Meet the Falafel King of the Idomeni Refugee Camp

At the Idomeni refugee camp on the border of Greece and Macedonia, you’ll find Syrian chef Tamer: frying chicken, mixing yogurt-tahini sauce, and barking orders to his eager cohort of line cooks.

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May 24 2016, 8:00pm

Tamer al-Abdullah is the doting father of a two-month-old girl and the proud owner of a two-week-old restaurant. Both jobs, baby-daddy and business-owner, are challenging at the best of times. But Tamer, 42, is currently living in a ramshackle refugee camp at the border of Greece and Macedonia—one of 10,000 asylum-seekers still pooled in Idomeni, at the brink of the "Balkan route," where their progress into Europe was halted by widespread border closures in mid-March. The settlement has been likened to a concentration camp; living conditions are rough; the risk of exploitation high. Yet its informal status and bloated proportions have allowed refugee-run businesses to thrive. In recent weeks, basic snack stalls have proliferated across the camp. Amid the no-frills falafel joints, Tamer's place stands out. "In Syria, I had two restaurants!" he observes, with a wry chuckle, sweeping an eye over his colorful setup. "Here, I have these tables."

(19) The master at work

Tamer, left, owned two restaurants in Deir Ezzor, Syria. All photos by the author.
(4) The view from the deep-fryer The view of the camp from the deep-fryer.

Humble as the space may be, Tamer—in his uniform of black tracksuit and fanny-pack, silvered curls swept back from a receding hairline—takes his work seriously. It would be flippant to call the stall a "destination eatery." It exists within a half-mile-square tent city after all, and, like so many facets of life in Idomeni, the location is not a product of choice but of necessity (i.e., proximity to the large dormitory-style tent where Tamer and his family sleep, alongside a hundred others). But it also bears out the idea that good food is not necessarily found in premier locations. Dodge past the cigarette hawkers and camera crews on the entry road, swing a right before crossing the railway lines, follow a mildly malodorous line of port-a-potties until they peter out, and that's where you'll find Tamer: frying chicken, mixing yoghurt-tahini sauce, and barking orders to his eager cohort of line chefs. "They didn't have enough money to buy cigarettes before," he says fondly. "Now they work with me."

Cooking is Tamer's birthright. He was born in Deir Ezzor, a town huddled alongside the Euphrates, where his father ran a restaurant. Tamer—one of seven brothers—grew up in the kitchen. When his father died, the brothers sold the restaurant, splitting the proceeds between them. Abdullah, Ahmed, and Hossein took their share and opened a restaurant in Egypt. Two others established an eatery in Saudi Arabia. Tamer stayed put, using his inheritance to open two restaurants in Deir Ezzor: one specializing in typical Syrian cuisine, the other serving Western-style fast food. "I was happy," he says of that time, counting off two businesses, two cars, a house, on his fingers. "There is nothing to say. It was a good life."

(18) The fried delights of Tamer's stall, including eggplant, potato, ejjeh, felafel

The fried delights of Tamer's stall, including eggplant, potato, ejjeh, and falafel.

But in 2011, as protests snowballed into civil war, military blockades appeared in the neighborhood. Soon, heavy artillery began reverberating through the city. Tamer took his family—his pregnant wife Nedda, three daughters, and a son—and escaped to Azaz, a village to the north of Aleppo, where he opened a small restaurant and hoped for the best. Early this year, Azaz—squeezed between anti-Assad rebels, ISIS, the Kurds, and allied pro-Assad forces—became the epicentre of the Syrian struggle. In February, Russian airstrikes bombarded the city and Tamer and his family fled yet again, this time to Meidan Ekbis, a dusty frontier town in Afrin province, on the Turkish border.

(6) Felafel is the staple of Idomeni small business

Falafel is the staple of Idomeni small business.
(7) A classic felafel wrap, with most of the trimmings A classic falafel wrap, with most of the trimmings.

The journey onward was blighted with bad luck. Having paid 100,000 Syrian pounds (about 400 euros) to a smuggler, the family waited for days. When they tried to cross, they were caught three times by Turkish border guards and sent back. Tamer paid a further 200 euros, some of which was used to bribe the guards. "We passed right under the Turkish checkpoint," Tamer recalls. "They were looking at us as we went." The family spent only two weeks in Turkey. (Tamer's eldest daughter married her fiancé there, and the couple have since returned to Syria.) Their crossing to Greece was thwarted twice before it even began. On the third attempt, late at night, the overloaded rubber boat was launched, but rapidly began taking on water. Aided by Spanish lifesavers and the Greek coastguard, they reached Lesvos on February 28. Nedda, then in her ninth month of pregnancy, promptly went into labor, giving birth to a healthy baby girl.

