Successful designer in Syria and internationally, asylum-seeker in Ukraine. Hussam Al-Yamani defies the odds, opens Mediterranean cuisine restaurant in Kyiv’s Podil.

by Illya M. Labunka

Irina Zayets, Ukrainian STB TV journalist talks to Hussam for an evening news report.
Irina Zayets, Ukrainian STB TV journalist, talks to Hussam for an evening news report.

Hussam Al-Yamani arrived in Ukraine just over one year ago (October 2012) as an asylum seeker when he was forced to flee his homeland during the ongoing civil war in Syria. Following a well-established 15-year career as an architect and interior designer in his native country in Middle East, Al-Yamani was compelled to begin a completely new life and career in Ukraine, an Eastern European country itself agitated by recent Euromaidan events . Having started his own business one year after completing his university studies, Hussam enjoyed working on a number of international projects for Italian and German companies, as well as in Dubai. All of this changed very suddenly.

Hussam Al Yamani in 2011.
Hussam Al Yamani in 2011.

“I was very successful until the war started, and then, unfortunately, the bombs destroyed my office and I lost everything. As a result, I had to relocate and to leave my entire family behind, including my parents, my 5 sisters and 2 brothers. If I stayed and cried all day over the loss of my office, what would be the point of that? I could lose even more than I have already lost,” says Al-Yamani. At the same time, he needed to figure out how to survive, come up with a way to secure employment to earn a living. “The people I left behind needed my help and financial support,” adds Al-Yamani.

From Hussam's Facebook page: "Valencia Shoes located in Dubai Oasis Mall, Shikh Zaid Road. We carried out this project in 2009 and we handed it over in 45 days working 24/7. We repeated the same design in Al Bawadi Mall in Al Ain."
From Hussam’s Facebook page: “Valencia Shoes located in Dubai Oasis Mall, Shikh Zaid Road. We carried out this project in 2009 and we handed it over in 45 days, working 24/7. We repeated the same design in Al Bawadi Mall in Al Ain.”

Initially, Hussam considered emigrating to Dubai, or Jordan, or Western Europe or the United States, but soon realized that it would be virtually impossible to obtain a visa to any of these locations, particularly due to the conflict in Syria that began in March 2011. A number of countries neighboring Syria began to close their borders to Syrian refugees, according to Al-Yamani. After assessing which countries would eventually grant him a visa – Russia, China and Ukraine – Al-Yamani ultimately settled on Ukraine as his destination of choice. “China is simply very far from my home and it’s a very different culture. Also, I wanted to choose a country where I would be successful. So, I chose Ukraine, because it’s very close to Syria. In addition, I think there are some similarities between the Syrian and Ukrainian people, their mentality and culture  – both countries have examples of oriental culture and that’s why I decided to come to Kyiv, Ukraine,” asserts Al-Yamani.

From Hussam's Facebook: "Holiday Inn Express Dubai Airport Hotel situated near the Emirates Metro station and close to the Dubai International Airport. I began designing this project in December 2007 with GCC Contracting, as a designer through my Company DGI Interior. In April 2008 I got down to coordination with Mr. Ayman Hujaij of execution contractor Top Line Furniture Industry. The project handover took place in  June 2009."
From Hussam’s Facebook: “Holiday Inn Express Dubai Airport Hotel situated near the Emirates Metro station and close to the Dubai International Airport. I began designing this project in December 2007 with GCC Contracting, as a designer through my Company DGI Interior. In April 2008 I got down to coordination with Mr. Ayman Hujaij of execution contractor Top Line Furniture Industry. The project handover took place in June 2009.”

After receiving an invitation from a brother of one of his friends who was living and working in Ukraine, Al-Yamani applied for and was granted a Ukrainian visa. “Once I arrived in Kyiv, this brother of one of my friends introduced me to another friend and I was able to rent one of the rooms in this other friend’s apartment. This is where I am currently staying,” explains Hussam. Once he settled into his new living quarters, Hussam quickly realized he needed to overcome his next challenge – figure out what to do with his life and how to make use of his skills. He immediately decided that he needed to familiarize himself with his new surroundings as well as to socialize with the city’s dwellers.

