Guest post from Refutales: Sally Ghannoum

This story appeared originally on the website Refutales which gives a voice to the personal stories of refugees in Europe, and highlights the barriers to integration that they face. Dutch readers can find the article here.This story caught my eye because of its connection to Antwerp, and also because I have been to this restaurant (Dilbi Falafel) and enjoyed the delicious food that Sally and her husband serve there. Sally’s story is reproduced here with her permission and that of Refutales. Thank you to both Sally and Refutales for allowing me to share this story on Nessascityblog.

How a Syrian Director opened a Restaurant in Antwerp

 

Posted on 27 June 2017 

Translated by Veerle Masscheleyn

 

One rarely meets people who can incite others with their strength and zeal for life. Sally Ghannoum is such a person. One year and a half after her arrival in Belgium, she managed to establish a Syrian restaurant with the help of dozens of new friends.

We met at Dilbi Falafel in Antwerp while savouring the tasty cuisine. It soon became clear that Sally had more to offer than just oriental dishes. One could refer to her as the embodiment of successful integration.

In the heart of the Arabic neighbourhood

Dilbi Falafel is not exactly a business you’ll stumble upon, but there has been a steady growth of customers through word of mouth. It’s located at Diepstraat 60, about a ten minute walk from the train station of Antwerp. Suppressing my first impulse of entering the shopping street (known as ‘De Meir’), I made my way towards the Arabic neighbourhood. Sally dreams about a big restaurant at ‘de Groenplaats’, but for the moment she settles for her cosy restaurant. And she’s right. The location might even add to its charm.

We stopped en route to buy Aleppo soap, one of the most famous body care products, and then marvelled at the shop window of Iraqi bakeries. Who would have thought that all this could be found at a stone’s throw from Antwerp Central Station?

We merrily continued our walk to Dilbi Falafel. The ‘open’ sign invited us to swing open the non-transparent door.  We were pleasantly surprised, for the modest exterior conceals a very neat space. It is so unlike the typical falafel fast food restaurants. The carefully selected interior, the wallpaper that resembles a brick wall, the Arabic lighting, the varied salad bar … everything contributes to the oriental atmosphere.

Carefully selected menu

Sally greeted us with a firm handshake. “Welcome. Have you tasted Syrian cuisine before?” Upon expressing our adoration, she began to discuss the variety of dishes that are served. “The menu is rather limited and we prefer to keep it that way”, she explained. “We only add a dish after it’s been tried and tested thoroughly. My husband, Issam Youssef, is the chef and takes pride in his work. It took us 4 months to perfect the falafel recipe. We aim at perfection in taste as well as appearance.”

Issam is a trained engineer and a reputed poet. “He composes his dishes like poems”, she smiled, “so that both can nourish the soul.”

“[My husband] composes his dishes like poems, so that both can nourish the soul.”

Some customers entered. Sally jumped to her feet and greeted them. She went over the menu while explaining everything extensively. After they had made their choices, she joined us at the table. “Sorry about that”, she apologised, “but I always like to welcome new customers myself. Every dish has its specific background. In order to savour it fully, one needs to eat it our way.”

Her eyes started sparkling. “I may exaggerate at times. It happens that customers have a particular sandwich in mind. ‘Add this or leave that out’. Belgians do have a tendency to try out something new, but Syrians … they are quite traditional when it comes to how to eat their falafel (depending their city of origin).” Whenever she starts talking about Syrian habits, it’s impossible not to hang on her every word.

“I invariably answer that they should try out our sandwich first. We left nothing to chance when we were composing it. Our falafel recipe is a blend of various regions. Every ingredient is essential. Whenever a customer does prefer another sandwich, we simple add ours free of charge. The customer is always king, but even a king should sometimes dare to take the plunge.” It was clear: they serve an experience on top of a meal.

“The customer is always king, but even a king should sometimes dare to take the plunge.”

Time to try it out ourselves! Issam conjured up all his dishes on the table which we shared among each other. I highly recommend this formula! The portions are rather big and they can easily be combined. I personally adored the Sujukh sandwich, a bun filled with spicy minced meat. It was a true taste explosion. It would probably be impossible for me to devour a full portion, but its taste was perfectly complemented by Msabaha, a type of chickpea soup.

All meals are examples of Syrian street food culture. “Even though we are Christians, we make sure our food is halal”, explained Sally. “Special requests can be made. And we do get various orders during Ramadan.”

Freshness and hygiene are their hallmark. Every day, they spend about three to four hours cleaning and sterilising. Every morning, fresh vegetables are bought. All sauces are prepared by hand to ensure their authentic flavour. With Dilby Falafel they can put their country in a positive light.

How everything started

“At first I had no idea of what I wanted to do, but it was certain I wasn’t going to give up. I simply refused to succumb to depression.”, she said passionately. She used to be a music teacher in Syria and soon felt like widening her passion for art. In Dubai she studied to become a film director, while she helped her husband to run his business. The economic crisis forced her to leave the country and she got entangled in Syria’s war again.

“I had no idea of what I wanted to do, but it was certain I wasn’t going to give up.”

“We arrived in Europe by the regular route, in essence by boat.” She spoke about her journey as if it was the most common thing in the world, like going to buy bread at your local bakery on a Sunday morning.

