National

Syrian refugee chef and young tech CEO join forces to realize dream of opening Tokyo restaurant

by Chisato Tanaka

Staff Writer

Opening a Syrian restaurant in Japan was a dream come true for Nazem Jamal Alddin, a 55-year-old Syrian chef who fled from the war-torn city of Damascus three years ago. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a Japanese tech firm CEO around half his age who, by chance, had become an avid fan of the cuisine.

On a windy morning on Sept. 4, the pop-up Syrian restaurant Nazem opened in Tokyo’s upscale Kitaaoyama district for nine weekdays, drawing hundreds of customers, many of whom were not just attracted to the food but also the hope of supporting refugees in some way.

All the expenses for operating the restaurant were raised through a crowdfunding initiative launched by 25-year-old Tomoki Morikawa, the head of web design and consultancy company Tech Mess Life Inc. In just eight days, Morikawa succeeded in collecting ¥926,000, far more than the initial target.

“We set our goal at ¥300,000, but it didn’t really matter if we reached it because I launched the crowdfunding campaign primarily to inform more people about this project,” Morikawa said during an interview with The Japan Times, noting that one aim of the event was to have people learn more about the situation in Syria. “Nevertheless, it was still a big relief and a major encouragement when we surpassed our goal.”

Tomoki Morikawa
Tomoki Morikawa | CHISATO TANAKA

On the second day of business, the open-kitchen restaurant, with more than 50 seats surrounded by glass walls, was quickly inundated with customers who had heard about the opening on Twitter and Facebook, as well as the crowdfunding supporters. Jamal Alddin and his son Yasser, 26, were kept busy refilling the five dishes on the buffet line while quickly exchanging smiles with customers.

Asked what he felt when seeing so many people lining up at the restaurant, Jamal Alddin interrupted the question and said repeatedly with a big smile, “Very, very good! Very good!”

Before the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, Jamal Alddin had worked as a top chef in Arabic and Mediterranean restaurants for more than 30 years, including one in a five-star hotel in Syria. But after the conflict started, his house in Damascus was bombed and torn apart, forcing him and his family to evacuate to neighboring countries. Jamal Alddin fled to Japan in 2015 — joining his wife, son and daughter, who settled in Japan a year earlier.

Despite being granted refugee status with free access to Japanese language schools, beginning life from scratch and learning a language they had never heard before was hard for Jamal Alddin and his family, and blending into Japanese culture seemed to be beyond the ability of the conservative middle-aged Syrian man.

Jamal Alddin had been searching for a way to open a restaurant since his arrival in Japan, but all of his job applications for restaurant work were declined.

“I could not find any jobs at restaurants because I cannot speak and read Japanese. Hiragana and katakana are OK, but kanji is really difficult. That’s the problem,” said Jamal Alddin, switching between English and Japanese as he spoke. “Three-year no occupation, despite having professional cooking skills, was really tough.”

While his children attended school and his wife worked at fashion retailer Uniqlo, Jamal Alddin was left alone at their apartment.

Syrian refugee chef Nazem Jamal Alddin serves his home country
Syrian refugee chef Nazem Jamal Alddin serves his home country’s food from the kitchen at a pop-up restaurant in Tokyo’s Minato Ward on Sept. 5. | CHISATO TANAKA

That long period of hopelessness came to an abrupt end after Jamal Alddin met Morikawa in August through the introduction of the head of a refugee support group called Piece of Syria. The two men immediately agreed to open a restaurant, and Jamal Alddin even came up with a buffet menu just three days after they met for the first time.

“I felt confident that I can make this work, even though many people around me tried to get me to stop by saying I would fail,” said Morikawa. “I told such people, ‘Please let me fail.’ ”

Morikawa, besides his career as an entrepreneur, has hoped since childhood of making major social contributions.

“I dreamed of becoming a doctor for Doctors Without Borders from my early childhood, but by the age of 25, it was clear that was not going to happen. Still, I was determined to contribute my skills to society in other ways,” he said.

Syrian refugee chef Nazem Jamal Alddin puts hummus on a plate at his pop-up Syrian restaurant in Tokyo
Syrian refugee chef Nazem Jamal Alddin puts hummus on a plate at his pop-up Syrian restaurant in Tokyo’s Minato Ward on Sept. 5. | CHISATO TANAKA

Deciding to spend 30 percent of his time on nonprofit social-engagement activities, he has been involved in various social action programs and has also organized charity concerts, the proceeds of which go to buy toys for low birth-weight children.

But he wanted to do more. Having learned about Syria before the war and, after experiencing Syrian cuisine at the home of an Arabic nation’s ambassador to Japan, he became determined to open a Syrian restaurant.

“From the first day I ate Syrian food, I began telling everyone I met that I would open a Syrian restaurant. Then, a friend of mine introduced me to another friend who operates a place used for wedding parties,” Morikawa said. That establishment went on to become the venue for the pop-up restaurant.

Everything fell into place after Morikawa came to know the story of Jamal Alddin, who yearned to work as chef again, following its broadcast on television.

Most of the visitors to the restaurant were those who had been offered free meals in exchange for participating in the crowdfunding campaign, along with numerous Tokyo foodies. But Rie Okawa, a customer visiting Tokyo all the way from Ehime Prefecture in order to come to the restaurant, which she did two days in a row, had a more special intention — to get over her regrets.

“I had a Syrian refugee living near my house. He seemed to struggle finding a job, but I could not help much because of the language barrier. He eventually moved to Kuwana in Mie Prefecture, where he said a Syrian community had formed,” said Okawa. “I regret so much that I could not help him, so I came here to learn how I can help refugees find jobs in Tokyo.”

Nazem Jamal Alddin (left), his son, Yasser (second from left), Tomoki Morikawa (second from right) and Hokuto Sasaki, manager of the Syrian pop-up restaurant venue, pose for a photo at the establishment in Tokyo
Nazem Jamal Alddin (left), his son, Yasser (second from left), Tomoki Morikawa (second from right) and Hokuto Sasaki, manager of the Syrian pop-up restaurant venue, pose for a photo at the establishment in Tokyo’s Minato Ward on Sept. 5. | CHISATO TANAKA

To raise awareness regarding the situation in Syria among the customers, pictures that were taken in the country by Takayuki Nakano, the head of Piece of Syria, were displayed on the glass walls of the restaurant.

“I want this restaurant to be a place where people can learn about Syria by eating the country’s dishes and observing the reality of the current situation,” said Morikawa. “I hope that the people visiting here will share their experiences with their friends and families.”

As of September, 5.6 million were registered as Syrian refugees in various nations across the Middle East, including 2.6 million children, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

In Japan, 15 Syrians were granted refugee status out of 84 Syrian applicants from 2011 to June 2018, an official at the Justice Ministry said.

The restaurant served about 700 customers through the nine days it operated. In the hope of opening a permanent restaurant at a location where rental prices are more affordable than the Kitaaoyama district, Morikawa said he is currently looking for a company that will be involved in the business.

Jamal Alddin and Morikawa also plan to open a cooking class in October.

The chef said he wishes to continue serving Syrian and other Arabic dishes and hopes to eventually expand his menu to Mediterranean cuisine as well.

“I want Japanese people to taste more Arabic food and make them smile. That’s my dream.”