How some Syrian refugees have made their restaurants a success in Zaragoza

"We are much more than a country at war.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
22 May 2023 Monday 15:06
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How some Syrian refugees have made their restaurants a success in Zaragoza

"We are much more than a country at war." Under this premise, two young refugees, Lian Alahmad and Yousef Shahiba, opened their first Syrian food outlet in Zaragoza two years ago. His good hand in the kitchen and word of mouth soon made his business take off, which has not stopped growing. Now they have just inaugurated their third and largest restaurant Syriana, with which they propose "a trip to the heart of Syria and its culture" from the center of the city that welcomed them.

That path in reverse was not so easy for them. Lian, 29, left her country in 2015. "I didn't want to kill or die, so I had to flee," she told this newspaper. She left behind her a large family -15 siblings-, her law studies and a country in ruins to embark on a long journey to Europe. She was thinking of going to Luxembourg, where she had some uncles. But while in Greece, he worked as a translator for a few months in the refugee camps with various groups of volunteers. “The Spanish made me feel so good that in the end I decided to come here,” he says.

In Spain since 2016, he passed through several cities before landing in Zaragoza. Here he came into contact with his “brother, partner and friend” Yousef, also from Aleppo, who had fled Syria in 2011 and spent five years working as a tailor in Turkey. For a time, they considered opening their own business. With the pandemic and the drop in rental prices, their opportunity came, and in April 2021 they opened their first location. “It went well from the beginning,” he explains.

That success encouraged them to bet a year later on a second dining room in the heart of the city. Without the possibility of making a reservation, long queues of customers used to form at its doors, who were encouraged to wait for a drink in nearby stores. One of them, located just opposite, wanted to leave the business. Lian and Yousef saw the opportunity to continue with their expansion, and at the end of April they celebrated their inauguration.

Like the previous ones, the new Syriana restaurant has the setting of any typical establishment in his native Aleppo. There are colored hanging lamps, damascene decoration, long sofas that dress the walls, bright vases and a menu that does not lack a single typical dish of the tasty local cuisine. “Most of the products are from here, but cooked in our style. There is no difference with what they would serve you in a restaurant in my country, ”he says.

The menu has the basics of any oriental place: mutabal and baba ganoush (dishes where eggplant reigns supreme), hummus, falafel, kofte, vine leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables, or muhammara, a delicious pepper cream. They also serve salads -tabbouleh and fattouche-, arayes or meat dishes. "In this last place, we have expanded our proposal because the kitchen is much larger, with charcoal, and that allows us to prepare more," explains Alahmad.

Even so, her star recipe continues to be Sogok, better known as Grandma's secret, a dish linked to the women in her family. “It was my mother and my grandmother who taught me to cook, they told me that I had a good hand. I owe this to them, ”she comments. Meanwhile, they continue to experiment with new recipes adapted to the Spanish palate, which they do not hesitate to give diners a try to test their acceptance before including them on the menu.

The entrepreneurial couple employs about 15 people, many of them from countries in the same area. In addition, from the beginning they donate 5% of their profits to different refugee aid projects and participate in campaigns to collect food and humanitarian material, such as the one organized after the violent earthquakes registered last February in Turkey and Syria.

With the opening of their latest restaurant, these young people have opted to convert their second premises into a traditional tea shop where they offer infusions, coffee and delicate oriental desserts. In the coming weeks, they plan to complete their offer with oriental dance shows and staff that will read the future in the customers' cups, just as is done in their country. Looking to the future, they are committed to continuing to work hard and, why not, give life to another typical business in their country: a hammam or Arab bath. “I see it as a bit difficult because of the issue of permits, but it would be a dream come true,” says Alahmad.