full of her family's recipes written in Arabic.
Moussallati Sibai says that she’s never been much of a cook, so when her in-laws finally moved in with them, she was happy to let Fadia be in charge of the meals. She’d make falafel and kibbeh, baba ganoush, tahini and hummus. “The kitchen was her comfort,” she says. “The recipe book was her comfort. Her food was her comfort.”
Cooking for the family was Fadia’s way to feel at home, but it was also a bridge to building relationships with her granddaughters. All this home-cooked Syrian food also inspired Moussallati Sibai to think about all those new Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants opening in every shopping center. At grocery stores, she noticed many brands of hummus, tzatziki and pita chips, but her family's favorite foods were nowhere to be seen in the frozen section.
She’d never been in the food business before, but it felt like a good outlet for her time and talents. “I still hadn’t gotten over the things that had happened to me,” she says. “I needed something for myself. I needed something to make a difference. I needed a pick-me-up.”
It was the beginning of 2015. She wrote out a five-year business plan.
She knew her daughters were watching. “I wanted to prove to my girls that you need to stand up on your feet again, no matter what comes your way.”
She and Yassin put $20,000 down on equipment and rented a 500-square-foot space. They found a machine that they could alter to make kibbeh and falafel, and she got her food-handling and food-safety certificates. She designed the packaging and started making sales calls.
Her family started setting up booths at the Mueller and Lakeline farmers markets every Saturday and Sunday to meet potential new customers. Fresh Plus and Wheatsville were the first local stores to carry their products. Moussallati Sibai started reaching out to restaurants and food trucks, which could buy her falafel and kibbeh wholesale.
The food service accounts carried the business until H-E-B’s Quest for Texas Best contest last year, where Afia Foods was one of 25 finalists competing for prize money. Almost all of the companies in the contest end up on H-E-B shelves at some point, but, like everything else in life, Moussallati Sibai knew it wasn’t a guarantee.
Making the pitch
Moussallati Sibai calls the experience of pitching to judges one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of her life. She told the story of losing Lu-Jaine and her family fleeing Syria. With her daughters by her side, she explained how integral they've been to the business, from working the farmers market booths to encouraging her to keep going when she hit roadblocks.
“I lost two of my daughters, but I was blessed with these three girls,” she says of her step-daughters. “There are days they love each other and get along and days they hate each other and fight, but they were our backbone, to be honest."
She found the sweet point in pricing — $5, the amount consumers are willing to spend to try something new — and the pitch. To new customers, she calls kibbeh a “stuffed Mediterranean meatball,” with the chickpea-based coating on the outside of a small round of meat.
She didn’t win the contest, but the enthusiasm of H-E-B buyers fueled her confidence that, three years into the business, they were about to get their break. Within weeks of Quest, she was in talks with H-E-B to sell her products in nearly 200 stores around Texas.
“The food industry is really difficult to break into. We’d get some sales, but we weren’t getting anywhere,” she says. “For years, out of 100 doors I’d knock on, I’d get one yes.”
H-E-B Vice President of Sourcing Jody Hall says that Moussallati Sibai's product fits with a general trend they are seeing with customers becoming more interested in Mediterranean products, but it was the origin of the recipes and the passion for building a family-run business that really stood out. The "time-saving, healthy and affordable" products are perfect for the busy Texas families that H-E-B serves, Hall says. "Their family story is one of triumph, perseverance and strength."
Bags of frozen kibbeh and falafel — both the spicy and regular — hit H-E-B shelves a few weeks ago, and she and Yassin are splitting their time between overseeing production at the manufacturing facility and giving out samples in the stores.
You can buy ready-to-eat kibbeh and falafel, as well as other traditional favorites, including shawarma and gyros, from the Afia Foods truck at 5000 Burnet Road, which is operated by Moussallati Sibai’s sister-in-law, a Syrian refugee who moved to Austin in 2017.
Giving employment opportunities to refugees has become a major part of Moussallati Sibai’s business philosophy. She employs four Syrian refugees at her manufacturing facility and sponsors events and dinners that raise money for refugee families, efforts that Moussallati Sibai hopes to grow as her company expands.
“I identify as a Syrian but not as a refugee, but having started from scratch, I know what it’s like to start from zero,” she says. “I wanted to focus on helping refugees, making them team members in the factory and making it as comfortable as possible for them.
“My kids have seen that to get somewhere, you’ve got to work for these things,” she says. “You do good, and God will multiply it by a hundred times.”