The refugee-run restaurant, launched by a heart surgeon, hopes to create a different kind of conversation about Syrians in Europe.
Abdulhai Abo-Alhar, the chef at Restaurant Lamees in Duisburg. All photos by the author.
Dr. Mahmoud Naheel, a Syrian heart surgeon residing in the city of Duisburg in Northwestern Germany, decided to take a rather unorthodox annual leave in 2017.
"Although I am a physician, I always dreamed of opening a restaurant all my life," said Naheel, who finally realized that dream in January with Restaurant Lamees.
Although he grew up and trained to be a physician in Syria, Naheel was born in Germany and spent the majority of his adult life there. Still, the 33-year-old doctor has always remained connected to his roots and culture—mainly through Syrian food.
"Us Syrians, we are foodies. Food is the easiest connection to home when we are homesick," he said.
"I have always been very selective of where I eat and what I eat. I wasn't always very satisfied with the food I found in Germany. Over the years, I thought the food scene in Duisburg could do with world-famous Aleppo kebabs," Naheel added with a laugh.
Due to his demanding schedule, Naheel kept his dreams of opening a restaurant on hold. Then the war broke out and ravaged his hometown of Aleppo, which resulted in many of his relatives and friends fleeing the country. One of Naheel's uncles from Aleppo, who happened to have worked as a chef in five-star hotels back home, landed in Germany as a refugee.
"I realized that if I was ever going to open that restaurant of my dreams, there was no better time," said Naheel, who still keeps his day job as a heart surgeon, but helps to manage the restaurant whenever he can.
As the Syrian civil war went on and the refugee crisis grew, negative messages and stereotypes about Syrians filled European media, which bothered Naheel. He trusted the culinary skills of his uncle and his food business sense to deliver a different kind of message about Syria.
He took the leap of faith and opened Restaurant Lamees, employing only refugees who are adapting to their new lives in Germany.
The restaurant is now thriving, due in large part to the culinary skills of Naheel's uncle, Abdulhai Abo-Alhar.
"I worked as a five-star chef all over Middle East for renowned hotels and sheikhs in the 1990s and 2000s," said the 52-year-old chef. "I was beginning to make big name for myself but then I got homesick and decided to go back to Aleppo."
Abo-Alhar returned to Aleppo in 2005 to start from scratch. He opened his own fine-dining restaurant, which he said was doing very well and was locally renowned.
However, like thousands of other people from Aleppo, he had to leave the city due to security threats. Abo-Alhar was broken when he had to abandon his restaurant overnight when the war broke out. He travelled alone to Berlin and had his family join him later.
When they arrived in Germany as refugees, they had nothing—all their documents and money were stolen during the journey. Now, starting from scratch now, he's determined to make an even better life in Germany.
"Food is my life," said Abo-Alhar, who spoke passionately about Syrian cuisine. "No one leaves their country and well-established routine voluntarily," he added. He's still homesick and misses his restaurant back in Aleppo sorely.
"But I found a new purpose now. My aim is to show the people of Northwest Germany a real taste of Syria. I want to show them that we aren't all terrorists and bigots, but we have a very rich culture and an amazing cuisine. I'll cook the best food I'll ever have made."
Abo-Alhar is still grappling with the challenges of relocating to a new country and adapting to a notoriously difficult language. But he's confident that he'll succeed.
"My priority would be to go back to Aleppo one day and run my old restaurant again. But I honestly don't think we will able able to do that any time soon," he said. If he cannot go back to Aleppo, he hopes to stay in Duisburg and develop a chain of restaurants across Germany.
"I am new here but I got a lot of experience," he said confidently. "I can start from scratch again and do something really good. I have done it once and I can do it again."