The Friendliest Place in America: Yassin’s Falafel House
Refugee resettlement has been a contentious subject here in Tennessee for the past few years. An alarming number of individuals maintain adamant opposition. It seems bizarre that the volunteer state would be inclined to resist helping others. In 2016, then Governor Bill Haslam had a change of heart; at first opposing the resettling of Syrian refugees and then giving a nod of approval. I cannot help to wonder if Yassin, owner of Yassin’s Falafel House in the Governor’s hometown of Knoxville, had a part in re-shaping the governor’s decision.
Allow me to introduce you to Yassin. He’s a jolly, dark haired, dark skinned Syrian. On the day we met, he wore a black t-shirt with his company’s motto and sported a larger-than-life smile under his black goatee. We greeted with a sweaty handshake. I had been watching him running around, doing a little bit of each job in the restaurant during the busy lunch hour. The place had a mix of construction workers, young adults, and a variety of nationalities that made this East Tennessee city seem almost as diverse as a large metropolitan area.
I had been trying to meet up with Yassin for a couple of months. He’s a busy guy, working everyday at his two restaurants, supporting his family and helping out with his new baby. We only talked for a half hour because I kept thinking that I was keeping him from his duties at the restaurant but he seemed more than willing to help me out and apologized for taking so long to get together.
To set the stage, Yassin holds a green card. He’s not yet an American citizen but is hoping to become one in the near future. He plans to hold dual citizenship. I wanted to talk both about the war in Syria as well as his success story since his arrival here. He was eager to talk.
Can you give me a little background on the civil war going on in Syria? What started it and how do you see it ending?
Almost everyone knows that things started getting bad in 2011. People were taking to the streets, asking for more freedom and for basic necessities to live. After that, things got worse. People call it a civil war. I call it the world’s war. It’s not only a civil war. Everyone is involved. And Assad was president from the beginning? Yes, he was. He was President several years before this all started. Maybe 5, maybe 10 years before. (After researching, Bashad al-Assad was first elected in 2000).
So the war began under his administration?
You call it a war but in the beginning it wasn’t really like a war or a revolution, it was more like a protest. Things were not like a civil war until a few years later when others starting getting involved. You had some terrorist groups, Iran, Russia, the U.S., and Turkey. Everybody is there now. Before, it was just the Syrians taking to the streets and asking for freedom.
How do you see the war ending?
I think at some point, the government will have to go and it’s going to be a very bad time after that until people are able to work together again. It will take a long time to do that. Do you think the government is the problem or that they just need time to get everything settled down? It’s never going to be restored. There’s been too much bloodshed. You have over 500,000 that have been killed over Syria. It’s not easy to keep the same person (the President) there. I don’t think that would be the right decision. They need to bring in new people, which will be (a little bit) accepted from each side.
Is the physical damage inside Syria widespread?
Oh yeah. There is no country left. Even with the President there and the government, there is nothing. There is no security, no basic life. It’s very hard and expensive. The whole country has been destroyed.
How do you feel about the U.S.’s rather immediate withdrawal from northern Syria?
I don’t think just leaving that fast is the right thing to do. We need to rebuild the community there so that we can all have a future together. That should be our long-term goal. But right now, just pulling out is not the right thing to do. At some point, and I’m just being honest, I don’t want the U.S. military, Russia, or Turkey in Syria. I want Syria to be for Syrians. But, we need a strategy and not just a departure.
Let’s switch gears for a minute. Talk to me about the immigration process here in the U.S. when you applied for political asylum and then eventually for your green card? It’s a nightmare. It was very bad, it took too long, and it’s very expensive. I’m just telling you my story. I came here seeking asylum. After several years with no answer, I ended up getting married (2015) to an American citizen. I then switched it up and applied for my green card. It was much easier this way but I don’t think this is the way it should be. I tried to get asylum back and forth from 2011 until 2015 when I got married. By then, I had my business and they knew me. When you apply for asylum, after 3 months, they give you permission to work. I was able to do everything except travel.
