When Fawzy Ebrahim unlocked the doors to Zeezenia International Market the morning of June 5, he was greeted by smoke billowing through aisles of Egyptian and Middle Eastern foods. His family-owned business — his livelihood — was up in flames.
Gainesville Fire Rescue extinguished the stockroom fire quickly, but the smoke compromised the building and the food inside.
A spontaneous combustion ignited the fire; rags were packed tightly together, providing insulation and ultimately allowing heat to build up to a point when they caught on fire, Stephen Hesson, GFR’s assistant chief, said.
Hesson could not provide an accurate estimate of damages to the store, but he said GFR saved close to $200,000 in property damage because the fire was caught early.
Immediately after the fire, the market — a stronghold for both the Muslim community and the city at large — drew many frequenters eager to organize a fundraising campaign to support the store’s renovations.
“That's the only kind of market that we have in town that serves our community,” said regular shopper Iman Zawahry, a Muslim filmmaker and UF professor. “If we don’t have it anymore, it’s a huge loss.”
Zawahry created a LaunchGood fundraising campaign to combat Zeezenia’s climbing costs. The campaign raised about $5,000 within the first five hours, which then doubled after 24 hours. As of Tuesday night, 219 supporters generated more than $27,000.
Neither Zawahry nor Ebrahim expected the overwhelming outpour of support. Ebrahim was hesitant to accept any donations, but Zawahry ultimately convinced him.
“They’re the most humble people,” Zawahry said. “They’re the ones that give, but they never take.”
Zeezenia has donated its beloved cuisine to local nonprofit organizations for years, including Project Downtown, Grace Marketplace and numerous UF student organizations.
The Ebrahim family’s generosity extends to friends and customers, too, Zawahry said.
She heard about the market in its early origins and was stunned by the family’s hospitality. They invited her to their farm, where she saw how the chicken, beef, goat and lamb sold in the store were raised. The cattle are fed a no-hormone, non-antibiotic, grass-fed diet.
Shazaib Mughal, a 21-year-old UF microbiology senior, has shopped at different halal markets around the state. Zeezenia was not just unique to Gainesville, he said; it was unique to Florida.
Mughal first visited the store in May, but he only got the chance to shop for halal meat and Middle Eastern spices a few times before the fire. He said he wanted to continue shopping at the market to show appreciation for the accessibility of international food and the hospitality of the Ebrahim family.
“I was genuinely heartbroken knowing that it's a small family, locally owned, a part of my Muslim community,” he said.
Zeezenia Market’s authenticity stems from Ebrahim’s childhood in a small village near Luxor, Egypt; when he moved to Gainesville in 2010 to be closer to his Shands medical team, experience the bustling activity of a college town and fulfill his lifelong dream of building a farm, he noticed a need for accessible halal meat. He wanted to feed his community members the same way he feeds his family: with the meat he raised himself.
He transformed a storage space at 2325 SW 13th St., next to Gyro Plus, into a market in 2016 and created a new life for himself and his family.
But the market, initially devoted to the production and sale of halal meat, soon evolved into an expansive retailer with products from countries like Turkey, Iran, India, Russia and Egypt.
A few months after the store opened, the Ebrahim family expanded it with Zeezenia Kitchen. After every Friday prayer, Muslim Gainesville residents flocked to the kitchen to eat fresh Middle Eastern dishes like falafel, lentil soup, lamb and traditional baklava cooked by Ebrahim’s wife, Zaineb.
Ebrahim hopes to reopen in four to five months, but must first face repairs with prices that have doubled since his initial renovations over six years ago.
He must fix the ceilings and shelves damaged from smoke and dust, replace or repair the air conditioning and restore the power. All refrigerated and frozen foods and beverages, now spoiled, were thrown away.
In the face of unfathomable hardship, Ebrahim vowed to give back to the community supporting him when he gets his family business up and running again.
Carissa Allen is a third-year journalism and political science double major. She is excited to continue her work on the Metro desk this semester as the East Gainesville Reporter. In her free time, you can find her scuba diving, working out or listening to a podcast.