Syrian refugee turns to food to rebuild his life in US

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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 "shawarma," are kept warm at his restaurant Sakib, in New York. A Syrian refugee fleeing civil war at home, Alhanoun, his wife and four children arrived in the U.S. from Jordan in 2016. Less than three years later Alhanoun and a partner opened a small restaurant in Brooklyn's trendy Williamsburg neighborhood. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

NEW YORK, NY – 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.