© 2024 KGOU
Colorful collared lizard a.k.a mountain boomer basking on a sandstone boulder
News and Music for Oklahoma
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Legendary Chocolatiers Leave War-Torn Syria For Hungary


Syria's war has devastated so many lives, uprooted so many families and businesses for that matter, including one of Syria's oldest chocolate makers, a company called Ghraoui - a brand synonymous in the Arab world with something special, a gift of handmade chocolate or fragrant candied fruit. Now this company has reopened in a country that hasn't been so welcoming to immigrants. Joanna Kakissis has the story from Budapest.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Andrassy Avenue in Budapest is lined with luxury boutiques representing the finest names in Europe. The name Ghraoui stands out. This boutique's from Syria. Inside, there are sculpted walls and ceiling murals designed by the same man who crafted Cartier jewelry shops. But the jewels inside the glass cases here are handmade, hand-painted chocolates. Noemi Czinkoczky wears plastic gloves to select them for curious Hungarians.

NOEMI CZINKOCZKY: Yeah. And they ask, like, what makes this chocolate special? And so we tell them how much effort goes into each piece of chocolate.

KAKISSIS: She does not have to brief tourists from the Middle East.

CZINKOCZKY: People recognize the name. Like, they just come in and, oh, my God, is this Ghraoui - the Ghraoui? Like - and we say, yes, the Ghraoui, that one that you know from before.

KAKISSIS: Bassam Ghraoui, who ran the company, came from one of Syria's oldest merchant families. He wore tailored suits and loved classical music. He named one chocolate after an opera by composer Franz Liszt.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in foreign language).

KAKISSIS: And he supplied chocolate to the Queen of England. His wife, Rania, says he believed in his chocolate.

RANIA GHRAOUI: That was amazing me that every time he wanted to taste his own chocolate, he has this spark in his eyes and he look at it as if he's seeing it the first time. And then he's so happy.

KAKISSIS: But war forced the Ghraoui family out of Syria.

R. GHRAOUI: You know, you don't really leave your country. You take it with you - the smell, the memory, everything.

KAKISSIS: Roses from Damascus, pistachios from Aleppo, apricots from Ghouta - here's Bassam talking with a Chinese news network.


BASSAM GHRAOUI: You need very good machines. But you need, really, people who is in love with the art of making chocolate.

KAKISSIS: He flew many of his staff from Syria with him to Budapest. They reopened their factory in Hungary, where they could afford real estate and labor costs in Europe.


KAKISSIS: Hungary was not kind to Syrian refugees walking through Europe in 2015. Hungarian police attacked them with batons and water cannons at the border.



KAKISSIS: Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly declared that Hungary is not a nation for immigrants, but his administration welcomed the Ghraouis. They had money. Bassam Ghraoui invested in Hungary and made this promotional video celebrating his company's relaunch there.


B. GHRAOUI: We are looking to build a beautiful presence in Hungary and to put Hungary on the chocolate map of exporting high-quality chocolate.

KAKISSIS: Then just as the company was taking off again, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. He died in May. His wife Rania now finds solace in the Budapest boutique they built together.

R. GHRAOUI: It make me feel that I'm with him. And it make me closer to him, much closer to him. And this is the only way for me.

KAKISSIS: Her eyes filled with tears, but she wiped them away. There's work to do. The shop is full. And Syria's legendary chocolatier is expanding to Paris. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Budapest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
More News
Support nonprofit, public service journalism you trust. Give now.