The aroma of freshly-baked pita bread travels out to the street from the Oriental Bakery and Grocery in Miami-Dade’s historic The Roads neighborhood, the way it has for the 43 years the Monem family has run it.
A few blocks away, generations of devotees still gather beneath the magnificent dome at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral. A little further west, in the Shenandoah neighborhood, Our Lady of Lebanon Catholic Church recently celebrated its 36th Annual Lebanese Festival, drawing thousands.
It’s been decades since immigrants from Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Armenia, and other Middle Eastern countries first began populating The Roads, a triangular area south of Southwest 11th Street, east of 12th Avenue and west of U.S. 1. Their contributions can still be seen and felt today.
Many early settlers came to Miami after Henry Flagler extended his railroad and also during the “great real estate boom of the 1920s,” said Miami Dade College professor and historian Paul George. “It’s really the boom that brought diversity to the area.”
As the neighborhood began to grow, places of worship became essential.
St. Sophia opened its doors in 1950, though services were being held in a downtown Miami location for about 20 years prior. Before St. Sophia was built, the congregation’s priest traveled as far away as Jacksonville to administer services.
“Back then, the church was the epicenter of peoples’ lives,” said Father Spiro Bobotas, the current priest.
It’s still that way for some. Diane Barimo and Shirley Yoham have been members of Our Lady of Lebanon since its inception in 1973. They first moved into the neighborhood with their Lebanese parents in 1945, in a house across St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, on 12th Avenue.
The two young sisters were regulars at the Syrian-Lebanese Club, where Barimo met her husband, Bill. The club’s building in the heart of The Roads hosted dinners, dances, auctions, weddings, political campaigns, and even religious services before the church
“They had parties for Halloween and Christmas and hayrides for the kids, it’s the way the community got together,” said Barimo.
Years later, the club sold the building because it was too expensive to maintain, her husband said. The organization still meets at the Miami Elks Club on Sunset Drive in Kendall.
Food is another way to celebrate and stay connected.
The Oriental Bakery and Grocery is one of the few establishments still around and thriving. Stepping inside is like traveling to another world, where the smells are exotic and chatter is often in Arabic.
“If you take care of the business, the business will take care of you,” said Okashah Monem, a Palestinian immigrant who has been operating the store with help from his wife and children since 1969.
Famous for its homemade pita bread, baked from scratch three times per week, the store also carries more than 3,200 items imported from the Middle East, frozen foods and has a tiny eatery inside serving fresh, traditional dishes for lunch and dinner.
Monem remembers when there were no tall buildings in Brickell and the Syrian-Lebanese Club was the central meeting place.
Though he retired five years ago, Monem can’t tear himself away from the family business or the neighborhood, where he still lives just a few blocks away from the store.
While he greets and chats with longtime customers, his daughter, Suha, does most of the cooking and son Rafat bakes bread and tends to the store in general.
“The days we bake bread, the aroma takes over the entire store and kicks back into the neighborhood,” Rafat said.
Few things stayed the same. New immigrants arrived and South Florida grew and changed. Many of The Roads’ original Middle Eastern families moved away.
“The rise of suburbia dispersed them,” said Professor George.
At Our Lady of Lebanon, the demographics have changed too, said Father Elias Mikhael. The church, just outside the Roads in the Shenandoah neighborhood, was founded by a Cuban-Lebanese priest. Now it’s much more diverse, including many Latin Americans of Lebanese descent.
At least twice a year though, thousands of people go back to The Roads for two major events. In January, Our Lady of Lebanon held its Annual Lebanese Festival. St. Sophia will present its 34th Annual Greek Festival on Feb. 22-24.
“It celebrates the traditions of the church and culture with music, food, dance,” Father Bobotas said. “And a lot of young children are showing an appreciation for the costumes of their ancestors and learning about their faith.”