Wafa Laham’s day resembles that of many American housewives. She cooks, she cleans, she helps her three kids with their homework.
In between these everyday acts of domesticity, though, Laham turns her attention to a growing online cake baking and decorating empire that she created and runs out of her home in Irvine, Calif. What started three years ago with a single cake photo posted to her Facebook page has turned into a business with 12,000 followers that is a source of inspiration for thousands of Muslim women too often reduced to stereotypes as quiet caregivers to oppressive husbands.
"Being a housewife does not limit you from achieving your goals and following your passion," said Laham, who immigrated to the U.S. from Syria six years ago.
She’s now running her Fafo Cake Facebook page and acting as the administrator for a Facebook group of some 2,800 Syrian women from across the country that features cake decorating tutorials and training guides.
It all started three years ago when Laham—who has been working since she was 17 and living in Syria, and who has a bachelor's degree in graphic design from the University of Florida—baked a cake for Mother’s Day using pastel colors and fondant dough. "I wasn't sure it would turn out the way it did. Family and friends liked it and motivated me to keep baking and decorating cakes," Laham said.
But as people starting complementing her cakes online and asking if she took requests, she decided to open up her own business from home. She told me about her typical week and it’s impressive. Two days a week are dedicated to teaching her children Arabic and to Quran studies. One day a week is for drawing and uploading images to her Getty Images profile. She uses the next to bake cakes and decorate them for customer orders. "I have my freedom to choose what I want. I'm a 100% in control of my life," she told me.
And when Laham's schedule gets too full, her husband swoops in to help. "Matter of fact, my husband motivates me to continue what I am doing and he lends a hand of help whenever is needed," she said.
And even though she leads a very busy life, she’s found the time—mostly when everyone else is asleep—to start writing her first book about how she has experienced the intersection of art, beauty, and faith.
Laham has also started helping other Syrian women adjust to a new life in a new country.
"My first year in the U.S. was tough and I don't want others to go through difficulties," Laham said. "To be yourself you must work and find your motivation. You were not only born to cook and raise kids. You as a woman don’t have to live in the shadows raising your kid. You need to appear and set your own print on life."
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."