Now reading Inside the Restaurant Dedicated to Employing Refugees

Inside the Restaurant Dedicated to Employing Refugees

The story of Syr, the restaurant that employs recent arrivals from Syria.


On a quiet corner near a canal in Utrecht, a left-leaning Dutch city near Amsterdam, is Syr, the Netherlands’s first and so far only restaurant dedicated to employing recent refugees. (Somewhere around 150,000 refugees, who have residence permits, currently live in the Netherlands, out of seventeen million people in total.)

Syr opened last June after a crowdfunding campaign that drew more than five hundred backers, with staff that is half Dutch and half refugees from Syria and Afghanistan who have residence permits.

Local restaurateur Gijs Werschkull, known for his organic eatery Gys, conceived of Syr in 2015 in response to the arrival of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war. Syr aims to offer newcomers local work experience and an entry point into Dutch life. “In the Netherlands, the government sees work as the end of the integration trajectory,” he says. “I don’t think it works like that. I think work is the beginning of the trajectory, not the end of it.”

Syr is deliberately a commercial initiative without government involvement or funding (which they turned down) to appeal to as many customers as possible. “Left-wing people can like it, because we’re helping people who are in a difficult situation,” Werschkull says. “Right-wing people like it, because we’re helping people not be dependent on welfare.” He says the twenty-one-table restaurant is full every day.

One of the Syrian staff members, Iyad Nakawah, arrived in the Netherlands in late 2014 after a one-month, four thousand dollar journey through Algeria and Libya (where he and his brother got separated). Facing conscription that October, as the Syrian government called up increasing numbers of reservists, he sold his Internet cafe in Damascus and left. (His wife, mother, two other brothers, and sister-in-law now live in the Netherlands, too.) Initially, he and one of his brothers worked informally in their Dutch refugee camp, baking Syrian flatbread for thirty-five families over six months, earning them four to five hundred euros per month. (The Dutch government gives refugees up to fifty-eight euros per week.)

When Nakawah moved to Utrecht a year ago with his wife, a mutual friend introduced him to Werschkull, and he eagerly accepted a job offer. “As Syrian people, or as anyone not Dutch, it’s really so difficult if you want to get any job,” Nakawah says.

“We don’t like to stay home. We like to work,” he says. “Even if we have money, it’s not about money—[it’s] something different. Also, it’s a chance to get friends, to get knowledge about many things.”

Syr is also designed to bring the Dutch and Syrian cultures into contact and help diners and staff learn about each other’s home countries. For twenty-five euros, diners get a three-course sampler of Syrian cuisine “with a European twist,” as Syr calls it. (The head chef is Syrian, the sous chef Dutch.)

The European twist ranges from red beets in hummus to puff pastry for the zaatar-topped manakeesh (instead of flatbread) to cold-climate vegetables in the ras el hanout stew.

Among the beverages, a hit is the imported Syrian tea, an herbaceous blend of dried plants that grow in Damascus: lavender, violet, rose petals, thyme, chamomile, rosemary, fennel seed, and bay leaf.

Part of Syr’s mission is to give newcomers skills and experience to move on to other jobs in the Netherlands—but so far, that part isn’t working. “The problem is that it’s too nice working here, I think, and no one wants to leave. It’s a really close-knit team—everybody is friends with each other,” Werschkull says.