Featured, Mental Health and Wellness

The Blessing, The Grocery Store

On a beautiful Friday afternoon, I awaken to warm yellow sunlight after recovering from three busy but fun OB/GYN night shifts. I remember we are grilling kabobs tonight with our Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) club and I leap out of bed, excited to get ready. Suddenly I am reminded of an upsetting realization: which store in our local food desert is going to have mint doogh, authentic saffron, the proper herbs and veggies for sabzi and any baklava-like dessert? My moment of frustration is interrupted by a text from my Armenian classmate who will be grilling tonight, and he sends a recommendation for a Middle Eastern-owned store he just found in the area. I pray they will have what I need.

As the glaring sun moves out of my eyes, I see bright yellow letters shining triumphantly: Al-Barakah Halal Market. As I pull the cool metal door handle, a familiar bell tinkles above me. My “Salam!” is returned by the cashier, and I feel at home; I have experienced this progression of sounds countless times elsewhere, and my nervous system is set at ease. I find the items I need and revel at a gargantuan container of sumac. The cashier notices it is my first time at the store, and places two fistfuls of wrapped Arab candies for free in my bag despite my protests. We chat for a few minutes, and I practice using some Arabic words I am learning. Al-Barakah means “the blessing” in Arabic, and as the store owner gazes proudly over the rows of imported spices and colorful packaging, I think about how much this business has been a blessing to him and his family as they moved from Yemen to the United States. Also, the blessing extends to us, his clientele, by providing us with the comforting and familiar flavors of our upbringing. 

The groceries from his store that I brought to the event were met with cries of jubilation from my MENA friends, who are also far from family. So many friends exclaimed “I haven’t had [food item] in months! Where did you find this in Albany?” This inevitably led to fascinating and enlightening conversations about how each ethnic group uses that ingredient and the cultural significance of that meal. Food brings people together, in more ways than just sharing a meal.

When I moved from the California Bay Area to Albany, NY for medical school, my family and I were thrilled, but were wondering about what the community and social support would entail. The top three questions on our minds were:

  1. Are there fellow Middle Easterners there?
  2. Where is the nearest Assyrian church, if there even is one there? 
  3. Are there any Middle Eastern grocery stores there?

These and similar questions are important considerations for many ethnicities moving somewhere new, but are essential for anyone coming from an especially minoritized group, such as Assyrians like me. Though we are the indigenous people of the Fertile Crescent and our culture has persisted for over 6,774 years, our population has endured years of genocide, ethnoreligious persecution, displacement and diaspora, even in this current day. We cling to our “hot spots” of community such as in California, Arizona and Illinois. I am the first in my family to pursue medicine and that challenge has been exacerbated by being separated from my family who are on the other side of the country. The above three questions may seem disparate, compartmentalizing ethnic community, religious affiliation and food preference. However, in my view, they are inextricable and work together to provide much-needed social support; one leads to knowledge of and connection to the others.

When I was an M1, there were approximately eight MENA students in my entire school, but we quickly found each other and banded together to create a MENA club. Since then, the club has quadrupled in size and we frequently gather together. For example, I love hosting guests for Iranian chai and dessert at my apartment, and also organizing more formal events, such as dancing the night away at dabke night. However, it has been challenging to find a proper grocery store to supply appropriate foods for these events. In New York’s Capital Region, there is a dearth of ethnic grocery stores compared to more diverse areas of the country. Many of them here are Indian- or Pakistani-owned, which provide some items in a pinch, but it is simply not the same as a MENA-owned store, which often has the specific spices, produce and brands we need for our recipes. Although it took many months, finding my two go-to stores near school has significantly increased my quality of life.

Often, ethnic grocery stores have superior fresh produce at a lower cost; though they are smaller stores than the big chains. Many MENA and Asian grocers deliberately prioritize delicious, in-season and unblemished fruits and vegetables whenever possible. Many children of immigrants have heard our parents sigh and wistfully recount “Fruit just tastes better in [insert country of origin].” Once at Al-Aqsa Meat and Grocery, another MENA-owned grocery store in Latham, NY, I was speaking to the owner about how happy I was that he had once brought a large crate of fresh, fragrant mint, and asked if he had any shipments coming in. Dismayed that he didn’t have any in stock, he immediately offered to go drive to his backyard garden and harvest some just for me. Touched by his kindness, but plagued with guilt for inconveniencing him and bound by the culture of tarof, I politely declined. I will return in the summer to check if he has any in stock because that was the most fragrant and vibrant mint I had ever tasted.

When in the California Bay Area, I am blessed to be surrounded by plentiful Assyrian- and Iranian-owned grocery stores among a colorful, rich sea of ethnic markets. Although some of the ethnic stores in Albany are Arab-owned, they tend to lack the Iranian and Armenian brands I know and love, such as Sadaf, Ahmad Tea and Karoun. There is often a similar product that I am willing to try. This experience is also a metaphor for finding friends in a new area as a minority; I may not always find someone from my specific ethnic group, but I often come across people who are excited to learn about our culture and celebrate the shared similarities.

Similarly, these kindhearted grocery store owners helped provide the community I was missing when I moved to New York. In Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, we typically get to know our grocery store owners through our visits since they are members of our small community. Though they are not Assyrian like me, we are ultimately from the same part of the world, and I truly enjoy learning about their unique cultural identity, rich heritage and interesting linguistic intricacies. They also provide unconditional positivity and encouragement to me when I visit the store, usually disheveled from long study sessions and clad in my puffer coat and faded school sweatpants. They always ask me how school is going and encourage me to keep going. It is like talking to an uncle, which I really miss, since my extended family is far away. They also continuously remind me of my reason for going into medicine: to give back to my community by serving patients from underserved areas and marginalized backgrounds, especially refugees, Assyrians, and people from the MENA region. When I am burnt out from medical school, what most recharges me is spending quality time with friends and family. In Albany, I do not have the luxury of physically being with family, but this social support in the form of community members and MENA friends has been essential to my mental health. In conjunction with staying connected to my faith and other creative outlets, this keeps me energized and propels me forward to continue serving patients.

I cannot wait to see what new wares the stores have on my next grocery run. It will be nice to have a little reminder of the people who cheer me on and who I am doing this for as I scarf down a snack between surgeries on my next rotation. It will be a little blessing from the grocery store, in the bigger blessing of being in medical school and being able to follow my dreams.

Terms Used

Doogh: A traditional, refreshing Iranian drink made of yogurt and water, often flavored with mint, and can be carbonated or non-carbonated.

Sabzi: A plate of herbs such as cilantro, mint, tarragon, basil, radishes and white onions often found on Assyrian, Iranian and Armenian tables.

Salam: A casual way to say “Hello” in Farsi and Arabic.

Fertile Crescent: The land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, also known as Mesopotamia.

Dabke: A traditional Arab line dance.

Tarof: An Iranian societal concept of honoring the other person. This can take many forms but commonly entails declining the first or second round of offering food, allowing the other person to go in front of you or sit first and fighting over paying the bill in a group setting, among other examples.

Image credit: “Fresh Fruits” by Michael Cavén is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sabrina Lazar Sabrina Lazar (1 Posts)

Editor, Medical Student Contributing Writer

Albany Medical College

Sabrina is an MS2 at Albany Medical College interested in plastic surgery. She earned her Bachelor's degree in Cell Biology with a minor in Professional Writing from the University of California, Davis. A proud Assyrian-American, she is passionate about mentoring fellow first-generation and underrepresented students in medicine. She can be found studying at local coffee shops, playing volleyball and water polo, or working on home improvement and gardening projects with her family.