“If you want to punish me, just keep me at home,” declares Al-Yamani. Every day he went out to discover the city and every day he took a different marshrutka (public mini-van) from the local bus stop to get from A to B. “Even though I did not know the language, I wanted to see the city. I also took the Metro and exited the station on every stop, looked around and that’s how I became even more familiar with the main streets of Kyiv. I also used my iPhone, which to me is worth millions, because I used the GPS on it to find my way around the city,” further explains Hussam. Design thinking, in all unpredictable situations of life of a creative person.

Hussam Al Yamani designed the interiors of this Valencia store in Damascus.
Hussam Al Yamani designed the interiors of this Valencia store in Damascus.

For Hussam Al-Yamani, every morning of a new day in Ukraine was a new challenge – the challenge to reach his target. Al-Yamani’s initial bureaucratic challenge involved the effort of acquiring refugee status; he has yet to receive it. Without proper legal status and rights, Al-Yamani realized it would be difficult to find appropriate employment for basic sustenance. Undeterred by the seemingly insurmountable bureaucratic requirements and committed to achieving his goal of legitimizing his immigration status and employment eligibility, Al-Yamani was not interested in details, only results.

“What I want, I will do. If I will be refused something by someone, then I will try again and I will use a different, more positive approach,” states Hussam. As a result of much persistence and perseverance, at present, he has the status of asylum seeker which he managed to acquire with the help of the UNHCR Regional Representation in Kyiv and its partner organizations, namely the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (H.I.A.S.) in Ukraine and Rokada. H.I.A.S. is a charitable legal protection services program which provides legal advice to displaced persons seeking asylum or resettlement. Rokada is a charitable organization which offers humanitarian assistance, provides start-up grants to prospective entrepreneurs and helps with the overall integration process of asylum seekers and refugees.

"Campione is the last project I did in Damascus before moving to Ukraine," explains Hussam Al Yamani on his Facebook page. He sees his presence on social media as crucial to success given the fact he has to tap into a completely new market because of the situation back at home.
“Campione is the last project I did in Damascus before moving to Ukraine,” explains Hussam Al Yamani on his Facebook page. He sees his presence on social media as crucial to success given the fact he has to tap into a completely new market because of the situation back at home.

When Al-Yamani found the UNHCR website for Ukraine, he contacted the UNHCR office in Kyiv and was informed of the step-by-step process a displaced person must first undergo in order to acquire the status of asylum seeker and ultimately, of refugee. Subsequently, once Al-Yamani approached H.I.A.S. and explained his legal situation and desire to become an asylum seeker, the organization’s representatives offered Al-Yamani much-needed legal assistance by providing him with a lawyer and translator.

As a result of obtaining competent legal advice, Hussam successfully underwent a three-part interview procedure with immigration authorities, which ultimately led to his receiving a document certifying that he is a legal resident of Ukraine. Due to H.I.A.S.’s help, Al-Yamani was able to secure the status of asylum seeker which in turn allowed him to submit an application requesting recognition as a refugee. Once he fulfilled his immigration requirements, Hussam got in touch with Rokada in the hope of receiving the necessary assistance needed for his job search. Once they reviewed his academic credentials, Rokada’s representatives helped Al-Yamani secure official approval according to Ukrainian government academic standards.

Al-Yamani was now all set to obtain legal employment. Since Al-Yamani possessed exceptional culinary skills, it was agreed that he would open up and run a restaurant. Rokada’s representatives suggested that Al-Yamani should devise a professional business plan and a visibility study, as well as prepare a formal presentation. After submitting an excellent business plan and following a successful formal presentation, Al-Yamani received a phone call with good news from one of Rokada’s representatives. “I was told that I am a very lucky individual, because everyone was very impressed with my presentation. As a result, I was informed to find a suitable location for the restaurant,” recalls Hussam.

Mr. Al-Yamani's restaurant is known as In Mood Cafe' & Restaurant and is located in the historic Podil district of Kyiv.
Mr. Al-Yamani’s restaurant is known as In Mood Cafe’ & Restaurant and is located in the historic Podil district of Kyiv.

