Alqi is famous in Lesvos. For refugees on the island, Alqi provides a restaurant with halal meat and Syrian food. For volunteers and aid workers, Alqi provides good food and assistance with accommodation, car rental and other needs. For the locals, Alqi is also known for being the person to provide these things for refugees and volunteers, yet he is not always perceived in such a positive way and does not receive business from locals.
Alqi was himself a refugee from Albania at the age of 14 and lived for three months in Katsikas camp in Greece, which today houses refugees from mainly Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Alqi went to Athens to study and worked from a young age in the restaurant business. In July 2015, Alqi came to Lesvos to supply international sim cards to refugees.
Seeing the people everyday, and knowing that halal meat and Arabic food are not available on the island, Alqi went into business with a local Greek man and on 21 October 2015, opened Damas, a Syrian restaurant named after the capital city, Damascus.
The restaurant instantly attracted both volunteers and Arabic people and was busy from 7am until the early hours everyday throughout winter. Alqi often provided free food for refugees who were unable to pay, but yet business still boomed from the volume of people there. Alqi is aware that the island, and Greece as a whole, has benefitted greatly from NGOs who have provided services and brought income to the country. He believes that in years to come, refugees will too bring economy to the country by bringing their families to visit the place that saved them.
Damas was known not only as a restaurant providing Arabic food, but also as a safe and welcoming place for refugees from the clientele of volunteers and aid workers and also the services provided by Alqi and his staff, such as reduced ferry tickets to Athens. Many of the other restaurants in the area would not allow refugees inside especially to use their bathrooms. Often, people had been waiting in the woods in Turkey for a number of days before they were able to be smuggled onto boats and across the sea. Therefore, in many cases people hadn’t washed for days. When using toilets of local establishments, the bathrooms quickly became a mess from all the washing. To deal with this, Alqi hired two people to clean the bathrooms all day and night.
Alqi additionally helped people in more ways. The chef at Damas is a Syrian refugee, as well as some of his waiting staff. Alqi recalls one family of 6 cousins and their 96 year old grandmother. Alqi first helped by finding a house for the family to live, but then learned that they were staying inside all day and leaving the lights off, because they were afraid. Learning of this, Alqi offered two of the young men the opportunity to work at Damas, helping them financially and to socialize.
Sadly, after a strong winter, Damas has been declining since the EU-Turkey deal on 20 March 2016. Many NGOs and volunteers have now left the island and those that stayed are coming to the restaurant less due to fatigue; wanting to switch off after work rather than being asked more questions after a long and busy shift. There are far less refugees on the island, and those that are there are running out of money. Alqi describes the restaurant as being “on the verge of closing down”.