Sam Raya Cooks Her Mother’s Lebanese Recipes to Support Her Family in Syria

Immigrating to Cincinnati 13 years ago, Sam Raya has—for the past 11 years—cooked for downtown diners at Raya Lebanese Restaurant to support her family back home.
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Sam Raya

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

What brought you to Cincinnati? My husband first came here before me, so I followed him. He first moved to New York and stayed there for three years. He had Lebanese friends who told him, “Cincinnati’s cheap, Cincinnati’s quiet,” and he moved here. I came and visited in 2001, and I came for one month, then went back, and I did that every year. In 2006, I said, “I don’t want to go back.”

You emigrated from Syria? My family is Lebanese, but my husband was Syrian. I married a Syrian guy and lived in Syria. Syria and Lebanon, where we were, it was just like Kentucky and Cincinnati, with a river between. He passed away in 2011, so I’m alone now.

How long after moving here did you open your restaurant? When I first came, I worked for a Jordanian guy at [the now-closed] Jordan Valley Restaurant on Fourth Street. I went in and told him I wanted a business for myself. My husband told me, not now; your English is not good. And I told him, I don’t care, people understand “gyro” and “shawarma.” I told him, I don’t like to work for anyone telling me, “do this, do that.” I like being [in charge] of my business, and I opened and had success and people love it.

Where did you learn to cook? In our country, we all cook at home; we cook every day for our kids. I know from my mom; she’s a very good cook. Her food is best—better than anybody. Everybody has their own ideas and tastes, and hers is very good.

Why is it so important to you to be hands-on, cooking in your restaurant? Because I have a good heart and I make fresh, homemade food, and I don’t lie about it. That’s what’s made me successful. I don’t buy cheap stuff because I eat it, so I don’t want to cheat myself. That’s why I think people like it, and they like me, too. They tell me I’m very friendly. I like to talk to people, and I like to know about America, and them, and my business, and whether they like it. I talk about my family, too. I like it.

Would it be possible to own your own restaurant in Syria? Business? No. Because if I go back, I will want to stay with my grandkids and my family. I’ll get old, won’t want to work anymore. I help my grandkids, who are in college, and I help my family. I just came to America because [of my] family. My daughter was [badly injured] in a car accident and I help her [financially]. Money is short.

With your business here, youre able to support your family in Syria? Yes. Believe me, I work hard just for my kids and my grandkids.

Are they ever able to visit? Because of the President, they don’t want anybody coming in here. He doesn’t want anybody from Syria, or Libya—he said seven countries—they don’t want them back in. They’d like to come to visit. My daughter is sick. I’d like to bring her here for a doctor, but she cannot stay here. If I could, I’d like to bring everyone to visit for one month.

Do you miss your old home? Lebanon is beautiful, and Syria, too. Beside the ocean, where we lived, we could watch people swim. It was beautiful. I miss it a lot. Here, for me, there’s no life. When I lost my husband, he was everything. I live far away from my family, and I work hard, and I work here from morning to night and go back [home] and sleep. Some days I count the days until Sunday when I can stay at home, relax, and call my family. Sometimes I go shopping—you know, women like clothes.

Was it a culture shock when you first moved to America? My country does not look like here. [Neighbors] never come in my home, I never come in [their] home. Outside, [we exchange hellos]. I thought, “Are they scared, are they racist—what’s the deal?” You don’t visit neighbors here? In my country, if you’re a new neighbor everybody wants to visit and bring gifts and invite them for dinner, for lunch, you know. It’s friendly. In America, everybody is busy and everybody works. Nobody is free.

How does the food compare in different regions of the Middle East? Everybody likes Lebanese a lot. Lebanon has the best food. Syrian is good cooking, and Palestinian, but it’s not like Lebanon.

Do your Lebanese diners tell you your food reminds them of their familys cooking? Yeah. They love kafta and kibbeh. Those are the famous Lebanese dishes.

For those new to Lebanese cooking, what do you recommend they try first? It depends on what they like. I ask them if they like lamb, beef, or chicken. When they say [they] like lamb, I say lamb shish kebab is best. If I told a guest one dish was best, I’d be lying. Every dish is good. Everything [here] tastes different than [everywhere else]. People say, “I’ve tried gyros everywhere else, and I like yours the best.”

Raya Lebanese Restaurant, 801 Elm St., downtown, (513) 421-0049

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