This is Florida Voices, a series of ordinary Floridians with extraordinary stories.
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Fawzy Ebrahim is the owner and operator of Zeezenia International Market in Gainesville.
Despite having the credentials to teach at the university level, Ebrahim recently chose to focus solely on providing the community with a vast array of foods from the Middle East. Zeezenia stems from a legacy that dates back to the shop that Ebrahim’s father owned in Egypt when he was just a child.
What was your inspiration for opening this store?
I’m originally from Egypt. I used to help my father in his grocery store when I was nine. My father passed away when I was 14 and, in the summer of the same year, 1986, I opened my own store selling sodas and ice cream. This allowed me to sponsor myself until I finished college. When I came here, I got my doctorate from the University of Georgia and found a job in education, but I still had a desire inside me to open a grocery store and have a farm. I came to Gainesville in 2006, I did a brain surgery here at Shands and I liked the atmosphere, the college town, the nice people that I met everywhere I went. I came back in 2009 and I did another brain surgery. At that time, I decided to move to Gainesville, so I bought a piece of property here in Newberry, I built my own house, I started my own farm, I raised everything as organic, and two years ago we started thinking about opening the store to have multinational groceries and offer halal fresh meat; natural grass-fed stuff.
When did you start the farm?
We started the farm in the summer of 2014. I started raising the chicken, cows, sheep, and goat.
When did you open the store?
We opened the store in February of 2016.
In a nutshell, how would you describe the items that you sell here?
We are mainly a grocery store. I sell Turkish groceries, I sell middle eastern, I sell Belgian, and a few items that are Indian and Pakistani type groceries. Also, we sell fresh meat that includes beef, chicken, goat, and lamb. In July of last year, we opened the kitchen and we mainly serve Egyptian food. We sell falafels, chicken, jairo, and salad, among other things. We have vegetarian and nonvegetarian items. We cook everything from scratch, we don’t cut corners. Everything is made fresh on a daily basis using our fresh ingredients. We have reasonable prices and the quality of food is very good.
Are you the one who cooks?
My wife and me. My wife was mainly the chef and she used to cook six days a week. I am the one who cooked on Sundays. But my wife had a baby two days ago, so she’s still at the hospital. Hopefully, she will be discharged today or tomorrow. She’ll take two or three weeks of maternity leave and then come back. As you see, we started making improvements, I separated a specific area for dining in and I’m going to have more tables. I’m also going to add drawings to the walls to reflect ancient Egyptian culture. I invite everyone to come and try it.
What gave you the opportunity to move here from Egypt?
I got a scholarship from my government to get my doctorate from the University of Georgia. I got my first doctorate in special education in 2004 and I got another doctorate in statistics and measurement, also from the University of Georgia, in 2005. I came from Egypt in 2000 and I started spring 2001. I moved to South Florida in June of 2005 after finishing my graduate degrees.
After you had the surgeries to the remove your pituitary tumors, have you had any complications?
No, I didn’t have any complications. Dr. Roberts advised me to come and see him every three to four months, which I did. And the journey from South Florida to here [Gainesville] was a joy for us. I used to see him on Fridays and I drove from South Florida after picking up my kids from school. We would come here and spend the night at the hotel and see him every Friday morning and go home later the same day.
Have you ever been discriminated against because of your faith or ethnicity?
I’m a Muslim and I come from the Middle East. You see the way the media portrays Muslims. But Gainesville is not hostile toward Muslims the way other places are, so I like it here. I haven’t had any issue. We moved here [U.S.] in 2000 and my wife had our first daughter four days after September 11 back in Athens, Georgia and we had an issue.
Can you describe what that issue was?
It’s just a sad memory. I don’t really want to talk about it. It’s a sad memory. We almost lost our child at the hospital.
Do you still teach at all?
No, not at this time. I decided to retire because it’s very hard. I used to work at Nova Southeastern University. They had a campus in Orlando. I used to go to the campus there. It’s very hard to manage the store and the farm and going to work, so I decided to retire back in May of this year. So the store is our source of income and we are striving to have it succeed with the support of the people here in Gainesville.
What kind of impact do you hope this store has in the community?
I want everyone to come and give us a chance and see what we have to offer as a kitchen. Try some healthy food for very reasonable prices. I’m doing my best to serve the community. I don’t want to talk too much about what kind of charity I do or what kind of help I’ve provided for our community here; that’s between me and God. But the more people who come, the more I can provide support for the community.
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