Over 800 people, Greeks and non-Greeks alike, lined up at a restaurant near Victoria Square in central Athens to receive their complimentary chicken gyro sandwich. Lights twinkling in the trees outside, lively music and decorations welcomed customers to the grand opening of Al-Thekali, an Arab-Greek restaurant which offers cuisine that caters to Athens’s diverse residents.
Although not the first Arab restaurant to open in Athens, this one is unique because it was set up by a Greek couple and a Syrian refugee. The co-founders believed that creating a culinary space under the same roof for both refugees and Greeks would help the two communities appreciate their similarities. They are motivated by a simple mission: to make food that makes people feel at home no matter where they come from or how much money they have.
Eyad Al-Thekali, a Syrian businessman and entrepreneur, came up with the idea for an Arab-Greek restaurant after arriving in Greece and immediately feeling at home. In his words: “For me, Greece is the closest thing to Syria with its weather, food and the culture Greek people have when it comes to family and friendship. […] I knew I could build a home here for a lifetime.”
In a matter of weeks, Eyad pitched his idea to Effi and Mike Zaroura, who were delighted to team up with him. Mike, a Palestinian Greek who has lived in Greece for 30 years, recognizes the unique part each co-owner plays in the success of Al-Thekali. “Eyad is the mastermind and food expert who knows exactly how to prepare everything and what items to make,” he says. “Effi brings her knowledge of Greek cuisine and her connections with Greek culture and people. […] I do my part facilitating between Effi and Eyad and organizing meetings and logistics in Arabic and Greek for Eyad and Effi.”
On April 28, 2018, Restaurant Al-Thekali celebrated its opening day by serving free gyros to more than 800 customers. According to Eyad, this generosity has its roots in Syrian tradition. “In Syria, every restaurant’s opening day must be free in order for God to bless the place and in hopes that we will be rewarded later on for our acts of kindness. […] But giving out free food is not something I plan to limit to the opening day. If there are homeless people who come to the restaurant and need food, or someone who does not have money and needs a meal, it is up to us as restaurant owners to fill this need and help.”
Al-Thekali’s goal of connecting cultures extends beyond its diverse menu; the eatery also employs a mix of Greeks and refugees to support the latter’s integration into Athens. Mike explains how legal employment provides refugees with a critical pathway to integration, saying: “We give individuals who want to […] build a life here the opportunity to work and gain skills. […] Working at the restaurant and interacting with Greek people every day provides them with a practical way to learn the language and understand Greek culture.”
As for Effi, she believes that Greeks admire the dedication of the restaurant’s refugee employees. “We are happy to have refugees here and we are happy to work with them. I think it is a wonderful thing for someone to come to a new country with such dedication and desire to rebuild a life for themselves. […] I think, overall, Greek people are not as scared of the refugees as some may think.”
In just a few weeks since opening, Al-Thekali (7 Peoniou, tel 210.823.3349) has already received high praise from customers who appreciate the quality of the food, diverse menu and rock-bottom prices. The co-founders agreed that they do not seek profit beyond what is necessary to “pay the bills and keep the lights on.” As they developed their menu, the co-founders met with more than 10 restaurant owners and calculated how to charge the lowest possible prices for each menu offering.
With his dedication to combining aspects of his new and old homes while earning his livelihood, Eyad is a positive example of integration into Greek society. Partnering up with locals has proved a successful choice and he hopes to make his restaurant a focal point for individuals from various backgrounds to gather and enjoy authentic cuisine. Hundreds have visited the restaurant and Al-Thekali is starting to see a number of regular customers from both Greek and Arab backgrounds, which is an indication that the restaurant is succeeding in its mission.
Sara Abdel-Rahim and Annalisa Galgano are Fulbright fellows in Greece. For more information on scholarships and the Fulbright program in Greece, go to www.fulbright.gr.