From Damascus to Damas
Syrian exiles at Woodland Plaza
by Sally Mitani
Middle Eastern restaurant Damas opened in Woodland Plaza (south-side Busch's) in February. The turnover from Biwako Sushi was quick: "We bought some machines: a food processor, a blender for juice," says Lamis Barawi, "and bought some plates--the sushi restaurant left plates, but they were all small." Barawi and her husband, Jawad Seif, painted, replaced a few tables with booths, and hung photos of ancient ruins from their native Syria on the walls.
The beaming, gracious couple and three of their four children left Damascus in June 2012. "We are Syrian people," says Barawi. Her English is serviceable but not seamless and slightly better than her husband's, so she did most of the talking. "I'm a pharmacist. My husband had men's shirt factory. We are in opposition."
And how. Jawad Seif's father is Riad Seif, a former member of the Syrian parliament, who pretty much invented the opposition to the Assad regime in his living room in 2000 by starting the Forum for National Dialogue. Imprisoned for more than seven years, in 2012 he was elected vice president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. He is now in exile in Germany.
Barawi and Jawad Seif landed in Ann Arbor in December 2012. They were welcomed by Barawi's childhood friend from Damascus, Dania Shikh Fadle, who now lives here with her husband, physician Hassan Qutob. "Three days she cooked for us. She searched for me an apartment, and to furnish it. She drive a big truck for the first time in her life. I cannot forget what she do for me."
Barawi has always been a serious amateur cook--in fact, it was a running joke between her and her famous father-in-law that she should open a restaurant. At Damas--more or less "Damascus" in Arabic--she shares the cooking with their Palestinian chef. They've had good-natured battles over recipes, especially falafel, eventually agreeing on a recipe that's a blend of Palestinian and Syrian. She makes the soups, grape leaves, white
beans, eggplant rice, and zucchini. He makes most of the rest of the halal menu, which includes the usual shwarma and the more unusual foul (fava beans), zahra (stuffed cauliflower), and mujaddara (lentil and bulgur).
In early March, Seif and Barawi were awaiting the arrival of their oldest daughter, Sarah, twenty-one, whom they hadn't seen in a year and a half. Sarah, who'd been a university student, was the first of the family to flee Syria. "Many times we received letters saying 'We can kill your daughter,'" Barawi says. After a car began following her every day, Sarah left for France in August 2011. She later found her way to a Turkish refugee camp near the Syrian border and has been working there ever since.
Barawi hopes that Sarah will bring a mold for making falafel. "You cannot buy them here. You can only buy them in Syria. People cross the border [from Turkey] all the time into Aleppo. If she doesn't go herself, she can send someone."
Barawi says their Sunday hours are still under discussion: though they'd like to take a day off, "we need people to come and visit our restaurant." They're currently trying to close at 5 on Sunday but "last week, people stayed until 8:30."
Damas, 2276 S. Main (Woodland Plaza). 761-8353. Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., (tentatively) Sun. noon-5 p.m. No website.
[Originally published in April, 2014.]