Sanaa Abourezk is the owner and chef of Sanaa’s Gourmet, a Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Although South Dakota managed to avoid some of the more draconian lockdown orders, Sioux Falls wasn’t so easily spared.

Home to Smithfield Foods, a pork plant that had to shut down after nearly 600 employees tested positive for COVID-19, the city has been at the center of the state’s coronavirus outbreak. Many employees from the meat packing plant appear to have spread the virus to members of their households, impacting the entire community—including Sanaa’s restaurant.  

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem allowed restaurants to stay open, but restricted them to curbside takeout.

“First week…it was very hard,” Sanaa said. “I cried daily.”

Originally from Damascus, Syria, Sanaa’s restaurant is her livelihood. She depends on it to send her daughter to college and to support her 8 longtime staffers.

When the news first hit about the country shutting down, Sanaa said she could “see fear” in her employee’s faces.

“I looked at them and I said, I’ll take a loan, whatever, but we’re not going to close down.”

 “They’re very loyal, they’re very dedicated,” she added. “They’re almost like my family.”

After telling them she’d keep them employed, Sanaa could see them relax. “That was the first incentive to stay open,” she said. From there, it was about serving her customers.

Sanaa’s Gourmet is a popular local spot, with five-star reviews on almost every you look online. When Sanaa immigrated here as a student and moved to South Dakota with her husband, she couldn’t find any fresh Mediterranean farm-to-table food, so she decided to make it herself.

Her customers don’t just love Sanaa for her delicious food, such her Kufta Kabobs or fresh Baklava. They also appreciate her live belly dancing classes and recipes she posts online to her 2,220 followers.

While she’s keeping her spirits high and certainly raising those around her, business has been down about 70%. “But I’m able to keep my employees,” she said. “I’m able to leave the house and see some of my customers, and that’s been really good for me.”

The pandemic has been hard, but Sanaa said it’s made her stronger. “I know if I survive this, I’ll survive anything.”

Watch the video to hear her unscripted, unedited account of what it’s like working during the COVID-19 crisis, and help us honor Sanaa by sharing her inspirational story using the hashtag #InThisTogether.

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