News Stories, 18 January 2007
TEHUACAN, Mexico, January 18 (UNHCR) – The Palestinians have a word to describe something strange and unfamiliar – they call it mexecy, or literally "like Mexico." But for Ali Nadi, the Latin American nation is now home and he has found a way to reach out to his new neighbours – through their stomachs.
The Palestinian found it hard adapting to life in Mexico after arriving here more than a year ago to join his older brother, an established computer engineer. The 23-year-old Ali had decided to leave his home district near Jerusalem after facing hardship and harassment from both Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
After he was granted refugee status, Ali decided to make use of his excellent culinary skills and opened a restaurant in Puebla, a beautiful colonial city located about 130 kilometres south-east of Mexico City. His brother, who also owned a tourism agency, chipped in with financial help, but custom was slow and the business foundered.
Undaunted, the brothers decide to try again in Tehuacán, south of Puebla. Some two months after the Kef Halak restaurant opened, business is thriving and the locals can't get enough of the eastern Mediterranean and Arab cuisine.
Ali, sporting a white chef's toque, comes out of the kitchen and proudly tells his UNHCR visitors that even the president of the municipality has dropped in for a meal with his wife.
The menu includes classic dishes such as falafel, kibbeh, humus and taboule, which are served by Mexican employees. It's a recipe for success, but Ali has to work hard to keep the customers happy. The day begins at eight-thirty in the morning and ends at 9:00 p.m.
And it's not just about the food; Ali also wants people to know a bit more about the troubled land where he was born. "I want to disseminate my culture. All you can see here was brought from Palestine. The paintings, the clothes that the waiters are wearing. We are now listening to Palestinian radio," he says.
"I'm Palestinian, but people only see us as Arabs. They think we came from Saudi Arabia. People have even told us that we look like Kaliman – a famous cartoon superhero in Mexico who came from the East," adds Ali, while noting that Palestinians also know very little about Mexico.
While Ali is doing his bit to bridge the gap between Latin America and the Middle East, he is also bubbling with lots of other ideas and projects. These include a book on astrology, his second passion. "I've been writing it for the last two-and-a-half months and I hope to have it done by April," he says.
The energetic young Palestinian also reveals plans to create a non-governmental organisation for social development in Mexico. "There are many opportunities in this country to work together and implement development projects in health, education and labour opportunities," Ali says, adding: "With this idea I am rewriting my own history."
Ali says life has been looking up – his projects are taking off, his brother is likely to get Mexican citizenship soon and his mother arrived in Mexico last November under a family reunification programme. He's also optimistic about 2007.
"I want people to know that a refugee is not someone who once had troubles and stayed that way forever. I want to change the vision people have about refugees. I'm a sort of ambassador. I want to contribute with a little seed."
By Mariana Echandi in Tehuacán, Mexico