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Refugee-owned restaurants make their mark on Boise's culinary scene

Posted at 10:34 PM, Jan 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-09 00:35:52-05

BOISE, Idaho — Refugees turned American entrepeneurs: New eateries are popping up on the Boise Bench that are owned and operated by Boise residents who were previously forced to flee their home countries. This -- contributing to the evolution of Boise's food landscape, simultaneously provides many refugee families with a taste of home, and the Idaho born-and-raised with a rich culinary experience.

"Everything here is from scratch," said Hana Mutlak.

Mutlak, co-owner of Food Land Market on Orchard Street, said when she and her family came to Idaho as refugees from war-torn Baghdad, Iraq in 2008, they dreamt of making "something good" for the community of Boise.

"I like to to make my customers taste the original taste. I don't want the fake taste, like the pre-made, pre-mixed falafel -- we didn't use that back home," said Mutlak.

Now, that dream has manifested in the form of Food Land Market -- a combination market, coffee shop and Mediterranean restaurant -- where patrons often try their top-seller, falafel sandwiches, for $3.49 per sandwich.

"Most of my customers, they are American, not Arabic, which surprises me!" said Mutlak. "I do have a customer who's from Caldwell. They come here -- I have their bread whenever they get to Boise!"

She says business has been good since their recent opening, and that she feels it's even brought her closer to her community.

"This is what I like for our community-- about all American people -- they like to try different food, they are open with the food, they try Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, from everywhere! They don't mind to taste it, which is really really good."

But Mutlak's isn't the only new eatery both owned and operated by refugees on the Boise Bench -- Homeyra Shams and her three sisters opened Sunshine Spice Cafe last month.

Originally from Afghanistan, the sisters are bringing freshly made Afghani bread among other delectable treats (baklava, etc.) to Fairview Avenue in Boise.

"Afghan refugees, like, they are used to the bread that they cook, so we want them to come and purchase their bread here," said Shams.

They came to the US as refugees when Shams was in 6th grade.

"From zero English, zero writing, and zero reading, and so -- we knew nothing. We came to the United States as like, our eyes are closed, like -- that's how it felt," said Shams.

But she and her sisters studied and persevered. Eventually landing each of them admission to Boise State University. Shams says she recently graduated.

"We worked really hard, and wanted to have something of our own. We created this business to have like all of our dreams like come together," said Shams.

Profits from sales of local artists' pieces that line the cafe walls will go to Agency for New Americans.

"So it can help the new arrival refugees with their financial needs because we came as refugees. We lived in their shoes," said Shams.

In a full circle moment, they're now giving back to the same community that provided opportunity for them.

"We want them to feel like, really good," said Shams. "At home?" I asked. "Yes, that's true," said Shams with a laugh.