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Syrian chef Imad Alarnab on starting over in London: ‘I’ve had a second chance’

Imad Alarnab fled his war-torn home of Damascus five years ago. Now, he’s just opened his first restaurant in London. He explains how this city gave him a new start

Isabelle Aron
Written by
Isabelle Aron

I opened my first restaurant in Damascus in 1999. Eventually, I had three restaurants, juice bars and coffee shops. I lost them all in 2012 – everything I owned was bombed in the civil war. I fled to the UK three years later. It was a difficult journey, which took three months. I felt like a Londoner from my first day here. It was the first time that I didn’t feel people were judging me with my backpack. I looked like everyone else on the train, even though they weren’t necessarily refugees or asylum-seekers. I spent the night in King’s Cross station and took the cheapest train to Doncaster to stay with my sister, before I came back to London for good.

At first, I worked as a car washer and then a car salesman. I didn’t want to work in anyone else’s kitchen, I wanted to work in my own. In March 2017, I had my first pop-up restaurant on Columbia Road. Since then, I’ve done pop-ups and catering. I’ve supported charities and projects that work with refugees, for example the only children’s hospital in Aleppo and the camps in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Calais and Greece.

imad's syrian kitchen
Image: Issy Croker/Time Out

I feel it’s my duty to help, because I came from the same situation. I know how desperate it is. Five years ago, when I arrived in the UK, it was either get the train to Doncaster, or have dinner; I didn’t have enough for both. I’ve had my second chance and I’m really grateful for it. I hope I can be part of other people’s second chances.

I’ve had so many new starts, from seeking a safer home for me, my wife and daughters, to coming to London and starting my pop-ups. Now, with the permanent location for my restaurant, it’s like my dream is coming true one more time. I had this dream in Syria, it came true and someone took it away from me. Now, it’s coming true again.

London is the greatest city in the world. It was an amazing feeling to open the doors to my restaurant here. We’re currently donating  £1 from every bill to the refugee charity Choose Love. I believe in karma. I believe that when you do something good, it comes back to you. 

Imad’s Syrian Kitchen is in Kingly Court, Carnaby St.

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