Syrian engineer fashions new future from his passion for food
The sign in the window of the half-timbered building in the centre of Orléans says “sold”. Nabil Attar gazes at it, a big smile across his face. He is now the proud owner of a restaurant in the heart of this French city.
“I will call it Narenj, which means orange in Syria, because in Damascus there is an orange tree in each garden and we use orange in many dishes including orange blossom,” Nabil says.
Nabil, 42, arrived in Orléans two years ago after he and his family fled the war in Syria.
Cooking was always his passion. He had made cheese in his cellar in Damascus, but he never had the courage to open a restaurant.
In France, the centre of world gastronomy, food quickly became his way of communicating with people – even before he spoke a word of the language.
“I couldn’t speak French, so I invited my neighbours, my doctor and other people and I cooked for them,” he recalls.
"I decided that I will do what I love, cooking."
Nabil, his wife Susanna, and their two children, now aged 14 and nine, led a happy life in Damascus. He worked as a software engineer and Susanna, 43, worked for the Arab League, the regional organization of Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa.
The idea that they might have to leave their home never crossed their minds. Then, one day, as the war intensified, they were forced to flee in a matter of hours.
“We all had visas for France as we used to go to France for holidays,” recalls Nabil. “But once in Lebanon, we realized that mine had expired.”
Desperate, Susanna and the children flew to France, and Nabil promised he would join them as soon as he could.
“I didn’t manage to renew my visa and the only choice that was left was to take the road. I didn’t imagine how difficult it would be.”
In 2016, after a long and dangerous journey, Nabil was finally reunited with his wife and children in France. They were granted refugee status and Nabil found a job washing cars for a car rental company.
“It’s the restaurant of my dreams."
“I did this job to take care of my family,” says Nabil. “It’s okay to start from zero again if you have no choice, but you always have to try and do better.”
Last year, he heard about the 2017 Refugee Food Festival on social media and contacted the organizers. The festival is a citizen-led initiative by the French non-governmental organization Food, Sweet Food, and is organized jointly with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Nabil took part in the Paris section of the 2017 festival, where he cooked in two restaurants, and decided to make it his profession.
“As I have lost everything and I have to start all over again, I decided that I will do what I love, cooking,” he says. “I will turn my passion into my job.”
His dreams are coming to fruition since he made an offer on the disused restaurant in Orléans at an auction and a sympathetic judge accepted his offer.
He is now hoping to borrow money to refurbish the premises.
The restaurant has two floors and can serve up to 55 people inside, with a further 20 on the terrace.
Susanna is studying for two master’s degrees, in management and business administration, and plans to help Nabil in the restaurant.
“It’s the restaurant of my dreams,” Nabil says, happily.