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.