What is it to leave the  place where you were born and take your family and travel to somewhere where you don’t know anyone, you don’t speak the language, the things you did for a living are no longer available to you?  I am here at the Family Cafe in downtown Beaverton to find out.  

Warmth and charm surround me as I step into the small cafe on Broadway. Talib Zaidawi and his wife Hala Alrubaye and their 16 year old daughter, Daniah, welcome me.  We sit at one of the tables and they bring me fragrant black tea with cardamom and little pastries filled with pistachios. 

They do not join me in the treats they have set before me because I have come to visit during the month of Ramadan, the month long religious event that requires fasting during daylight hours, not just from food and drink, but also from angry or impure thoughts, from gossip. As Talib tells me, “It is fasting from saying bad things about people, from bad habits, from intimacy,” he says, “to better connect with God.”  And far from being a punishment or suffering, it is a celebration, a lightening of the spirit and a purification. “It is a mental cleanse,” he says, “And it’s good for your health.  It’s a good time to restart good habits and relieve the pressure on the stomach, bring down your blood pressure, and stop eating too much sugar. When we finish we find ourselves light, my fingers work better. I don’t have a headache.” 

Talib Zaidawi cooking
Talib Zaidawi cooking for customers

As I look around I see the love and personal handicraft they have invested in the cafe.  For the second time since they have arrived they have remodeled. They have brought back beautiful Turkish coffee sets and other decorative and useful items from  the family’s recent trip to Turkey.  Talib shows me the light fixtures he made with rope, the fabric he has selected for the cushions, the new floor.  His proud collection of miniature vintage cars sits in a lighted display cabinet holding pride of place against an interior wall. 

Talib and Hala are justifiably proud of the work they have done, the business they have created and the lives they have made for themselves and their children because it hasn’t always been easy. Their previous lives were in Iraq where they also owned a cafe.  Talib was the mayor of Kariada, the town in which they lived.  He was also a high school coach and Hala worked in the court system.  Then came the war.

Talib and especially Hala, with her job in the court system, had positive dealings with the Americans and the time came when that was a dangerous alliance to be involved in.  Talab recounts the day they decided to leave saying after seeing armed men watching them they no longer felt safe and the time had come to flee.

In the space of one day they packed what they could and they took their two daughters to a camp in Lebanon where they spent the next two years filling out paperwork and looking for a new home.  Aid workers asked them if they knew anyone in the United States but they said they didn’t.  “Okay,” they told them, “Then you will go to Oregon.”

Talib and his family had to look it up on Google as they had never heard of it before. “But I knew it would be good,” he says, “it was a gift from God and I knew we would be happy there.” They arrived in Beaverton in 2013. 

Daniah Abdulhasan and Hala Alrubaye
Daniah Abdulhasan with her mother, Hala Alrubaye

“So when we came here,” Talib says, “we didn’t know anyone, our language skills were almost zero but we thought we will learn.”  It wasn’t as easy to do as it is to say.  Talib went to work shortly after arriving here.  The proud man who ran his own business and led his town had to find whatever work was available and he did.  “It was very challenging,” he says, “ but I said no. This is a new life.  I have to start from zero, but  it wasn’t easy for me.  I was used to being my own boss and when someone said to me do this and I thought this isn’t the best way but I am not the boss here and so I have to do what they say.”

They didn’t buy a car right away, preferring to walk around their new community and really get to know this new environment.  One day when they were walking they passed a fabric shop and Talib saw it and said to his wife, “Wouldn’t that be a cute cafe?”  Eventually that shop would become the business Talib and Hala would own and run.

It took them five or six years before they were ready to take the leap of faith that would change everything for them, yet again.  When they first settled on the spot where they wanted to open their cafe they found they had to do a huge amount of remodeling but with characteristic good humor and hard work they created the space they had dreamed of and they opened their doors for business.

Then, as we all know, the pandemic struck and they had to close up shop. Though they had sacrificed and traveled halfway across the world they had to pull back and wait, wondering what the future would hold. In that they were not alone, the world collectively held its breath and we all paused not really sure what the next step would be.

Through it all Talib and Hala never lost their faith.  By July of 2020  the city was over offering them the parking spaces in front of the cafe as additional outdoor seating and the cafe opened its doors again. They began to cook again and people arrived to eat and slowly things began to return to normal. Now, Talib says, the city is sending him an engineer who will help him plan a permanent outdoor seating installation, more than doubling their seating capacity. 

It is this return that they celebrate at night, after sundown when they gather together to eat iftar, the evening meal during Ramadan.  They would normally gather with their extended family but here, in their new home, it is mostly just Talib, Hala and their three children.

Talib recalls the iftars of the past.  “We have a routine in our country,” he says, “We exchange dishes, when I make something special I will share it with my neighbor. We exchange dishes at the same time.”  Now it is a little different. After they close the restaurant they will head home to their apartment and practice the rituals that sustain them.  “We start to make food about 7 p.m.,” he says, “My daughters go to make the dessert, my wife makes special dishes, someone makes the juice.  We use the beautiful dishes, everything is going to be special. We pray to our God because he gives us this life with good food, good family and we are grateful for it all.”