By Margaret Davenport
Baklava is a flaky, sticky, nutty dessert made with honey and very thin layers of dough stacked atop each other. Safwan Qaedi insists that you have to try his.
“The best baklava in the United States is here,” he said.
Whether or not this is true is unknown — that would require sampling thousands of baklava — but the 21-year-old is committed to his craft.
Arriving every day to begin baking at 7 a.m., Qaedi is the owner and only baker of Turkish Sweets, a small bakery at 317 N. 27th St., which is responsible for producing wafting sugary aromas to fortunate passersby.
Trays of baklava, cookies and cakes have lined the cases of the bakery since its opening this past June, less than two years since Qaedi first arrived in Lincoln as a Yazidi refugee.
Qaedi emigrated from Turkey with his parents, five brothers and one sister, but grew up in Mosul, Iraq. His family practices Yazidism: a minority religion that has been persecuted for many years and is primarily practiced in northern Iraq. They fled Iraq to Turkey when Qaedi was 15, where he found his love of baking.
After being turned away from a few bakeries because of his faith, Qaedi met Bünyamin Soulu, the owner and cake baker of Elit Pastanesi, the bakery in Turkey where he would learn all that he now knows.
“I helped the chef in any way I could,” Qaedi said. “I liked the work. I said, ‘When I move to the United States I will save up money and open a bakery like this.’”
He began as a dishwasher, earning the trust of the bakers and learning from them. Now Qaedi can make more than 100 different kinds of cookies and over 50 different types of baklava. His dream of one day opening his own bakery in the United States grew closer once his family applied and was awarded a visa.
From dream to reality
The bakery didn’t happen immediately.
Qaedi began working at Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing Company to save up money, and enrolled in the English Language Learner program at Lincoln North Star High School. He would work overnight until 7 in the morning, attend school until 3 in the afternoon, then go to bed until starting his overnight shift again at 9 p.m.
When it came time to open his business, he sought help from the Yazidi Cultural Center, located directly across the street from where he eventually opened the bakery.
Nestled in a small strip mall at 300 N. 27th St., the cultural center opened in March to serve Yazidis and other New Americans. It offers services such as English classes, cultural classes for Yazidi children and immigration law assistance.
“We serve anyone we can communicate with,” said Elias Eedo, a client assistant at the center. “For Safwan, we helped him because (although) his English was good, for opening a business it could be better. But he was ready to open the bakery.”
Eedo helped Qaedi with everything he needed to open the bakery. From registering for classes for management certificates to helping him order items online and setting up bank accounts, Eedo and the Yazidi center was with him every step of the way.
“He comes here for help with whatever he needs, and I am happy to try to help,” Eedo said.
Eedo, also from northern Iraq, is a frequent customer of Qaedi’s bakery. His favorite, like the owner’s, is baklava — specifically the coconut baklava — and claims that he has tried them all. This difficult delicacy is not simple to make, but it’s easy to eat.
Qaedi recommends using your hands to do so, despite its stickiness.
“Forks stick to it,” he said. “It’s easier.”
Qaedi hopes one day to see his mentor Soulu again, but for now, he said that he likes Lincoln. He and Soulu still talk on the phone frequently, and he considers him a friend.
Although Soulu also taught Qaedi how to make breads and rolls, Qaedi thinks he will stick to Turkish pastries. After all, he said he knew that baklava was what was missing from the United States.
“I knew there were a lot of bakeries with cookies and cakes, but none with the best baklava.”