Close Connections: Imad Alarnab – “We don't dwell on the past – we build on hope”
Discover how two strangers found friendship, comfort and hope over food after moving from Syria to the UK
In the space of just six days, Imad Alarnab lost his livelihood and home in a series of bomb attacks in Damascus, Syria. It set in motion an escape for life and liberty that eventually brought Imad, his wife Betul, and their three daughters to the UK.
He says, “I always miss Syria, but not the Syria that exists now. Not even the Syria that existed when we lived there. It wasn’t the same Syria I’d grown up in, with the very face of the cities changing.
“Before the bombings, I had three restaurants, five juice bars and four coffee shops. But, you don’t have the luxury of stopping to think about it all. When the bomb went off in our daughter’s bedroom, we ran for our lives. I wasn’t thinking about what I was losing or leaving behind, because it was life or death.”
After settling in London, Imad worked as a car washer and pop-up caterer, before making a gamble during the pandemic and setting up his restaurant, Imad’s Syrian Kitchen.
“It was a success from the start, but I believe that to be because I love London so much, and London loves me back.”
Imad serves a ‘London version’ of traditional Syrian food, with modern twists on long-held recipes, but due to a shortage of staff, he had to close the restaurant on Sundays and Mondays.
“Being away from the restaurant for two days a week was too much for me, so one Monday a month, we held ‘Imad and Friends’ charity nights, donating any profits.”
It was during an event for Choose Love – a charity helping refugees and displaced people – that Imad connected with Dima Aktaa, a fellow Syrian refugee who lost her leg in a bombing at 18.
“When I met Dima for the first time I thought she was amazing. She had great energy and personality. She was so positive and it made me feel not only proud of her and all that she’s done, but made me love life even more than I already did.”
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The pair became firm friends, with Dima, now 28, connecting with Betul and Imad’s three daughters, Dana, 19, Iana, 16, and Mariam, 11.
“Every time Dima came back to eat with us, she said, ‘wow, this is great, but my mother does it differently’. That would start a conversation and lots of laughter, as I wanted Dima to admit my food was better. I’m still waiting to hear those magic words!
“I was super-lucky since the beginning of my life to be surrounded by amazing women. My mother first, who taught me to cook and speak English, then my wife who has been the love of my life for over 20 years, and our three daughters who make me so proud every day. And now Dima, who brings so much light and positivity, has added to that.”
Though Dima and Imad share trauma from Syria, they don’t often talk about the incidents that set them on a path to meet in London. “We only talk about how we can make things better. We don’t dwell on the past, and only think about how our stories and communities can continue to be built on hope, love, and positive things.”
Dima Aktaa, 28, lost her left leg in 2012 when a bomb exploded in her flat’s balcony in Idlib, west Syria.
She says, “It wasn’t easy, having my life turn upside-down like that. I was physically active, preparing to go to uni and just 18. But, after getting out of hospital and seeing my old flat blown to pieces, I felt so grateful that my family and I all made it out alive. That bomb had cost me my leg, but being sad or crying about it wasn’t going to make my leg grow back.
“When my mum, older brother, younger sister and I arrived in the UK, we didn’t know anything about where we’d live or how our lives would look, but we just knew it would be safer than Syria.
“After learning English and continuing my studies, I met Imad through mutual contacts and we came together to raise money for Choose Love.
“It’s strange to think that a charity night in a London restaurant brought us together and now, we’re more like family than friends. I speak to Imad like my brother, and we just understand each other.
“Between my training and studying, it’s been hard to make friends, but coming together with Imad over food has helped me regain that sense of community that I loved so much in Syria.”
Make Imad’s Syrian fish and chips.
This feature originally appeared in BBC Good Food magazine, February 2023.