I used to walk through the streets of Damascus as a boy. The streets of the oldest city were gold and glistened in the sun. I would run from restaurant to restaurant, looking for the glorious smell of crispy Syrian falafel and humous.
By the age of 12, my nose was so attuned to the smell of my favourite spices, I felt I had a detailed map of Syria’s greatest restaurants in my head. It’s these memories, as I sit preparing food for my new restaurant in the UK, that bring a smile to my face. I remember, it wasn’t through eating that I became obsessed with cooking, it was through the smell of the old city.
The smells and my wonderful mother, widely known in our house as ‘the best chef Damascus had ever seen’. She would cook every single day for family, friends, sometimes the whole street would be over asking for tips and tricks from my mother.
This meant the kitchen was always busy. Through the hustle and bustle, the one thing I will never forget is the proud face of my father when we had friends and family over for dinner. His face would lift up, he would look five years younger and two foot taller. He would lean over to his friends and whisper boastful praises of her into their ears. My father was very, very in love with my mother.
One day mother asked me to help her in the kitchen. I stood up to accept this great badge of honour. To my (and her) surprise, I was a fast learner and it quickly became my greatest passion. She would see me crushing chickpeas in the evening and she would tell me ‘if you study as good as you eat, you will be the best doctor ever when you grow up’. Needless to say, I didn’t become a doctor.
I grew older, and I started to cook more adventurous dishes. I wanted to explore flavours and different spices. In my search, I would take a small wooden basket and walk out far to the lush fields away from the city. I would pick fresh strawberries and grapes and farmers living off the land would invite me into their shacks. They were very poor; no electricity; no TV’s; but they were very, very generous at heart. The farmers would invite me into their houses as they made the bread, potato and onions they had grown and picked for themselves that morning. They didn’t know who I was, but they always invited me. They didn’t have much, but always had enough to spare. Simple, sweet, made with a lot of love. This is always the best way to make food.I often wonder where those farmers are now. I hope they are safe. And one day in the future, I will meet them in the countryside to break bread once again.
After the war broke out, the Damascus I knew was gone. I left Syria in search of safety for my family. I left everythingI knew behind. Forty days after I arrived in the UK, my mother passed away. I wanted my father to join me, my wife and my daughters, but he wasn’t included in the family reunion policy. I appealed and won, and he arrived just two months ago. I hadn’t seen him for almost three years.
When he arrived I cooked him kebab hindi: lamb with a tomato and onion base. We visited Columbia Road, where I’m running my current restaurant. He loved it, and I know my mother would too.
It’s my mother’s kindness, and the breaking of the bread with those farmers, that stays with me. They inspired me to create my new restaurant with Help Refugees. A restaurant to save a children’s hospital in Northern Aleppo.
Please join us, I promise you won’t regret it. There are still tickets in August and September. Let’s choose love together and keep doing what we can to help those back home in Syria.
This article was written by Imad Alarnab, a successful restauranteur in Damascus who was forced to flee his home because of the violence. Help Refugees first met Imad in Calais, where he cooked from a gas stove for 40-50 people every day. Now, after Imad gained refugee status for himself and his family, Help Refugees have teamed up with Imad to raise funds to save the only children’s hospital in Aleppo. Get your tickets here. It’s the best Syrian food you’ll ever eat, and £15 from every ticket goes straight to Hope Hospital.