“And then those attacks at Brussels took place”, there was an uncomfortable silence, “I was so angry! YOU DO NOT DO SUCH A THING. If you don’t love this country, simply leave!”

She would have loved to start her own business upon arrival, but that was not allowed. She could however study. Sally went to the International Academy of Film and Television Belgium. “I explained that I have nothing, except my willingness to work hard. I managed to get hold of a scholarship.”, she explained.

While they were recording, she always brought along a meal prepared by her husband. She let her fellow students have a taste. They were so impressed that it didn’t take long before Issam started to cater for the film crew. “That’s how we got the idea to start a restaurant.”

Once they had their residence permits, they started to look for a proper location. Sally coincidentally stumbled upon a restaurant for rent in the Diepstraat at Antwerp. “I immediately took it”, she said with a gloominess in her voice, “although this decision turned out to be quite costly.”

Apparently, the building did not have the official status of a restaurant. Through word of mouth they found out how to apply for such a license. It subsequently took five months before they received an answer. “We ended up paying rent and utilities for quite some time, without having an income.” That was quite a tough period. They did not qualify for a bank loan. Sally praises her friends. “Whoever we talk to, people are always confident. They believe in our project. I receive both monetary and practical support. And I always keep my promises to pay back.”

Home is where you’re welcome

What has mostly stuck with me from my meeting with Sally is her definition of ‘home’. “I’m very proud of my Syrian-Aramaic roots. But Belgium is my home. I arrived, received a warm welcome and was treated respectfully. If I would happen to leave for Africa and receive the same welcome there, then that would be my home.”

“In my opinion, only death is inevitable.”

She looked at me insistently. “Whatever happens in life, you’ll always have a home. Nothing is impossible. In my opinion, only death is inevitable. Never give up hope.”


Want to discover Issam’s kitchen and Sally’s hospitality?
Dilbi Falafel, Diepestraat 60, 2060 Antwerpen


Translated by: Veerle Masscheleyn
Photo credit: Just Alvaro Photography

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Guest post: Dolrish Aguillon, vlogger and nurse.

BEING AN EXPAT

What’s it like being an expat? What are struggles you’re likely to face when you leave your country of origin? How would you start a new life when all the things you’ve cherished, treasured and loved are 10, 718 kilometres away?

I am Dolrish Aguillon, a Filipino. And this is my story.

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Graduating, in 2011

It’s September 2011, and I’ve just got my license to practise as a registered nurse when I decide to leave everything behind and go to Belgium. The reason is to have immediate work and earn. My mother was already working here so bringing me from the Philippines wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t have much time to prepare, to say goodbye to my friends and loved ones. I’ll never forget the day when the plane took-off: I was crying like a baby;  it hurts so deeply.

The first week of staying here was exciting and full of promise. I was curious and anxious at the same time. The separation, anxiety and sadness came after a month and it lasted for almost four months. Every night before I went to sleep I would think about how life might have been if I hadn’t left The Philippines. However,  I used all my uncertainties as a fuel to become a better person and to succeed. Here, I’d like to share the things which totally caught me off-guard when I came here:

LANGUAGE

Learning Dutch or any foreign language isn’t that simple. During my first months here, I experienced the frustration of not understanding others, and not being understood. I’ve gone to different evenings schools, followed intensive courses (university and adult courses) just to learn the language. After four years, I got my level 5 certificate from Linguapolis in Antwerp.

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MAKING FRIENDS AND MEETING PEOPLE

What makes it harder is the fact that you don’t know anyone in the city. There is no one with whom you can spend time and enjoy activities. There is no one who would give you a tour of the city, nor advise you on how to live and survive there. Being new to a country, without acquaintances, is hard.

I have made friends through attending Dutch lessons, going to events and activities in Antwerp and by joining groups like Expats in Antwerp on Facebook. My friends are mostly foreigners, like myself.

FOOD

All of us can relate to the experience of suddenly not be able to get the foods we are used to. I didn’t eat much potato before. I am used eating rice and noodles; they have both here but it was seldom cooked at my new home. One dish I really miss is chicken adobo (chicken prepared with soy sauce and bay leaves) – a typical Filipino food, usually served with rice.

WEATHER

Belgium is known to have pretty terrible weather; a lot of rain, cold, wind and snow. You can’t plan anything without consulting the weather first. This is a problem I never had when I was in the Philippines, so it really took me some time to get used to it.

CULTURE

Different country, different culture. What do I expect? I had to accept, mingle and respect the new culture I found myself in. Throughout the years I have seen a lot of Belgian culture and their way of living. I would say that they are very organised and careful in all aspects of their lives. Something that we Filipinos don’t have. We are used to living day by day; not worrying about what tomorrow may bring.

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Dolrish in 2017 – ready to vlog!

Those are the 5 things what made my integration process challenging here Belgium. I wish I knew those things  before I came here and had researched more deeply about Belgium, its people and  its culture. And for these reasons I decided to produce a Youtube channel which gives insights and tips about being an expat – not only in Belgium but also in general. I make 1-2 videos per week, so don’t forget to check out my channel

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Vlog posts on Dolrish’s Youtube channel

Inspired by Dolrish’s post?

If you’d like to contribute and tell your story, please get in touch via nessascityblog@gmail.com

If you are on Facebook, you might also like to check out Expats in Antwerp and connect with people from all over the world who have made Antwerp their home.