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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - MANILA:When Abdulkarim Al-Halabi left Syria in 2011, he sought stability which under unfolding civil war was no longer possible at home. Little did he know that he would eventually find it by joining the bustling street food scene in the Philippines.
Then single and in his 30s, Al-Halabi flew more than 8,500 km from Damascus, where he grew up, to try his luck in Manila.
He received encouragement from a friend — a fellow Syrian who married a Filipina and lived there.
“(My friend) suggested to me, why don’t you come to the Philippines? Perhaps you can do something. When I left Syria, I didn’t think I would open a food business,” Al-Halabi told Arab News.
After working for a few years for a food importer, in 2017 he tried his luck with a shawarma business.
Initially a cart, operating at night and on weekends, two years later it became Shawarma Sham— a proper stall with chairs and tables at a popular student hub across De La Salle University in the Philippine capital.
Open 24 hours, it now caters not only to students but also office workers and all those using delivery apps such as GrabFood, and Foodpanda.
Shawarma has been present in the Philippines since the 1990s, introduced as a snack by Filipinos working in the Middle East.
To Al-Halabi it gave a gateway to venturing into the Philippine food scene. And he is far from the only Arab who has set his sights on the opportunity.
Alaa Al-Adwan, 38, known to his friends and customers as Baba, moved to the Philippines in May last year.
Also from Damascus, he had worked in Dubai, a city that exposed him to different nationalities, including Filipinos. It was also there where he met and married his Filipino wife, who like him worked in the hospitality sector.
During numerous trips to the Philippines to visit his wife’s relatives, Al-Adwan learnt the local food landscape and decided to give it a try.
“I wanted (to do) something I could leave my child with in the future,” he told Arab News.
He called his brand Baba Shawarma and himself Baba Syriano.
At first, he sold only shawarma but soon expanded his menu after observing Filipinos’ penchant for grilled dishes.
The restaurant’s generous portions and Al-Adwan’s gregarious nature quickly attracted customers and in less than a year Baba Shawarma shot to social media fame.
From a one-man operation, Al-Adwan now manages seven employees at his shop in the Malabon area of metropolitan Manila.
He takes pride in his service and the quality of food — the standards applied in Dubai which he keeps on following, as he balances authenticity and the spirit of his culinary heritage with local market demands.
“In Dubai, hospitality is king. How you treat the customer is incredibly important,” Al-Adwan said.
“What I cook in the kitchen is authentic. The spices I have — authentic. But I need to also follow the Filipino taste. I need to follow what Filipinos like.”
While Al-Halabi also tweaked his menu to be more Filipino-friendly by adding more chicken-based dishes, Al-Adwan offers his customers add-ons one would not find in Syria, such as a slice of cheese.
“I give it a Filipino twist,” he said. “We don’t add cheese in Arab countries, but Filipinos love cheese in their shawarma.”
These concessions in their cuisine represent not only the need to cater to the market, but also a realization that they need to adapt to the tastes and flavors of their new home.
While most of their family members are now dispersed in Europe and Gulf countries, both of them are content with their lives in the Philippines.
“Filipinos are nice, warm, and friendly,” Al-Halabi said. “When I’m on the street, and I talk to people, I don’t feel that I am treated like a foreigner.”
Al-Adwan, too, felt at home and unlike many other Syrians who settled in different cultures, in the Philippines he saw no prejudice, no racism, and felt appreciated for working hard to provide for his family.
“Filipino people are lovely people, it is easy to talk to them,” he said. “They are very kind.”
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