From war zone to restauranteur: the incredible story of Obada

From war zone to restauranteur: the incredible story of Obada

From war zone to restauranteur: the incredible story of Obada

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Each Syrian immigrant story reflects the power of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable adversity. Yet when Obada shares his story, he smiles often, because as he reminds us, “we survived, we are still here.” As World Refugee Day approaches on June 20, 2022, we take a look at Obada’s success, making the incredible jump from war zone to restauranteur.

Obada’s life in Syria before the war began was comfortable.

“I was studying and working part time in the factories that my parents owned. One factory recycled paper while the other made ice-cream. Everything changed when war broke out,” he says. A complex conflict ignited that pushed over 80% of Syrian residents into poverty and led millions to flee to other countries.

After challenging times in Syria, Obada left for Egypt, where he studied for four years. When the time came to leave Egypt Obada looked to Europe, but the sea crossings were treacherous, with many never reaching their destination. “Either way meant death,” he says, “but at least I would die trying.”

A PERILOUS JOURNEY

His first attempt to reach Italy from Egypt ended in disaster when the boat he was traveling in sank and 250 drowned. Obada swam back to shore with over 50 others. Another crossing failed and he realized that he needed to revise his plans.

There was the opportunity to go to Türkiye, where he knew he could get to Greece by boat. Tragedy struck once more, as the boat was overloaded and sank in freezing cold international waters around 3.00 am. In the pitch black, with everyone wailing around him, Obada decided to swim to Greece, fighting the current for more than three hours and helping some children who had been separated from their mother. Obada explains, “I was so relieved and happy when we reached the coast. The children were reunited with their mother, and no one died in the sea that day.”

His journey wasn’t over yet – in two weeks, he walked across Greece, cycled across Macedonia and reached Hungary. It was a perilous journey where Obada and his fellow travelers were attacked and chased throughout. When he finally arrived in Austria, he was relieved but in pain: “I couldn’t walk anymore; my legs were bleeding and infected. I just fell onto the street.” Austrian police brought him to the Red Cross, where he was fed and bandaged, before he continued onto Belgium, where he envisioned a new life.

MAKING A LIFE IN BRUSSELS

Obada is visibly thankful as he explains how his application for asylum was accepted quickly in Belgium: “I wasn’t sure how long the procedure would take, and I must say that I was lucky as I had my “refugee” status in 4 months.”

Building a life in Brussels wasn’t quite so easy. It was a challenge to find a job and somewhere to live. Discrimination was rife and Obada realized, “I had to find a way to build my life, to rely on my skills and help myself, so I wanted to start something that would help myself and others in a similar situation.”

A few factors influenced his decision to begin cooking. His love for his mother, who he hasn’t seen in several years, and the urge to bring people together. He thought about his mother’s food and how it connects him to his homeland. “People of all colors and creeds will gather around the one table for food – they will bond, without discrimination,” Obada observes. That was the beginning of We Exist.

BRINGING SYRIAN FOOD TO BRUSSELS DINERS

Quaker House in Brussels was happy to host some of the very first dinners Obada organised. He compiled a mailing list of 90 people and invited them to his first event with a Syrian menu. 65 people attended, making the event a huge success. “I saw that there was an appetite for this, so I continued. Every event grew bigger – more and more people were keen to join.”

Restaurants around Brussels heard what he was doing and got in touch to offer their space on days they were closed. “I was moving around Brussels, bringing everything with me and hosting days at different restaurants every week. I remain forever grateful to the restaurant ‘Le Damoiselle’ whose owner is our coach and supports us at every step. He also let us host dinners at his restaurant.”

We Exist also invested every cent earned back into the business; buying equipment, doing cookery courses, getting the right documentation to meet food regulations in Belgium. He had a team of ten volunteers who were catering events for more than 500 people.

“Then I decided it was time to seek a venue for our restaurant, but it wasn’t easy. I was refused by at least twenty venues as they didn’t have faith that I would stay – they expected me to return to Syria,” at this he gives a wry smile, because so few Syrian immigrants can return home, “then we found somewhere in 2019.” Obada describes how it was rundown and needed a lot of care before opening.

Funds needed to be raised, so he embarked on a crowdfunding initiative, offering Syrian meals and catered events in exchange for pledges. We Exist, his organization which facilitates access into the labour market for people who have fled conflict and persecution, raised nearly €11,000, and Obada knew they could open a restaurant.

“We carried out a huge renovation over six months, ready to open in March 2020.” Days before opening, Belgium went into lockdown over coronavirus.

WE EXIST - FINALLY OPEN

“Nearly two years of lockdowns meant we had to cancel everything. Thankfully numerous customers supported us through takeaway and delivery orders, which is why we are still here.”

We Exist serves people from all over the world every day. Diners can taste typical dishes such as mutabal, an eggplant caviar and makliubeh, rice cooked with vegetables, topped with eggplant and minced meat or tofu. Every dish can be made vegan, providing visitors with many options.

Obada hopes that the continued success of the restaurant will allow more volunteers to join and ease the way for newcomers when they arrive in Brussels. Insight Vacations guests on the Country Roads of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands tour can enjoy a Make Travel MatterⓇ Experience at We Exist meeting Obada and finding out more about his life and work.