By Joy, New Age Islam
21 January 2019
Sign outside both the locations of ‘Yassin’s Falafel House’
id you know that the immensely popular
international magazine ‘Reader’s Digest’ chose an eatery run by Yassin Terou, a
Muslim refugee from war-torn Syria, as ‘The Nicest Place in America’ for
the year 2018? ‘Yassin’s Falafel House’,
based in two locations in Knoxville, Tennessee, was chosen for this honour from
among 450 nominations that were received from across the USA! It wasn’t just
for its food that Yassin’s restaurants won this accolade. Yassin’s inspiring
personality, expressed through his many acts of love and kindness, have won him
wide appreciation across religious and ethnic boundaries, making him just the
right person for the award!
Yassin is an inspiring example of how one
person can make a major difference in promoting goodwill between people from
different faith and ethnic backgrounds. In the context of widespread prejudice
in the name of religion and ethnicity in large parts of the world, Yassin’s life
provides valuable lessons for how such prejudice can be overcome—through
‘little’, everyday acts of love and service.
Yassin was born in Syria in 1983 and grew
up in the country’s capital, Damascus. In 2010, the Syrian secret police held
Yassin for a month—he had been a critic of the government. He applied for
asylum in America, hoping to return to Syria when he was no longer in danger.
But things only got worse, with a war in which hundreds of thousands have been
Yassin came to Knoxville in 2011, knowing
little English. Life for him in his new home wasn’t easy. After filing the
papers to legally obtain employment, he couldn’t find work. The small Muslim
community in town offered to help him with free food and clothing. But Yassin
wanted a job. He asked if he could sell sandwiches outside the mosque on Friday
after prayers. Then, in 2014 he launched his eatery, which was followed by a
second unit, in 2017.
In an article titled ‘How Did a Falafel
House in Tennessee Become the Nicest Place in America?’ published in the
Jeremy Greenfield shows how this first-generation Muslim refugee-immigrant in
America has won the hearts of many people in the town where he now lives.
Yassin, the article says, has “ become a beloved local celebrity”. His
eateries, it relates, “are safe places for everyone, powerful engines of
charity, and symbols of the best of America”—which is why ‘Yassin’s Falafel
House’ was voted by ‘Reader’s Digest’ as 2018’s ‘Nicest Place in America’.
One thing that probably draws many people
to ‘Yassin’s Falafel House’ is that Yassin makes them feel warmly welcomed.
Drocella Mugorewera, executive director of Bridge Refugee Services, a non-profit
organisation in Knoxville that helps refugees rebuild their lives in Eastern
Tennessee, repeats the word that’s often mentioned when talking about Yassin:
“He wants everybody to feel welcomed.”
Yassin explains that he isn’t there just to
make money. He’s more than just a businessman. He is deeply engaged in social
causes that benefit the local society as a whole, and not just his
co-religionists. “Yassin’s Falafel House” has held fundraisers for community
causes, donating a percentage of the profits of each falafel sold. Yassin has
been an employer of many of the residents of the Young Women’s Christian
Association (YWCA). He has also hired
people struggling with drug addiction and women fleeing dangerous situations.
When, in November 2016, fire ripped through a nearby town, killing 14 and
damaging or destroying 2,500 homes and businesses, he rented a huge van and
helped arrange for essentials for the affected.
Yassin has been actively engaged in
promoting interfaith and inter-ethnic harmony, including simply by providing a
cheerful atmosphere in his restaurants where everyone is made to feel welcome.
When Yassin won a local Rotary Club Peace
Award last year for his charitable work, he donated the $1,000 prize to the
Seeds of Abraham, a local nonprofit organisation that brings together youth
from different faiths to build connections that lead to understanding and
In 2017, Yassin was invited by a Baptist
Christian pastor to talk to a group of
children at an “in-home retreat”. He cooked the group a meal and then told them
about his life. It transformed the way the children thought about their
neighbours and refugees and what they should do as Americans and as Christians
to welcome all who need a place of refuge. “Prior to that weekend, some of our
students and families thought of refugees as these folks who were in some way
dangerous. I don’t think that can stick if you meet Yassin or meet other
refugees like him, because you come to know the people they are”, says Ben
Winder, the youth pastor at First Baptist at the time.
Of course it hasn’t been all smooth sailing
for Yassin in the face of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments among some
people in the country where he now lives. He’s probably faced considerable
prejudice on these counts himself. But his way of handling these challenges has
perhaps won numerous hearts over. Consider, for instance, his response when
participating in a rally just before Christmas in 2017 to “welcome the
stranger,” a Christian call to treat friends, neighbours, strangers and even
enemies, with love and compassion, when a man draped in the American flag
hollered against immigrants, who he claimed were preventing him from getting a
job. When it was Yassin’s turn to speak at the rally, he invited the man up on
stage so they could hold the flag high together. When the man refused, Terou
went into the crowd to find him so he could introduce himself and offer to buy
him dinner so they could talk. He also offered the man a job!
“I always do that,” Terou told Reader’s Digest,
“I always invite anyone who hates us to the store. I want them to know us more.
When you break bread, you break hate.”
Similarly, when one day Yassin learnt that
the “Safe Place” sign outside of one of his locations had been vandalized with
a white supremacist sticker, he didn’t call the police. He didn’t even think
about pressing charges. Instead, he countered the action with love. He gathered
customers, many now friends, outside his restaurant and talked about how he
wanted to sit down for a meal with the white supremacists who did it, so they
could learn to get along.
For those who hope for a world where people
from different backgrounds can live together in peace and harmony and where
prejudice in the name of religion and ethnicity are things of the past Yassin’s
life provides some valuable lessons. It teaches us that:
If we want others to appreciate, accept and respect us, we need to be
pro-active and appreciate, accept and respect others first. This applies in the
case of both individuals and communities.
If we make others feel valued and welcomed, they will value and welcome
us in turn. Again, this is true for both individuals as well as for entire
Acts of loving service can help build bridges of harmony between people
from different faith and ethnic backgrounds.
The best way to overcome prejudice, including in the name of religion
and ethnicity, is by serving others through deeds of kindness, going beyond
concern with just one’s own social group.
· Deeply-rooted prejudices, such as in the
name of religion and ethnicity, can be overcome. And the only way this can
happen is by living out love and compassion and being useful to others.
Love alone can overcome hate, transform hearts and build bridges,
including between people from different religious and ethnic communities. As is
rightly said, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the
New Age Islam, Islam Online, Islamic Website, African Muslim News, Arab World News, South Asia News, Indian Muslim News, World Muslim News, Women in
Islam, Islamic Feminism, Arab Women, Women In
Arab, Islamophobia in America, Muslim Women
in West, Islam Women and Feminism