“Whatever happens outside of this store just forget about it and come in. You are safe here.”
Yassin Terou never had any intention of leaving Syria. His family was there. Work. Friends. But war forced him to leave it all behind. He relocated to Knoxville, Tennessee, with a suitcase and a few hundred dollars. He spoke no English and knew no one in the United States.
“I thought maybe things would get better and I would go back but this never happened.”
”My friends told me not to go to America. They were like, ‘You will not have a good life there.’“
A search for work
In Knoxville, Yassin went to his local mosque and asked for work, but they could only offer him food and monthly assistance. “That was hard for me. It’s like, ‘I can do it. I can work,’” he says. He asked if he could start selling homemade falafel and juices at the mosque, the kind they had back in Syria. The kind he loved and missed.
A two-year pop-up
Yassin got two plastic tables and a Square Reader, and started making falafel sandwiches, about twenty at a time, at his shared apartment. He’d run them over to the mosque and sell them after every Friday service. He would sell out every week—and he did this for two years. “I wasn’t making money but I was happy doing something,” he says.
Falafel finds a home
Yassin was approached by Nadeem Saddiqi, an imam at the mosque and native of Knoxville, about opening a restaurant. He was impressed by Yassin’s passion and dedication, but mostly he loved his falafel: “It was some of the best I ever had.” They found a space downtown and Yassin’s Falafel House was born.
“Having a restaurant is like—I’m just so thankful for it every day and every night.”
Community through food
Yassin is proud to be from Syria—and he is proud to live in America, too. A lot of his customers have never tried falafel before, and he’s thrilled to introduce them to his cuisine. Some of them end up thinking “falafel” is his last name: “Not many people know my last name. They think I’m ‘Yassin Falafel.’ I’m not mad about it. If they remember me for the good food and good taste, I’m really happy with it.”
“The people who decide they don’t like refugees, Muslims, immigrants, we have to change their ideas about it. This is our job. This is our message.”
By the numbers
Yassin is just one of millions of entrepreneurs in the U.S. pursuing their dreams, creating jobs, and building our communities.
small businesses in the U.S. employ 48% of all U.S. employees.
of businesses in Tennessee are small businesses.
of Syrian immigrants are business owners—more than double the rate of immigrants overall and more than triple the rate of U.S. citizens by birth.
of immigrants in the labor force are business owners, compared with 3% of U.S. citizens by birth.
All data above sourced from sba.gov and americanprogress.org
Keeping the dream going
Yassin’s dream doesn’t end with perfect falafel (crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside). His dream is also to bring people together, all kinds of people. So at Yassin’s Falafel House, everyone is welcome—from Tennesseans who have never tried falafel to the refugees whom Yassin hires to make it—to share a sandwich and a conversation. Next for him? More locations, more safe spaces.
“One of my dreams is to get our message everywhere. So we’re going to keep our American dream going.”