The scent of the food that wafts from Mat’am Souriya (Syria’s Restaurant) attracts passersby in Hada Street in the middle of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, where Sobhi Al Marei and his colleagues are hard at work, crafting delicious meals.
When the Syrian war became unbearable in Aleppo, Marei decided to shut shop and head for Yemen. His sister, who is married to a Yemeni, had already left for the country. “I arrived with my father, wife and two children, and we stayed in my brother-in-law’s house in Sanaa. When the war broke out between the Houthis and the Yemeni forces, I thought to leave Yemen to Saudi Arabia. But my brother-in-law refused and insisted on supporting me to open a restaurant,” Marei tells Newsweek Middle East.
Marei opened his restaurant at the end of 2014. But then his fate was to suffer another twist; the war in Yemen broke out. His worries grew; if the restaurant failed, he’d be indebted to his brother-in-law, Ahmed Al Wadei, with no means of repayment.
“In the first two months there was no profit, but then I could get benefit from the restaurant and I [managed to eke out a living] for my family here in Yemen.” Remarkably, he also sends money to his relatives in Syria. Marei has grown to love the country and insists that he has no intention of leaving even after the war in Syria ends. “I am still a refugee but I hope to get Yemeni nationality. And I will be loyal to Yemen as Syrian refugees feel that they are [at home here],” he says.
Living in one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, many Syrian refugees were reduced to begging on the streets for survival. A privileged few, with access to capital, were able to open small businesses. To make matters worse, many refugees fled to Saudi Arabia after the breakout of the Yemeni conflict. Some stayed on. “I know many Syrian refugees [who] left Yemen towards Saudi Arabia, regretted that they left and are thinking to return to Yemen. They cannot move freely in Saudi Arabia, and they have to stay in the camp of the refugees, while they can live as Yemenis here,” Marei says.
Many small businesses closed at the beginning of the war, but some Syrian eateries and stores bucked the trend, flourishing in the capital.
Marei works with his father, two Syrian refugees and two Yemeni waiters in the restaurant. His customers are men and women, and most buy take-outs. “Sometimes I cannot understand some of the Yemeni accents, so I [had] to hire two Yemeni waiters,” Marei says. The Yemeni waiters seemed more than happy to work for him.
More than 10 Syrian restaurants have mushroomed in Sanaa, selling Syrian street food such as kebabs and shawarma sandwiches (sliced chicken or lamb wrapped in pita bread). The eateries attract mostly Yemenis. Samar Al Shawafi, one of Marei’s customers, says that there are many restaurants that sell similar foods, but she prefers the Syrian way of cooking. “The prices of the Syrian restaurants are the same as the others, but the food of the Syrians is better. So always I buy my favorite shawarma and kebab from the Syrian restaurants.”
Many of the Syrian restaurants opened at the start of Yemen’s war, so they could compete with others offering lower price-points. A shawarma sandwich costs a mere YR150 ($.70).
The Yemeni Wadi Al Dor Restaurant in Al Qaa, in the heart of Sanaa, went out of business at the start of 2015. The owner, Naif Al Silwi, says that he had around 15 employees, but the prices of basic commodities and propane had increased. Many customers had also fled the capital to rural areas, so he was unable to continue.
“The Syrian restaurants only have three to five workers, and they are preparing just sandwiches and some cheap meals, so they could compete with us and work amid the war,” Silwi tells Newsweek Middle East.
But it’s not just Syrian staple foods that have become popular in Sanaa. Dozens of Syrians have opened shops that make Syrian sweets and nuts.
Signature Syrian sweets such as znood alset (a cream-filled puff pastry roll covered with pistachios) and kunafah (a famous cheese pastry soaked in sugar syrup) are very affordable in Sanaa. A piece of znood alset costs YR30 ($.13). These treats are hugely popular among Yemenis. Abu Mohammed, the famous nickname of Radhi Al Halabi, the owner of Znood Alset Shop for Syrian sweets in Hada Street, opened his small business in February 2015, after he arrived in Sanaa as a refugee seven months prior.
“I came from Syria with my five family members, and I started to look for work with Yemenis here. Then I got work in a Yemeni shop for Syrian sweets, but the owner of the shop wanted me to prepare the sweets in [the] Yemeni way, so I worked with him only for four months,” Abu Mohammed tells Newsweek Middle East.
A colleague in the sweets shop provided the capital, and the two became partners. The sweets are now prepared the Syrian way, which his customers prefer.
Despite the ongoing war in Yemen, Syrian refugees continue to arrive in the country. Some of them register their names at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) while others prefer to steer clear, fearing the Syrian authorities might know their identities.
Jamal Al Jabi, the legal protection officer in UNHCR’s Yemen office, tells Newsweek Middle East that until December 2015, Syrian refugees in Yemen officially numbered 3,011, while Syrian asylum seekers numbered 615. “Even if the war is going fiercely in Yemen, the refugees still arrive in Yemeni ports and most of them leave to Saudi Arabia, while others remain inside Yemen,” Jabi adds, stating that 11 Syrian refugees arrived in the country in January 2016.
Most of the Syrian refugees live in Sanaa and Aden, and some of them have stopped begging. Others are trying to find alternative forms of income, according to Jabi.
“Most of the refugees who have arrived in Yemen amid the war have incorrect information about the war, and they think that they can pass into Saudi Arabia easily, while most of them remain in Yemen,” Jabi says.
The UNHCR does not have exact figures for Syrian refugees who left for Saudi Arabia, but Jabi says that most of them have already crossed to the neighboring country. The future uncertain, the refugees home is where their kitchen is.