Food from the "Zoul": An asylee's journey from financier to chef

Aref holding a pamphlet of his cafe

Aref arrived in the United States as a refugee 2 years ago. Born in Sudan, raised in Saudi Arabia and educated in India, he now calls San Francisco home. Though trained as a financier, Aref found his passion and livelihood when he opened Z Zoul Cafe serving the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco.

When he first started, the space where his cafe is located was in dire condition. Aref explained, “I had to clean it myself. It was all full of dust, old food and it was a mess. Hiring people to do this is expensive, so I hired my family on doing this together. It was fun, but it was very tiring. I used to sleep here”. Eventually, Aref learned about Kiva through those who worked at the refugee organizations he was a part of. “I love the idea of Kiva, lending for 0 interest and to support entrepreneurs, the whole idea is very similar to Islamic banking, a system I know very well and grew up studying.” Backed by 79 lenders, Aref successfully secured $4,000 through his Kiva loan and used it to purchase commercial cooking equipment and furniture for the restaurant. 

The hard work eventually paid off. Today, the restaurant is spotless and airy, with a mural adorning one large wall. In the mural, an Arabic phrase is repeated over and over, and Aref let me know that it means ‘we are all one.’

“This mural explains who I am” Aref said. “This is my vision, we are all one, doesn’t matter whether we are from U.S., Sudan, Asia, whatever, we are all one. We better help each other live in peace.”

Aref with 2-year-old Salim and Dalia in front of the mural

Aref’s passion is poured into every aspect of his restaurant, from the decorations to the food. It is no secret that food brings people together, and Aref wanted to share his love for his native Sudanese cuisine with others.

With their 2-year-old son Salim in tow, Aref and his wife, Dalia, singlehandedly run the cafe. “Whatever plate we take out of the kitchen, we do it with care,” he said. “Whatever we present to our customers, we present with love, we present it as though we are presenting it to our kids and our family.” 

This holiday season, Aref said he hopes to give even more back to the community that has helped him. Aref hopes “to do something for this society, to be an impactful family as an asylee [and] to add value to the community by making my kids get a good education.”

It is hard not to be inspired by a person who has an immense passion for giving back to the community, and Kiva is proud to support Aref in his journey.

Click here to support refugees like Aref, who are working hard to rebuild their lives in a new country.

About the author

Barani Maung