NUSEIRAT, Gaza Strip — In November, Syrian refugee Anas Amir Mohammed Agha Qatarji opened a restaurant in the market of the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza. He named it Jar al-Qalaa II, in memory of Jar al-Qalaa, the restaurant he ran in Aleppo’s Old City before it was destroyed during the Syrian conflict.
At the end of 2012, Jar al-Qalaa restaurant closed its doors due to a lack of customers; the restaurant was completely destroyed following the bombing by the Syrian opposition of the nearby Carlton Hotel in May 2014.
In Aleppo, Qatarji was the CEO of Qatarji Trading & Contracting, which specialized in architectural and interior designs for large buildings, particularly historical designs. In 2005, the company bought the restaurant from a number of partners who owned it, and in 2009, guest rooms were added to the upper floors. Qatarji told Al-Monitor about all the investors who had owned the restaurant before his family finally bought the building, which is 1,200 years old.
He described the old restaurant, saying it had three sections that could seat nearly 600 customers. The ground floor entrance led to the main hall that accommodated 60 tables; it had an old water well in the middle and was decorated with multicolored lights and ancient stones and clay pots. The hall that was underground, called the cave, was decorated with ancient Arab carpets on which customers sat; they ate with copper utensils that were more than 500 years old. The third section was divided into 10 rooms, for up to 20 people each, and was reserved usually for families. It included a stage for musicians who entertained the customers every night.
“After the Syrian conflict erupted, both our restaurant and company closed down. My brothers also owned sewing shops, which they closed also due to the crisis. But the restaurant was our family’s biggest loss because it was a four-star historical touristic place with an Islamic value in the Old City of Aleppo. Many well-known Arab figures had visited the restaurant — such as Harith al-Dhari, the former secretary-general of the Association of Muslim Scholars, and Syrian artists Sabah Fakhri and Nour Mehanna; Syrian comedian Humam Hout was a regular at our restaurant — to name a few,” Qatarji said.
In February 2013, Qatarji decided to travel to Jordan and from there to Egypt. He worked for three months as the manager of Liwan restaurant in the 6th of October City in Giza governorate. While there, a Syrian refugee who had visited the Gaza Strip for a short period put him in touch with the manager of Izmir restaurant in Gaza City. He was offered $1,000 per month and secured a passage into Gaza through the tunnels between the Palestinian and Egyptian sides of Rafah. Qatarji knew that once he made it to the Gaza Strip, he would be unable to leave since there is no Syrian Embassy in Palestine to renew his passport; he would have to start a new life there.
At the end of May 2013, he traveled to Gaza and worked at the Izmir restaurant until it was closed in the wake of the Israeli war on Gaza in July 2014. Subsequently, he worked in Suryana restaurant in al-Wahda Street in Gaza City for five months, and opened with a partner Dicastro restaurant in Ahmad Abd al-Aziz Street in Gaza City; the partnership eventually ended and he left the restaurant.
Qatarji then decided to open a restaurant in a busy area, and he chose the market in the Nuseirat refugee camp because of its lively energy. He said, “I designed the restaurant myself to preserve the ancient Aleppan style and I hired workers for installations only. I smuggled in the materials through the tunnels on the Gazan-Egyptian border — such as ancient copper lanterns — and I displayed pictures of Jar al-Qalaa so Gazans would know what the restaurant [in Aleppo] looked like.”
He bought the historic artifacts from Syria over the internet, which were smuggled from Syria into Egypt and through the tunnels into Gaza. The artifacts are put on display in the dining rooms, and include 400-year-old clay pots from the Ottoman Empire, a 150-year-old coffee dispenser, a 120-year-old copper Arab kohl container, a 111-year-old first copy of Mukhtar Asahah, an ancient Arab bowl, ancient copper cups and an 80-year-old dagger.
The popular restaurant serves Syrian cuisine, such as Syrian shawarma, Syrian appetizers, fattoush, biwaz (salad) and ayran yogurt. Qatarji said that most meals are purely Aleppan and many customers come in asking for pastes he uses in his food, most importantly his famous garlic paste. He explained how the residents of the refugee camp are similar to Aleppans; they love life, much like Syrians did before the crisis.
Meanwhile, Syrian families in the Gaza Strip are living under difficult economic conditions because most entered into Gaza through the tunnels and are now unable to leave. In addition, their passports have expired, and they can only renew them by visiting a Syrian Embassy in person.
In this context, Wareef Hamedo, the spokesman for the charity Syrian Families in Gaza, which helps Syrians, told Al-Monitor there are 48 Syrian refugee families in Gaza that are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Hamedo said, “Syrians in Gaza are living under very harsh conditions. Some have worked temporarily in charities from six to 12 months, but are now left jobless. Only seven families received 750 shekels [$193] from the Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs, which they mostly used to pay rent, while some refugees are in dire need of medical care.”
When a Syrian family is in need, Hamedo takes it upon himself to ask for donations on Facebook, including medicine for the sick, money to cover rent or supplies for children. While Gazans often respond to his requests and donate whatever they can, some Syrian refugees are still in need of financial and medical assistance.
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