A few years ago, Yassin and his family's lives changed forever.
He never imagined that he would one day live anywhere other than in his homeland, Syria. But as war raged in his country, he was forced to leave in 2011.
His story appeared in a short documentary film titled, "Yassin Falafel."
The film was produced by Square — a financial services and merchant services aggregator in San Fransico. It is part of a series of films that the company is producing to chronicle the lives of refugees and "their tireless pursuit of their dreams."
Yassin spoke to Stepfeed from his new hometown in Knoxville, Tennessee. Here's what he had to say about new beginnings, refugee life, and giving back to the community.
How it all started
Yassin's world was slowly collapsing as the war in Syria raged on. With no other option left, he packed a suitcase, a few hundred dollars and fled his hometown, leaving behind his parents, brothers, neighbors and friends.
Arriving in Knoxville, Tennessee, Yassin sought asylum, beginning the long process for approval.
“When I first arrived in the U.S. everything was difficult, it was a completely new culture, I barely knew anyone and I didn't speak any English. We were also going through extreme financial difficulties at the time,” he says.
A sense of community
Desperate to find a job in order to provide for his family, Yassin sought advice from new friends that he had made at a local mosque.
“I found a sense of community there, some people even spoke my language and so I felt that I could go to them for advice. I asked them to help me find a job, but when everyone tried and couldn’t find anything, they offered to provide me financial assistance.”
Yassin explains that this was one of the most difficult things he ever had to go through. Back home in Syria he had built a life as a successful businessman, fully providing for himself and his family, but suddenly he found himself facing a harsh reality.
Even though this hit him hard, he and his wife refused to give up because they wanted to set an example for their two daughters.
Taste of home
Refusing financial aid from those who offered it, Yassin asked his friends if he could sell falafel sandwiches outside the local mosque instead. They agreed.
So he got a catering license, bought two plastic tables, a Square reader, a few ingredients and began making and selling falafel every Friday.
“At first, I wasn’t making any money, barely breaking even, but I was thrilled that I was getting to share a part of our beautiful culture with everyone around me, it reminded me of home,” he says.
And more importantly, Yassin was achieving his dream of challenging and changing the mainstream image of refugees/asylum seekers.
“Some people see refugees or asylum seekers as people who depend on governments or organizations for aid, I wanted to shatter that image and make sure that people see us for what we truly are. We are human beings who want to survive, we have ambitions and dreams, we are people who can contribute to our communities and help others as well.”
After a few weeks of selling his falafel sandwiches, word was out and Yassin began to see new customers every week. “People began telling their friends, their families and even their co-workers and they were coming from all around the city," he tells us.
"Yassin's Falafel House"
Two years down the line Yassin was offered a partnership to open a falafel restaurant and soon after that he became the proud co-owner of Yassin's Falafel House.
Through his restaurant, he tries to give back to his community. And recently, the "Yassin Falafel House" won the “Institution for change” award, which is usually awarded to businesses or institutions that aim to create change in the communities around them.
Yassin insists on hiring as many refugees as he can to work at the restaurant and when asked why that is important to him, he says:
“I am adamant on hiring refugees for two main reasons, one is because I feel their pain, I know how difficult it is to start from scratch in a place where you don’t know anyone and two, because I don't want them to end up relying on aid from the government or anyone else. I want them to know that they can contribute to their new communities and become active participants in creating the change they want to see in their lives.”
In the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s now-frozen travel ban, Yassin says that things became quite difficult for refugees. He stresses on the fact that while every country needs to have legislative procedures for entry, the decision was terrifying for people who did all the legal paperwork and were still affected.
He also explains that during the past few months, the support they have received from people across the U.S. who stood against the decision has been incredible.
Yassin on his homeland...
“Homeland means respect. It is the place where your rights are respected, where your dignity as a human being is respected. Of course the ideal is that your family is also a part of that homeland and I yearn to be with my extended family because it is hard when they are not with you, but essentially I always ask myself, would our families be happy if we lived in homelands where our lives are not respected?”
"If I had to do it all again, I would"
Yassin’s message today is one of perseverance and hope. To every asylum seeker and refugee he says:
“You represent your cultures and countries no matter where you are. Reflect the reality behind our stories, and hold on to the values of our upbringings. Be a part of the new communities you join, take the good things, give back, and transfer what you learn to people back home, so that one day our own countries will become places that we are not forced to leave.”
And to every refugee who is about to lose hope, Yassin says:
"No matter how difficult things get, you will always find a way out. Have patience, persist and remember that we have an example to set to our children first and to the world, that we are hardworking people who can make a difference. I stood outside a mosque and sold sandwiches to make a living and to create change, it wasn’t easy but I did it with faith and pride, and if I had to do it all again, I would.”