GAZA CITY — When 35-year-old Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo fled Aleppo in 2012, as the Syrian government rained bombs down on the city, he didn't imagine that he'd be leaving one war zone to land in another — the besieged Gaza Strip.
After searching for work in Turkey and Egypt, he ended up in the unlikely destination of Gaza, where he endured yet another war for 51 days last summer when Israel and armed Palestinian groups battled until a cease-fire was reached in late August.
But he found both love and local fame, eventually getting married and making a new life for himself there.
Syria Deeply sat down with Hamdeo at his Gaza City restaurant and spoke to him about his experience and the conditions endured by the 24 other Syrian families in Gaza.
SYRIA DEEPLY: Why did you decide to leave Syria and what was your initial plan?
WAREEF KASEEM HAMDEO: I left Aleppo in 2012, when the bombing intensified and after I lost my home and restaurant in Aleppo. My family had already fled to Turkey six months earlier. Then I had to walk seven kilometers until I arrived at a safe area where there was no bombing. That was in the northern countryside of Aleppo, in the Azaz area.
When I was in Azaz there was heavy bombing. After being there for a week, I got my passport and my personal documents, then I entered Bab al-Salamah [one of Syria's border crossings], crossing into Calis, Turkey, where I stayed for a while. I looked for a job there, but back in 2012 the situation wasn't encouraging for Syrians, and most were staying in refugee camps and receiving aid, food and shelter from relief organizations and the Turkish government. I had two choices — to go to Istanbul or to go to Egypt. I decided to go to Egypt.
How was the situation in Egypt when you arrived there?
A friend and my cousin both encouraged me to go to Egypt, and told me that as a Syrian chef I could find a job there. I also have a mechanical engineering diploma, by the way.
So I traveled from Bursa seaport and crossed the sea to Port Said. The voyage took 44 hours in the sea. It was painful and joyful at the same time. I entered Egypt and it was a totally new place for me. It's a lot different. I arrived in Cairo and I worked in the food industry, but I didn't make a monthly salary because the situation in Egypt was hard too. Many Syrians were already in Egypt and some of them had opened restaurants. I worked in restaurants, decorating hotels and for other companies. I had a business card made and worked on arranging open buffets.
However, after two months I ran into a Syrian man who used to come to my restaurant in Aleppo, and he told me that he was planning to open a new restaurant in early October and asked me to be the chef. At first, I felt compelled to stay in Egypt, where I'd now have a job, a home and a salary. During this period, though, I met a Palestinian man who told me that his friend was opening a new restaurant in Gaza and he wanted me to come to work with him there. I told him, "Are you crazy? I didn't run away from war in Syria to go to war in Gaza! So I said 'no way.'"
How did you come to Gaza and what was the reason behind it?
That Palestinian man started to show me photos of his new restaurant and told me Gaza is beautiful and showed me photos of every place, including the sea. I still refused and insisted I wouldn't go. Then another chance came for me to travel to Poland to work there in a Syrian restaurant. Everything was ready and a friend of mine booked a ticket and sent me a visa invitation.
The day I went to the airport, I was surprised to find the man from Gaza there. He stopped me and he said, "Please Wareef, think about it. I want you to come to Gaza and everything is ready for you — just come." I agreed, but only under certain conditions. I told him he'd have to pay me $2,500 per month, and, to my surprise, he agreed. When he did so, I started being afraid of where I was going. He told me, "give yourself a chance, just come for 10 days to see Gaza and decide." At that moment, I didn't know what to think anymore."
Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo in front of his Syriana restaurant — Photo: Lara Abu Ramadan
I came to Gaza with my Palestinian friend through a tunnel. It was an adventure. After we got through the tunnel and came to the beach road near Rafah city, the view took my breath away and reminded me of Syria. The air was clean, and it wasn't nearly as crowded as in Egypt. I felt comfortable again. The next day my friend took me to his place, Izmir Restaurant. He showed me the place and told me where he wanted me to work. During my first 10 days in Gaza, I visited the whole Strip. The last day I told him, "I'm going to work with you and come back to stay in Gaza, but $2,500 is too high a salary in Gaza." So I went back to Egypt to settle all the business I had there; then I bought cooking equipment and came back to start working in Gaza.
How did people react to a Syrian chef coming to work in Gaza?
I'm full Syrian, not half-Palestinian, and people were shocked that I came here. I started to serve typical Syrian dishes in the restaurant and people loved that, and more started to come to taste the famous Syrian food. Also Syrian drama on TV has affected the demand for Syrian dishes like kibbeh — like in Bab al-Hara, the Syrian drama series.
After enduring war in your homeland and in Gaza, how do you feel about your decision?
After living in Gaza for five months, I started to feel like it was getting harder and harder to get out. Back in Syria, before the war, I used to travel to Turkey or Beirut whenever I wanted to — even for a day and come back. My dream now is to take a car and travel freely. After seven months, I felt very stressed and I wanted to leave everything, but I didn't do that because of work.
Then, one day, a woman who works with France 24 TV came to interview me. Eventually we fell in love and got engaged and married. Then when the Israeli war came last summer, the Izmir Restaurant had to close down for 51 days. So, I had no job for the time. I worked and helped my wife during the 51 days of war. It's our duty to help show the truth — the killing and destruction around us.
After the war ended, Gaza was dead. One of my clients suggested that I open a new restaurant with him, but it was very hard because there weren't many building supplies. We had to wait for four months.
I witnessed the war in Syria and ran away from death only to find it again in Gaza. But I stayed because at least the war ended; if I had stayed in Syria, I'd still be living through war.
Tell us about your new place, the Syriana Restaurant.
Syria is our mother and I named the restaurant Syriana, Arabic for "Our Syria," because of that. It's a takeaway restaurant with Syrian shawarma and sandwiches and other dishes. It's temporary, until we can open a restaurant where people can sit and dine in.
You're not the only Syrian in Gaza. Can you explain how the situation is for Syrians here?
There are 24 Syrian families in Gaza who are suffering from the situation. Like the Palestinians here, they can't leave Gaza or find jobs. They received help, but you can't blame anyone here because everyone in Gaza is tired of the situation. I sometimes feel quite bad that my Syrian passport has expired and I can't renew it, as is true for other Syrian families here.
We contacted the European Union and UNHCR in Cairo and Jordan but there was no response. We want to at least be able to renew our passports or to get Palestinian passports so we can travel.
That actually happened with my friend. He went to Egypt and there they told him in the airport that because he's Syrian they'd have to contact Damascus. He didn't want to go back to Syria, so he just came back to Gaza.
We recently created an association for Syrians in Gaza. I'm the head of the association. I give interviews about our situation. I speak out about our struggle and explain how we need to be able to leave Gaza in order to see our families in Turkey and other countries. Here you have UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, but there is no organization for Syrians in Gaza. There isn't even an office for the UN High Commissioner on Refugees [because Palestinians have their own refugee agency]. Now we're living merely on hope.