March 27, 2017 / 2:59 PM / 2 years ago

Refugee chef cooks up a taste of Syria in London

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Chef Imad Alarnab furiously chops onions and stirs giant pots of bubbling stew as he prepares dinner.

It is a far cry from Damascus, Syria, where Alarnab owned three restaurants and several juice bars before they were destroyed in the civil war, now in its seventh year.

But for two weeks only, Alarnab is back in the business, serving Syrian food at a pop-up restaurant in an upstairs room in east London.

“The pop-up idea is serving Syrian dishes for non-Syrian people,” he said with a grin on his face.

Alarnab, a father of three, said he was thrilled to be cooking again after selling cars to make ends meet when he first arrived in Britain as a refugee in 2015.

The restaurant has a sense of stepping into the intimacy of a family kitchen. It is a fitting backdrop for Alarnab as he recreates his favorite Syrian recipes that he learned from his mother.

“It’s the same cooking we used to have in our parents’ house,” he said. “We want visitors to the restaurant to feel like they are sitting at their own dining table.”

Guests sit at long tables for a family-style supper served on large platters. The menu includes traditional Syrian dishes from Kabsa, a spicy chicken with rice, to Fattoush, a salad with flatbread.

“In Syria, the food, with the family of course, means a lot for us - like it’s traditional to meet every week, everyone sharing,” he said. “We have huge dining tables where everyone sits around. Sometimes we would cook for hours and the food would be finished within minutes.”

Alarnab fled to Europe by boat from Turkey and his family joined him later.

The last time he cooked for a large group of people was in the sprawling “Jungle” camp in Calais. Like many refugees who have spent time there, he remembers exactly how many days he lived in the harsh conditions, hoping to make it to Britain.

“I cooked in the street for 64 days,” he said.

Proceeds from the restaurant will go to Syrian children who have been forced to flee their homes. The chef worked with Appear Here, an online space rental service, Unicef’s Next Generation initiative and caterers The Hampstead Kitchen to launch the pop-up.

The project is a chance for Alarnab to work towards running his own restaurant again. Like his Syrian friends in London, he says he doesn’t want to be a burden on society.

“Personally, I don’t want people to feel sorry because we are Syrian. We are very proud to be Syrian. When we have the chance to do something we are going to do it,” he said.

  “Hopefully (the restaurant) is going to make a different idea about the Syrian people, everyone will look at (us) like ... we are a refugee but we are hard-working people as well.” 

Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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