In this Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, photo, chef Diaa Alhanoun sharpens his knives between serving customers, while skewered pieces of cooked chicken and beef known, or

NEW YORK (AP) — When he came to the United States as a refugee from Syria during that country's bloody civil war, there was a lot Diaa Alhanoun didn't know, starting with English.

There was one thing he was fairly certain of, though — whatever else the future held in store for him and his family, he was pretty sure it was going to include food, a constant in his life since he had left school at 15 to work in an uncle's restaurant in Damascus.

He's working in a restaurant these days — his own. Along with a partner, Alhanoun, 48, is the chef behind the recently opened Sakib, a small corner outpost on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, where he turns out the Mediterranean food he learned to cook as a teen.

"I have this idea, I wait for I learn English, I see how people eat," Alhanoun said in the sometimes-halting English he's learned since his arrival in October 2016. "Before I come here, I think future, I want restaurant."

Food has taken him all over the world — he helped open a restaurant in Russia in his 20s and another a few years ago in Sudan, along with catering work he did while living in Syria. His maternal grandfather had a restaurant, as did five of his mother's six brothers, including the one where he learned to cook.

Alhanoun left Syria in 2012 for his restaurant opening in Sudan, but by the time he tried to go back some months later, fighting had broken out in Damascus.

He sold that business and fled to Jordan with his wife, children and other relatives, then came to the U.S. through a United Nations program that helps displaced persons re-settle in other countries.

Today, Alhanoun lives on Staten Island with his wife and children, ages 18, 17, 9 and almost 2.

He spent two months working at a hat factory, but food once again came calling, and he started working in a restaurant.

Alhanoun was introduced to Eat Offbeat, a catering company that hires refugees and teaches them culinary skills, and offers their recipes in the food available to customers. Through Eat Offbeat, Alhanoun participated in events like the Refugee Food Festival, where he was able to cook a meal in a restaurant kitchen.

Alhanoun is the first from Eat Offbeat to open his own operation.

"Since the first day he joined, we knew Diaa was going to get his own place at some point," said Manal Kahi, co-founder of Eat Offbeat. "We're all super proud of him, it's a great example for everyone else at the kitchen."

Fighting in his old home, Damascus, has largely ceased since the Syrian army drove rebels from areas around the city a year ago, but it remains economically devastated by the war.

Alhanoun said he initially thought the strife wouldn't last and he would be back in Syria in only a matter of months. But his focus now, he says, is on his new home and the possibility of opening more restaurants

Of all the places he's lived, Alhanoun thinks New Yorkers have liked his food the most, and he's hopeful about what the future could hold as he builds a new life here.

His dream now? A big restaurant, that holds a lot of people, and a good future for his children.

"I hope people like it, my food," he said, "...and kids, studying good."


Deepti Hajela covers issues of immigration, race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter at