Following the encouraging news, Al-Yamani immediately embarked on a quest to find an appropriate location for his ultimate goal. With paper, pencil and iPhone in hand, the Syrian creative criss-crossed the city streets of Kyiv every day, taking notes and photographs, in search of what would turn out to be his livelihood.

It was quite difficult at times, but I never gave up. Whenever I saw a sign ‘For Rent,’ I wrote down the phone number and address and simply started calling people. On many occasions I was very close to securing a place. Then one day I found a photo of a particular building and a description on the Internet. So I called the realtor and fortunately he spoke English. We agreed on an appointment, then I went to see the place and realized that this is the location I want. It took me three months to find it.

During the entire search period, Al-Yamani kept in contact by phone every week with Rokada’s representatives. “They kept asking me how my search was going and pressuring me to find a suitable place. But that’s OK, because I can deal with pressure, and it actually encouraged me to continue my search, because I realized that somebody wanted me to succeed,” underscores Hussam.

Hussam Al Yamani greets ITAeD’s Massimo Brucato (left) and UNHCR’s Andy Kozlov (Photo: UNHCR/Veronika Ergasheva)

After meeting with Rokada’s representatives and gaining their approval for the future restaurant’s premises, Al-Yamani was appointed a lawyer by Rokada to start negotiations with the landlord. Once all of the necessary legal issues were settled and the contracts were signed, Al-Yamani was given the green light to start renovating the premises of the planned restaurant. “It took me 16 hours a day for two months to refurbish the premises and to bring it to its current condition. Like I always say, nothing can stop me. This is only my first small step in Ukraine.”

Considering the current situation in Syria, it is clear that the crisis in that country of some 20 million will take a long time to resolve itself. As a result, Hussam Al-Yamani does not foresee returning to his homeland anytime soon. “In order for Syria to return to the era it was in prior to the war, it will need at least 10-15 years. Therefore, my home is now here [in Ukraine],” he declares.

For Hussam, his restaurant is only the first small step of a broader project. His plan calls for the opening of his restaurant, developing it, attracting a clientele and then after six months, Al-Yamani hopes to take the second step. The second step would include acquiring more space in order to expand the restaurant or to find another location and open up a second, then a third and even a fourth restaurant.

Despite the drastic situation back at home, Hussam’s resilience and willingness to put his expertise to use in new markets continues to inspire people of his profession globally. Pictured here are a group of Italian architects and engineers of ITAeD Studio who work to open an office in Kyiv in 2014 with the aim of promoting eco-friendly construction technologies in the former Soviet nations. In October 2013 they paid a visit to Hussam’s restaurant during an event organized by UNHCR and its partner organization Rokada. (Photo: UNHCR/Veronika Ergasheva)

For Al-Yamani, the key to everything is to have a target, a plan and to move straightforward towards one’s goals. Very often he is asked, “Why do you want to do this?” His response is always, “I want to be an active member of the community. I want to share my economic success with this country. I have to give back to this country – a country which has provided me with safety and comfort. In other words, when I receive something in my right hand, I should give something back, that which is in my left hand. I need to refresh the source, to allow me to continue.”

As one of approximately 400 Syrian refugees currently in Ukraine, Mr. Hussam Al-Yamani, at age 40, has overcome tremendous physical, psychological, cultural and bureaucratic challenges to exemplify a displaced person who has successfully integrated into his new environment. In addition, Al-Yamani managed to achieve personal and professional success in Ukraine “because he received very good legal advice and didn’t go by the book,” according to Mr. Oldrich Andrysek, the UNHCR Regional Representative for Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine.

Author talking to UNHCR Regional Representative, Oldrich Andrysek, inside the In Mood Cafe, October 2013. (Photo: UNHCR/Veronika Ergasheva)

Hussam Al-Yamani leaves with the following idea to consider, “We don’t know the value of something until we have lost it. Thus, I now know the value of being safe at home, safe at my job, safe with family and what it means to enjoy life.”

Mr. Al-Yamani’s restaurant is known as In Mood Cafe’ & Restaurant and is located in the historic Podil district of Kyiv.

Illya M. Labunka is a freelance journalist, editor and translator based in Kyiv.

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