Syrian refugee, chef and restaurateur Mouhyedin Alkhalil founded Falafel Fella, an authentic vegan-friendly restaurant inspired by the tastes of his homeland, using recipes handed down from his mother and sister via Skype. Although he has found safety and success in his new hometown of Darlington, North East England, Mouhyedin misses the home he was forced to flee at the tender age of 18.
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Mouhyedin was born and raised in Homs, Syria, where he lived peacefully with his family. When the conflict in Syria began, nobody could have imaged the situation which unfolded. As bullets rained down upon Mouhyedin’s home town of Homs, the house that had been in their family for more than 100 years, with multiple generations of Alkhalil’s calling it home, was reduced to rubble.
From here, Mouhyedin’s life became a matter of survival. He moved house repeatedly in an attempt to seek safety and respite from the continuous bombing, but the atrocities of conflict followed him wherever he went.
As a teenager, Mouhyedin lost friends and loved ones in the conflict. With the reality of war surrounding him, everyday life became impossible. Mouhyedin was forced to abandon his university studies when snipers lined the streets that led to the venue where his law exams were being held, “Shooting at everything they saw, dogs, cats, people.”
For Mouhyedin, life became completely unpredictable. “You never knew what would happen, people would go to work and not come home [..] you would be laughing and joking with friends and then the next minute, bombs,” he recalled.
Despite everything going on around him, Mouhyedin wanted to stay in Syria so he could help his family. However, when he faced the threat of being forcibly enlisted into the army where he “would be killed or have to kill others,” his family insisted that he flee to Lebanon.
From Lebanon, Mouhyedin eventually found safety in the UK, where he arrived in 2016 through UNHCR’s resettlement scheme for vulnerable people. In Lebanon, Mouhyedin witnessed UNHCR’s work on the ground, “Helping people by giving families money in winter to spend for heating, clothes and food vouchers.” He was thankful to UNHCR for giving him this second opportunity at life.
Due to his lack of English, Mouhyedin was initially advised not to work. Determined not to let this stop him, he found a job at Vue Cinema, where he worked as front of house and was able to practise his English daily.
However, after less than two years of being in the UK Mouhyedin launched his own business Falafel Fella in 2018. The process was not easy due to the vast amounts of paperwork in English – a language he had not yet fully grasped. Fortunately, he had the help of friends Fran and Martin who guided him through the process, allowing him to operate from a stall at local markets and festivals.
Due to increased demand and an incredible response and support from the local community in Darlington, Mouhyedin found the ideal place for his own café, opening it a year later in 2019.
Mouhyedin now spends his days working at his café, producing dishes which remind him of the homeland he was forced to leave. When he left Syria, his father told him not do anything that wouldn’t make his family proud. “Now,” Mouhyedin says, “when I told him what I was doing with my business, he is proud.”
Despite finding success in the UK, Mouhyedin misses the place he called home for the formative years of his life. “I love it in Darlington. I am sad, because I miss my home and my family but I know if I am sad, nothing will change and so I try to be happy and then I can get work and help those I love.”
For Mouhyedin, everything reminds him of home. “Sometimes I’m driving on the motorway and I see a view that reminds me of home. I see the sunrise, and it reminds me of home. When I hear the rain, it reminds me of home. I smell perfume, and it reminds me of the perfume my dad used to wear. I smell food, and it reminds me of home.
“Ultimately, being with family and people I love and care about reminds me of home, because family is home. Being safe makes me feel home.”
To find our more about Mouhyedin or to visit his Falafel Fella restaurant, please visit his website here.
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