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In this June 17, 2019, photo, Diaa Alhanoun, a Syrian refugee chef, smiles broadly while grinding meat in preparation for the 2019 Refugee Food Festival at Porsena, an East Village Italian restaurant, in New York. A festival veteran, Alhanoun participated for his second year along with other refugee chefs from Eat Offbeat who served meals at other local New York restaurants. Eat Offbeat is a refugee-staffed catering company where Alhanoun worked before opening his own restaurant. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
In this July 11, 2019, photo, Diaa Alhanoun, right, watches his business partner Mohammad Ayasrah, left, and son Nader, 18, hang a sign detailing their restaurant's extensive Mediterranean menu, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York, days before the restaurant's opening. The menu features regional favorites. Everything on the menu is made by Alhanoun and Ayasrah. Desserts are prepared by Alhanoun's wife in the couple's home. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
In this July 11, 2019, photo, Diaa Alhanoun, a refugee escaping war-torn Syria who has only been in the United States three years, carries a 40-pound bag of rice on his shoulders and bottles of mayonnaise while yelling instructions to his partner as the pair prepare for the opening of their restaurant Sakib, in New York. The restaurant, which features typical Mediterranean appetizers and dishes, is located along a main street in trendy Williamsburg, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
In this Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, photo, people rush past Sakib Mediterranean restaurant, co-owned by Syrian refugee Diaa Alhanoun and his partner, in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, in New York. Alhanoun's partner Mohammad Ayasrah is visible through the window, left, speaking on his phone. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
In this Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, photo, with shoes removed as is customary, Syrian refugee chef Diaa Alhanoun prays on a carpet facing Mecca in the basement kitchen of Sakib, his Williamsburg, Brooklyn restaurant, in New York. An observant Muslim Alhanoun prays up to five times a day, observing the ritual movements and as his religion requires. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
In this July 11, 2019, photo, Syrian refugee and restaurant owner Diaa Alhanoun holds his young daughter, Masa, then 21 months, while offering his wife's homemade cookies to passers-by outside his restaurant, Sakib, on it's opening night, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in New York. Of all the places he’s lived, Alhanoun thinks New Yorkers have liked his food the most, and he’s hopeful about what the future could hold as he builds a new life here. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
In this June 17, 2019, photo, in preparation for the Refugee Food Festival, chef Diaa Alhanoun rolls out ground meat while preparing kibbeh, in New York, in the kitchen at Porsena, an East Village Italian restaurant hosting Alhanoun for the annual event. A global initiative to help refugees integrate into their adopted communities, the festival takes place in major cities with the goal of introducing refugee chefs and their cuisine to local residents. Kibbeh meatballs are a made of ground beef, bulgur wheat, and onions, seasoned with cinnamon and allspice, formed into a hollow shell for stuffing, then deep fried or baked. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
In this June 18, 2019, photo, chef Diaa Alhanoun, left, pours yoghurt sauce over kibbeh, a traditional Mediterranean recipe containing seasoned ground beef or lamb dumplings, as chefs Lauren Radel, center, and Alfredo Medel watch in the kitchen at Porsena, while preparing for the 2019 Refugee Food Festival in New York. The goal of the global food festival, held once a year in major cities, hopes to call attention to refugee chefs and their culinary talents, raise awareness about the refugee cause, and encourage refugee integration in their host countries. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
In this June 18, 2019, photo, Diaa Alhanoun, third from right, rear, watches as his co-chefs, restaurant manager and restaurant staff sample the Middle Eastern meal he prepared for dinner guests at Porsena, an Italian restaurant in the East Village, in New York, as part of the Refugee Food Festival. Offered for one night only at Porsena and other restaurants in the city, the food festival promotes acceptance of refugees in their host countries. Chef Lauren Radel, who helped curate the meal, is shown, far left joined by co-chef Alfredo Medel, far right. Restaurant manager Ian McRae, samples the food, second right. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
In this June 18, 2019, photo, a special menu for the Refugee Food Festival sits on a candle-lit table at Porsena, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan's East Village, to inform diners of the Mediterranean specialties that will be served for just one night, in New York. The annual global festival promotes refugee chefs like Syrian refugee Diaa Alhanoun, noted as
In this July 12, 2019, photo, Fatima Kwara, left, wife of Syrian refugee chef and co-owner Diaa Alhanoun, holds the couple's young daughter Masa, while chatting with her sister, Aminah Kwara, center, and daughter Ragad, in New York, at the opening of
In this June 17, 2019, photo, refugee chef Diaa Alhanoun takes a break while preparing a special meal for the Refugee Food Festival held at Porsena, an East Village Italian restaurant that has hosted Alhanoun and his Mediterranean specialties for two consecutive years, in New York. The citizen-led festival is held in major cities across the globe each summer to promote refugee chefs and refugee causes. During the event, participating restaurants open their kitchens to chefs like Alhanoun to introduce food from the chefs' home countries to residents of their adopted country. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
In this Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019, photo, Diaa Alhanoun, right, a Syrian refuge chef, slumps into the couch at home while talking to his brother, now living in Jordan after fleeing Syria during the country's civil war, as Alhanoun's wife, Fatima Kwara plays with their young daughter, Masa, at the family's Staten Island home in New York. Masa, which means
In this Aug. 22, 2019, photo, after arriving home from work, Diaa Alhanoun, right, a Syrian refuge chef, pauses to pray, with his two sons, Nader, 18, left, and Owys, 9, rear, in striped shirt, as Alhanoun's young daugher Masa, imitates the trio, in New York. According to Muslim religious tradition, men and women pray separately, but Masa is too young to understand the concept. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)