At the Assembly of Extraordinary Bakers, the inaugural event of the Intergalactic Bakers Federation co-founded by bakers and retail business owners Solveig Tofte and Pierre Zimmerman, expert bakers from around the world gathered April 22-23 at Chicago’s Kendall College to share ideas and celebrate a bit of camaraderie.

A special guest at the event was Syrian immigrant Molhem Tayara, who lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he works at The Victorian Bakery, which is co-owned by Maria Brennan, who also attended the event. She first met Tayara last year.

“Last year, a lot of the news that we were getting was so negative, and here Molhem left his homeland and came to America as an immigrant, which I did as well,” Brennan says. “There is nowhere else that you can be an entrepreneur like you can in the United States. And there is such hope for us as immigrants coming here.”

“Bakers are so generous with their knowledge and their skills,” she continues. “They all help each other. It’s such an incredible opportunity that Molhem got here today.”

Tayara, just 21 years old, started making Fatayer at Victorian Bakery in October 2016 and now works at the bakery every Saturday, in addition to going to school and working evenings at a restaurant. At the Chicago event, he presented two savory pastries: Fatayer (filled with spinach and cheese), and Zatayer (a flat pastry topped with herbs). Fatayer is a fast food well known in the Middle East.

“I start baking when I was 16 years old in Syria,” says Tayara, who lives in Kalamazoo with his parents and four brothers. “Our family moved to Jordan, and I worked for Syrian bakeries there. I put in my mind that I wanted to learn how to be a baker. I usually make dough with meat on it. I like special meats and cooking with vegetables.”

Tayara said he greatly enjoyed the experience of working with some of the world’s greatest bakers. “I learned a lot from other bakers from different countries. Someday, I hope to open a Syrian bakery in America.”

Brennan also considers herself very fortunate to be part of the bakery industry in the United States.

“I was born in Ireland and moved to Kuwait. I got caught in the first Gulf War and was held in Baghdad,” she recalls. “When they let the first wave of foreigners go, I went back in to fly the troops in through Cairo. So I lived in Egypt. Then I went back to Kuwait after the liberation and met my husband, who is a US Navy Reservist and a pilot based there. We moved back to Kalamazoo in 2000.”

Since that time, their bakery has grown and prospered.

“The bakery itself is going on 14 years,” she continues. “We started in our basement. We built a commercial kitchen in our basement, a very small kitchen. Eventually, the business kept growing and we moved to our present location, which we are now outgrowing.”

The past year has been a wonderful experience because it reminds her of the hope and strength of community.

“We’ve been very fortunate because the people in Kalamazoo have been amazing,” she says. “They are so welcoming to Molhem and his family. They have really supported him, and it’s been such a positive experience for all of us.”