Anas Qaterji fled Syria when civil war broke out in 2011 and snuck into Gaza, a land with its own history of war and poverty, where he has gained a large following among foodies crazy for the spicy cooking he brought from home.
Qaterji, 36, crossed into Gaza from Egypt through one of the many tunnels used to smuggle goods into the enclave, which is home to 2.3mn Palestinians, about half of whom live in poverty.
Life in the first few years was tough. “I was sleeping in the street in 2014, I was homeless until a family took me in. I worked and I didn’t succeed, so I worked harder to get to where I am now,” Qaterji told Reuters as the United Nations marks world refugee day.
The United Nations say around 5.6mn Syrians have fled the civil war since it began in 2011. Most found refuge in neighbouring countries, like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
Only 30 or so Syrians fled to Gaza, itself a place where most people are refugees, or descendants of refugees, from the 1948 war of Israel’s foundation, which Palestinians still regard as a catastrophe.
“You may say madness, adventure or gambling, but I came here to search for life amid death,” Qaterji said.
Eventually he got a job in a kitchen and began working his way up in the local food scene, gaining acclaim for two specialities in particular: a Syrian version of shawarma served on a bed of rice and sprinkled with toasted nuts, and his famous garlic cream.
After working as lead chef at a number of restaurants, he decided to open his own place in 2020, naming it “Al-Halabi” in reference to his home city of Aleppo which has suffered major destruction in the war.
Posters of Aleppo from before the conflict cover the walls of Qaterji’s restaurant in the heart of Gaza City. He hopes to return for a visit one day when it is safe to go back, and to introduce his Gazan wife to his family.
During his absence the war has taken its toll. “My aunt died, so did my uncle, relatives and people dear to me. I wished I could have been there for even a few moments to pay my respect,” he said.
But having entered Gaza illegally Qaterji has no valid travel document, meaning he is unable to leave the enclave ruled by Hamas. Israel and Egypt maintain tight security restrictions along the border.
“I can’t move from here. I miss my mother, I yearn to kiss her hands and feet, I yearn to take her in my arms and introduce her to my wife, the Palestinian woman who stood by me and supported me,” he said.
“On the world day of refugees I ask all refugees around the world: Be a beautiful ambassador of your country...build your home wherever you are,” said Qaterji.
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