MANILA: When Abdulkarim Al-Halabi left Syria in 2011, he sought a stability that, given the ongoing civil war, was no longer possible in his country. Little did he know that he would eventually find himself joining the bustling street food scene in the Philippines.
Then single and in his 30s, Al-Halabi flew more than 8,500 kilometers 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? Maybe 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 in a food importer, in 2017 he tried his luck with a shawarma business.
Initially a cart that operated at night and on weekends, two years later it became Shawarma Sham, a proper stall with chairs and tables in a popular student center across from De La Salle University in the Philippine capital.
Open 24 hours a day, it now serves not only students but also office workers and all those who use delivery apps like GrabFood and Foodpanda.
Shawarma has been present in the Philippines since the 1990s, introduced as a snack by Filipinos working in the Middle East.
For Al-Halabi it was a gateway to venturing into the Philippine food scene. And he is far from the only Arab who has set his sights on that opportunity.
Alaa Al-Adwan, 38, known to his friends and clients 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 that 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 learned about the local food scene and decided to give it a try.
“I wanted to (do) something that I could leave to my son in the future,” he told Arab News.
He called his brand Baba Shawarma and himself Baba Syriano.
At first, he only sold 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 rose to fame on social media.
From a one-man operation, Al-Adwan now manages seven employees at his store in the Malabon area of Metro Manila.
It prides itself on its service and food quality, standards applied in Dubai that it continues to follow, while balancing the authenticity and spirit of its culinary heritage with the demands of the local market.
“In Dubai, hospitality is king. How the customer is treated is incredibly important,” Al-Adwan said.
“What I cook in the kitchen is authentic. The spices I have are authentic. But I also need to follow the Filipino taste. I need to follow what Filipinos like.”
While Al-Halabi also modified its menu to be more Filipino-friendly by adding more chicken-based dishes, Al-Adwan offers its customers add-ons that one would not find in Syria, such as a slice of cheese.
“I give it a Filipino touch,” he said. “We don’t add cheese in Arab countries, but Filipinos love cheese in their shawarma.”
These concessions in your kitchen represent not only the need to serve the market, but also the understanding that you need to adapt to the tastes and flavors of your new home.
While most of their family members are now scattered in Europe and the Gulf countries, both are content with their lives in the Philippines.
“Filipinos are kind, warm and friendly,” Al-Halabi said. “When I’m on the street and talking to people, I don’t feel like they treat me like a foreigner.”
Al-Adwan also felt at home and, unlike many other Syrians who settled in different cultures, in the Philippines he saw no prejudice or racism and felt appreciated for working hard to support his family.
“Filipinos are lovely people, they’re easy to talk to,” he said. “They are very nice.”