Inside the restaurant staffed almost entirely by refugees

Aziz Kawak

In a deeply divided world, any ideas to reunite us are worth a crack. And few things are as unifying as fresh homemade hummus.

That middle-eastern dish is among the arsenal of crowdfunded restaurant Syr, which is staffed mainly by Syrian refugees in the Dutch city of Utrecht.

Entirely self-funded, the masterminds behind the project believe that Syr appeals to those on the left desperate to accept and help refugees, and those on the right who are suspicious of multiculturalism and government handouts, says team member Anne Kwakkenbos. Like many European nations, the Netherlands is witnessing the rise of an anti-immigrant, Islamophobic rhetoric. There are currently around 47,500 refugees in theNetherlands. 

So Syr’s founders – including local restaurateur Gijs Werschkull – knew they had to act fast. It went from the germination of an idea to a functioning restaurant at lightning speed. Opening a crowdfunding page in February 2016, the team raised €160,000 (£137,000) in three weeks and attracted 70 volunteers to open in June of the same year. To find staff, the Syr team worked with the local authorities and organisations to find refugees seeking employment.

To mend rifts in society and look after those fleeing war and hardship in Syria and other nations including Iraq, Syr’s chefs combine Middle Eastern and European flavours. Hummus is served in mille-feuille pastry. Pulled lamb is served in a burger bun with mint and yogurt sauce. The Caesar Salad is served “Syrian style” with za’atar spiced grilled chicken, with mesclun salad, croutons, pomegranate and sumac dressing.

The team were particularly heartened by the majority of the donations coming from the city of Utrecht.

“Of course we have some negative comments as well but mostly people not understanding the concept and where we were getting the funding,” says Kwakkenbos, who works in international development and works for a gender equality organisation.

“We believe that we need to facilitate that exchange of ideas and food is one of the ways we can do that.”

What those behind Syr want to avoid, however, is focusing too much on the members of staff.

“We have a responsibility to make sure they can integrate and they’re not being used for sad pictures. 

“The problem is a lot of people want to hear their stories, but we have to be careful because they are here to build a new life and if we tell the story that’s not what it’s about. It’s about showing the strength that refugees have. After working with us for a year they can find a job and study, enter the regular job market. We try not to focus on their pasts.”

She goes on: “The best moment for me was the opening day. We had been working on it for months like crazy. We gathered by the tower in Utrecht’s town centre, there was music and children and Dutch people and refugees and we walked towards the restaurant together. It was raining but there were so many. It was amazing to see what you can achieve with a small group of people.”

“We have the first Syr baby,” she adds. “A couple who were married and they just had a baby and it’s great to see they’re settling and starting a new life. It’s beautiful.”

At first, the team proposed opening a pop-up, but soon realised they wanted a longer project. In the future, the team want to host language exchange lessons and storytelling nights.

“Every time I walk in there is a positive atmosphere,” says Kwakkenbos. 

“It’s a very warm place where people come together and a lot of opportunities are being created and more moments will come.”

Re-posted from INDEPENDENT

Kashmira Gander

Published Friday 10 February 2017

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