I fled Syria with just £12 … now I have my own restaurant in Soho

When Imad Alarnab, a Syrian chef, arrived in the UK as a refugee five years ago, he could barely afford to eat. Meals were regularly skipped and a Snickers bar could be eked out over a whole day to help him survive. On Monday, the 43-year-old father of three will be celebrating lockdown rules easing with a fairytale twist: Alarnab will be opening the doors to his very own central London restaurant.

“This is not because I am strong or brave,” says Alarnab, who begins to well up as staff scurry through the restaurant, prepping for their first service. “I am proof that if you try to do something good for people, something good will happen to you. This is a fact.”

Alarnab spent three dangerous months crossing from Damascus to Europe, smuggled in lorries via Lebanon, Turkey and North Macedonia. He arrived in the UK in the autumn of 2015 with £12 in his pocket – “enough for the bus fare to Doncaster where my sister lived” – and worked as a car washer and car salesman until he found a way to cook again.

Back in Syria, he had lived a comfortably affluent life as the owner of three restaurants and several juice bars and coffee shops. “Everything I owned was bombed within six days in 2012,” he says. “We lost everything, but I still considered myself the luckiest person – we moved continuously from place to place but I had my family, I had my wife and three daughters.”

Imad’s Syrian Kitchen was born of a dream that first took hold when Alarnab partnered with a charity to host a pop-up kitchen in east London in March 2017. It was an immediate word-of-mouth success and led to many more, with Alarnab bringing traditional Syrian cuisine to customers from Hampstead to High Wycombe.

To date, he has raised more than £200,000 for Choose Love and has pledged a pound from every bill to be donated to the organisation, which supports refugees and displaced people across Europe. “We will also be hosting supper clubs every week once government restrictions allow,” he says, “where £15 from every booking will go to charity.”

Alarnab crowdfunded £50,000 last autumn to help secure the 60-cover restaurant on Carnaby Street, Soho. He inherited the lease from Asma Khan, who was a fellow outsider to the food world when she went from hosting homecooking pop-ups to opening Darjeeling Express on the site in 2017. “I am lucky to have very good landlords here and for my home in Ickenham, near Hillingdon. It didn’t look possible for us to survive but their support has allowed us to carry on,” he says.

Imad’s Syrian Kitchen was originally due to open in December, three days before a national lockdown was announced, throwing the project into jeopardy. Of course, Alarnab is no stranger to despair. “I put my faith in God and karma and now, even though we are here, I still can’t believe it.”

While his restaurant is booked solid every weekend for the next few months, Alarnab warns that the industry faces an uncertain future. “There is a huge demand from customers but a lot of places face very serious staff shortages – we had to hire a whole new team for this opening.”

Almost 10,000 licensed premises – including restaurants, pubs and clubs – closed permanently in 2020 and an estimated 640,000 jobs were lost from the hospitality sector in the last 12 months. Tens of thousands of workers have left the industry for good, making recruitment drives difficult for the venues reopening for indoor dining on Monday for the first time in five months.