Afghan national soccer player who fled after Taliban invasion opens North Bay restaurant

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ByLiz Kreutz via KGO logo
Tuesday, August 16, 2022
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Suliman Dawood, once a rising soccer star in Afghanistan, opened ZamZam in Santa Rosa after fleeing during the Taliban takeover.

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KGO) -- In the last 365 days, life has changed significantly for Suliman Dawood.

Once a rising soccer star in Afghanistan, the 21-year-old is now serving up falafel, lamb shawarma with white sauce, and his mother's famous bean soup at ZamZam -- a tiny, unassuming restaurant in the back of Harry's Market in Santa Rosa.

TAKE ACTION: Help for Afghanistan, Afghan community

Suliman and his family are among the thousands of Afghan refugees who fled to Northern California after the Taliban invasion of Afghanistan one year ago. They resettled in Santa Rosa to be with their brother, Roman Zemari, who is a U.S. citizen.

"The first time when they came, 11 people were staying in one bedroom with me, including my pregnant sister," Zemari recalled to ABC7 News.

The family is now slowly starting to find some stability. A local church helped them find a new temporary home.

But their escape from Afghanistan still haunts them.

While trying to reach the airport, shrapnel from Taliban gunfire rained down on them. Amid the chaos, their sister and her two children got separated from the other family members and never made it out. Dawood and Zemari's mother is still brought to tears thinking about her daughter and grandchildren.

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"She says even though I am in the U.S., nothing makes me happy if I don't see all my children with me," Zemari said, translating for his mother, Zakia Sayed Osman, who was wiping away tears.

And this family is not alone.

According to the International Rescue Committee, which has rehoused roughly 3,100 Afghan refugees in Northern California since the Taliban invasion, there are many families that got split up.

"We're definitely hearing from families that are trying to get on their feet here in the United States, move forward with their lives, give their children the chance they need to move forward, but then also with very strong ties back to Afghanistan with family members who didn't make it out," Tara Rangarajan, the executive director of IRC for Northern California, told ABC7 News.

Rangarajan said they have some clients who are making the risky decision to go back to Afghanistan to try to bring back other family members still living there.

"It's very much a conflicted situation," she said. "People who are trying to get on their feet, trying to make a life here, but also have their hearts very much in Afghanistan with people who weren't able to make it out and trying to do everything they can to assist to make that happen."

In Zemari's case, he says he has tried every possible route up to going back to his home country. He has reached out to senators and the office of his congressional representative, Mike Thompson.

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Meantime, Zemari's brother, Dawood, has also found the transition to his new life in the Bay Area hard. Up until leaving his home country, he played for the Afghanistan National Soccer team. Those dreams are now dashed.

"For Afghan people, he was a famous guy," Zemari said of his brother, explaining that people used to ask him for signatures and pictures.

"I want to play soccer," Dawood said through translation, "And there's no team or any place I can find here."

But, like so many immigrant families, they are now finding renewed purpose through food with the family's new halal restaurant. They decided to open ZamZam after finding it hard to get halal food in Sonoma County. All of their recipes are from their mother and Zemari's wife, Sidai.

"This is something that has opened a door for us," Zemari said.

"Sitting at home is the worst thing, but now I'm so happy working here, keeping busy and finding new friends," Dawood added.

While ZamZam is small now -- only doing take-away and DoorDash orders -- the brothers have big dreams. They say their hope is to expand beyond the market into a real sit-down fast food spot where people can socialize and gather.

"In time, God willing, we will have our own place," Zermari said.

They also dream that one day their sister will join them, too.

"I hope she knows we still care about her," Zemari said. "We are trying our best to take her out of that situation."

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