Travel Story The Amsterdam restaurant helping Syrian refugees find their feet

Amsterdam's first Syrian restaurant serves up the flavours of the Middle East while giving refugees fleeing civil war a chance to start anew. 

Surrounded by five men whose arms are locked together in solidarity, Mumen al-Azhar bears the expression of a pleased parent. These men are not his sons, they are his employees. Yet there is a patently tight bond between the group because of their shared national heritage and the trauma which has beset their country.

Mr al-Azhar, 45, is the proprietor of Sham, Amsterdam’s first Syrian restaurant, where most of the 18 staff are refugees who have recently fled the civil war ravaging Syria. More than 400,000 people have perished in this war, which has raged for six years. Among that death toll are close to 100,000 civilians.

The threat of becoming yet another casualty has prompted many Syrians to flee the country, creating perhaps the worst refugee crisis the world has seen since World War II.

According to Amnesty International, more than 6 million people have fled Syria, with most of them landing in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, while in excess of 100,000 more have found a home in Europe.

Thousands of Syrians have settled in the Netherlands and Mr al-Azhar, a long-time resident of Amsterdam, says he wants to use his restaurant to help some of these people find their feet. He specifically seeks to give opportunities to Syrian refugees who have only recently arrived in Europe.

As I am interviewing Mr al-Azhar in the downstairs dining room of Sham, one of these refugees strides out of the kitchen area sporting a generous smile. His boss calls him over to our table. The man’s name is Mohammad Kabeln, 33, and he has worked at Sham as a dishwasher since fleeing Syria. I ask Mohammad what it is like working at Sham, knowing how he is likely to answer in front of his employer. His response — “I love it, 100 per cent” — is delivered with an enthusiasm so robust and authentic it convinces even this sceptical journalist.

Mr al-Azhar grins and slaps Mohammad on the back, a gesture which seems to mean “Good man” and “Now get back to work please”. Mohammad’s refugee colleagues are similarly enthusiastic, chatting away happily in the kitchen or bounding around the restaurant to deliver steaming hot Syrian dishes.

The clientele today is a rough 50-50 split between Syrians and Westerners. When Sham opened in September 2016, Mr al-Azhar explains, their customers had been almost entirely Middle Eastern. Then they received coverage in a couple of major Dutch media outlets, followed by several positive reviews, and their customer base expanded and diversified.

The Dutch are no strangers to foreign cuisines, particularly residents of Amsterdam, which has large populations of people from Morocco, Suriname, Turkey, Indonesia, Ghana and the Caribbean. Restaurants associated with each of those nations or regions are scattered across the Netherlands’ biggest city.

Mr al-Azhar says it was because of this multiculturalism he had long believed a Syrian restaurant would be successful in Amsterdam. “Dutch people are open very much to other cultures, and to other people, and I think to other food, too,” he says.

If I didn’t already have a job as a journalist, I’d happily stand outside Sham and tell passers-by just what they are missing if they don’t come inside. I’m no food critic but I am a large man with a matching appetite. Suffice to say the five dishes I tried were largely unlike anything I had eaten before. A particular nook in my heart was secured by the fatoush, a salad embellished by fried bread and pomegranate juice which disappeared as quickly as my hands and mouth could manage.

Mr al-Azhar had said he would leave me by myself so I could eat. But I have sharp sight from the corner of my eye — he was watching from afar, smiling each time I made a satisfied noise. 

Mr al-Azhar and his restaurant will never have a direct impact on quelling the Syrian conflict. In the meantime, they are doing a good thing.

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