Do you plan to try and get the rest of your family here from Syria?
I would love to but it is very hard. The permission from immigration is hard to get. I think they (U.S.) should let people come over. I am working, I am productive, and I send money (legally, he reminded me) back home to my family. If they were here, that money would stay inside the U.S. That money could be spent locally so it would be much better to bring them here than to keep us separated for no reason.
Speaking of your business, how did you decide to start Falafel House?
I didn’t want to be that guy who just sits at home. At first, I didn’t have a location; I was selling on the street. I sold food in front of the Mosque here in Knoxville. That’s how we started around 2013 or 2014.
Yassin’s Falafel House was voted one of the friendliest places in America. How did that happen? Who discovered you?
(He chuckles) They found us! They voted for us and it was on Good Morning America. Before that it was Jack Dorsey, the founder and CEO of Square (a mobile payment processor) and co-founder and CEO of Twitter. Yassin was sent to New York to be on Good Morning America after being voted the friendliest place in America by Reader’s Digest.
If there is one thing that you would like everyone to know or something that you want to set the record straight on, what would that be?
The same thing that scares Americans when it comes to Syrians also scares Syrians about the American people. They think Americans are out to destroy us and kill us and here, it’s the same. So, we need to figure this out between us and fix it. People in that part of the world think that Americans want to take our oil and destroy us. The same attitude exists here. Americans think people are here to take their jobs, and distribute drugs. It’s easy to divide people when you make them scared.
If there were one thing that you had the power to change about the immigration system in the U.S., what would it be?
(He laughs for a bit). I would give all people the opportunity to apply for immigration status. It’s okay to do security checks and background checks. For me, I’m not against it. But, do we even remember the last time a refugee did anything bad here in the U.S.? Yes, we need to screen people but not prevent them from coming. We also need faster immigration processing. That would be very good. To get a green card, it costs like $1,500. It’s very expensive and this is not okay.
I love your slogan here, the one that’s on your T-shirt. I took a picture of it earlier. How did you come up with that?
I saw it somewhere else and decided that we wanted that to be our message, too.
“Welcome all sizes, all colors, all ages, all sexes, all cultures, all religions, all types, all beliefs. All people are safe here at Yassin’s Falafel House”
You always learn from people. And I want this to be a safe place for everyone.
Has Knoxville been welcoming to you since your arrival in 2011?
I could not ask for more. Knoxville has been one of the greatest things that have happened to my life. I call Knoxville home even though I was born and raised in Syria. My safety, my happiness, my family, and my country are all here now. It has given me more than what I could ask for.
Before we finish, I want to talk about one more thing. You have a unique hiring practice here. Can you elaborate on that for a moment?
First of all, no matter what, if we have a person who wants to change their life, we hire them. If you want to work, we will hire you whether we need an employee or not. If we see you as a person who has struggled and you want to change your life, we will give you an opportunity. Maybe we don’t hire you full time at first, but we will give you hours and let you work in order to allow you to get back on track. We have hired homeless people, people with prior addictions to drugs and alcohol, people who have been abused, and refugees. One of the things we want to change is people’s opinion of refugees. We don’t want people to see them sitting at home and taking government help. We want them to give back to the community and show people that this is who we are and how we work. We also hire former inmates that may have an issue getting hired because of their background. It’s our way of giving back and repaying the community that gave us a chance. This policy has worked great for me. We currently have 35 employees.
When Yassin arrived in Knoxville in 2011, he had nothing but hope. He didn’t speak the language, he had no family, and he didn’t have a job. But, determination paid off for Yassin and now he spends his life paying it forward for others. His story embodies the American dream and serves as an example that perhaps our notions need to be tested from time to time. Below is a link to the short video documentary that Square produced about Yassin’s story. I have to admit, it brought tears to my eyes. This is the America I want people to know. This is why I started The Global Diplomat. The video captures his personality just right, but to get the real story, just pay a visit to Yassin’s Falafel House the next time you find yourself in Knoxville, Tennessee. You’ll be glad you did.