Just days after the birth, the family hurried north, by ferry and train, to Idomeni. But they were too late: by the time they arrived, Macedonia was only allowing asylum-seekers through in tiny batches. The bottleneck meant Tamer's family never had the chance to cross, and soon afterwards the border was decisively closed. Sara, the newborn, had her first shower in nearby Thessaloniki, and the family settled down to wait. "Everything was easy before this," Tamer says, glancing out at the sagging pup tents and the trash-fuelled fires. "We didn't come from our country to live here. It is worse than a bad life—it is humiliating, degrading."

(9) Customer paying for his meal

A customer paying for his meal.
ejjeh

But Tamer is doing relatively well. Fifteen days back, volunteers began distributing falafel scoops; he seized the opportunity. A young Australian volunteer gave him a recycled table, and helped to build another. Starting small, making 50 sandwiches a day, he has now expanded his output to around 300 (at 1 euro each), and diversified the dishes on offer: fresh chopped vegetables are offset by the deep-fryer burbling away in a corner, churning out crispy eggplant, golden fries, (fritters made with flour, egg, and vegetables), and what Tamer intimates is the camp's best falafel. "It's the opinion of other people," he demurs. A baker elsewhere in the tent labyrinth sends over flatbreads throughout the day.

(10) Chopped and cooked chicken livers ready for Mexification

Chopped and cooked chicken livers ready for Mexi-fication.
(13) Chicken livers and hearts, ready for wrapping Chicken livers and hearts, ready for wrapping.

Regular trips to nearby Polikastro, and further off to Thessaloniki (a 180-euro return taxi ride, which he shares with two others), allow Tamer to source cheap ingredients. He is still constrained by price and availability—he speaks mistily of kebabs made using Syrian mutton—but innovates with what he can find. Animal protein is provided by chicken, which Tamer prides himself on being able to transform into a panoply of delights: crispy, escalloped, "fajita." One day, I arrive to see him briskly measuring spices—cumin, coriander, bay leaves—for an aromatic Mexican-style tomato-pepper sauce, into which chopped and sautéed chicken hearts and livers are deposited. The stew is garnished with mushrooms and corn, and tucked, upon request, into a wrap, along with coleslaw and fries.

A steady procession of customers—mostly camp locals (Syrian, Iraqi, Kurdish asylum-seekers) rather than outsiders (NGO workers and volunteers)—place orders from 11 AM until late. Tamer isn't concerned about the competitors that have sprung up. "In any business, only he who has the long breath and the experience can succeed," he says. While the proprietor of another falafel stall must laboriously split wood with the side of a shovel, preparing for a long day of tending the fire, Tamer has commercial gas rings. His power at night is supplied by Médecins Sans Frontières. "We've developed it ourselves step by step," Tamer says. "It's about the possible… If we can get asylum in Greece, we could do better work than this—a thousand times better."

(15) A chicken liver wrap, and Idomeni's train tracks

A chicken liver wrap, and Idomeni's train tracks.
(17) Felafel comes out, chicken goes in Falafel comes out, chicken goes in.

For Tamer, like everyone else, the camp's indignities are increasingly unbearable. He cites the poor facilities ("You wouldn't let your dog use these toilets") and the lack of accurate information. His other children here—a boy, Mosleh, 12, and two girls, Hala, 17, and Nawal, 14—are missing crucial years of their schooling. Nedda, forever looking after little Sara and kneading dirt out of the family's laundry, is physically and emotionally exhausted. Her eldest daughter, in Syria, will shortly give birth; that she will not be there to help causes Nedda acute pain. After showing me photos of her pregnant child, she cries quietly.

Tamer has repeatedly attempted to register for asylum in Greece; each time he tries to make the requisite Skype call, nobody answers. He resists the notion of moving to a military-run camp—a move increasingly encouraged by the Greek government, who have been broadcasting their plans to close Idomeni for some time (and who, this week, have finally begun to evacuate the camp in earnest). "We want to move forwards," Tamer says, firmly. "We won't take a step back." But that choice, like many others, is no longer his to make. The cost of being smuggled across the border (8,000 euros for the family) is too high; relocation to a new camp—away from the border—seems inevitable. Back in Deir Ezzor, a city besieged by ISIS for over a year, Tamer's restaurants are now only rubble. "We escaped from death to find a better life," he says. "We could have died there rather than dying here."

(2) Tamer, 42, owned two restaurants in Deir Ezzor, Syria

"We are searching for a life—not a good life, only a life," Tamer says.

But he hasn't lost hope. When Tamer speaks of why he chose to build his restaurant, and why he chooses to keep serving food, despite the conditions, he becomes impassioned, clear-eyed. "I am a chef," he says. "With my work, I need to send a message to the European Union that the Syrian people, we are active. We are not terrorists; we didn't come here to kidnap their country. We are searching for a life—not a good life, only a life."