Famous Chef Forced to Abandon His Restaurants Due to War

"At that time I felt shame, because it's not me to do something dangerous and illegal. But I was desperate enough"
Andrew Thomas August 27, 2018

Millions of people have had to leave there homes and businesses as a result of the civil war in Syria. Imad Alarnab was a famous chef and restaurant owner in Damascus, until he was forced to flee.

Two of his restaurants were destroyed during course of the war. But where he’s cooking now, he’s inspiring others and giving back to those who weren’t able to escape.

Alarnab owned three restaurants is Damascus, Syria. His mother started teaching him how to cook when he was 9 years old.

He learned how to run a restaurant from his business partner, and took over cooking at Restaurant Castello in 2003. He opened a second restaurant in 2006 called Alhateem, and a third in 2009 named Panneno. He also owned juice bars and cafes.

“It was amazing, honestly, between 2000 and 2009,” Alarnab told Humanity.

He was thriving, but as the fighting intensified, he was forced to leave Damascus.

Two of his three restaurants were completely decimated during the war.

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He held on for five years, but the war continued. It wasn’t an easy decision for Alarnab, but he felt compelled to leave Damascus.

Before Alarnab fled Syria, he didn’t send his three daughters to school for one year because it was too dangerous.

“For me I couldn’t handle it anymore, and I couldn’t see a future,” Alarnab explained.

One of his restaurants was destroyed in only six days. However, he knows others fared far worse.

“I was one of the luckiest of my neighbors because my family is safe,” 41-year-old Alarnab explained.

He wanted to find a safe place for his family to resettle, but the journey was too dangerous for his family to come with him at the time. He left on his own on July 27, 2015.

The Calais Jungle, January 2016. (Flickr/malachybrowne/CC BY 2.0)

It would be a long journey. His first stop was in Lebanon. Next he traveled to Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and France until he reached his final destination: the UK.

He waited in Calais for 64 days, sleeping on the steps of a church and cooking for other refugees, before he was able to sneak onto a truck bound for the UK.

“At that time I felt shame, because it’s not me to do something dangerous and illegal. But I was desperate enough,” Alarnab explained.

He arrived in the UK on October 5, 2015.

“After [the driver] stopped, I didn’t know if we were in the UK,” Alarnab recalled.

His daughters and wife were able to leave Syria one year later, and Alarnab was reunited with them on July 26, 2016.

Alarnab started off working as a car salesman, but would return to cooking the first chance he got.

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Last year, he and another refugee he had met in Calais, with the help of various organizations, held a series of pop-up restaurants in London serving Syrian cuisine.

The first pop-up debuted on March 9, 2017. Food is served just like in a family home, with a selection of dishes served that diners can share. All the dishes are based on recipes his older cousin and mother used to cook.

Since then, Alarnab has been able to start his own catering business called Imad’s Syrian Kitchen, and this year has partnered with the non-profit Help Refugees to host a pop-up restaurant to raise money for Hope Hospital in Aleppo, Syria.

(Courtesy of Imad Alarnab)

Hope Hospital is running low on supplies, and is in one of the most dangerous cities in Syria. When Alarnab heard they were close to closure, he knew he needed to do something to help.

He feels fortunate that he and his whole family were able to make it out of Syria. He knows other families aren’t as lucky.

Help Refugees sells tickets to attend Imad’s Choose Love Syrian Kitchen, and ¬£15 ($20) of each ticket sold is donated to Hope Hospital. Due to its popularity, it’s extended its run until the end of June.

Running a restaurant again, even on a small scale, has given Alarnab his dignity back—and a tangible way for him and London diners to help Syrians enduring the war back home.

“It’s not only something I’m proud of, but it’s my duty to do. It’s not an option,” he said.

His dream is to have a permanent restaurant again. With Alarnab’s determination and generous heart, it’s sure to come true soon.

See more of Imad’s first pop-up restaurant in the video below: