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Knoxville News Sentinel Opinion: Welcoming refugees like me is what makes America great

Two years ago, when my restaurant was vandalized with a white supremacist slogan, I decided not to press charges. Instead, I told my customers and friends that whomever was responsible was welcome to come in for a meal and ask me any questions he or she might have about my experience as a Syrian refugee. 

Back home in Syria, I was raised to be understanding of others, and it’s how I’m raising my children here in America. Yet as we celebrate World Refugee Day this week, the U.S. has dramatically reduced the number of refugees permitted to enter to the lowest number since President Ronald Reagan signed the Refugee Act nearly four decades ago. And because of the current administration’s travel ban, no Syrian refugees are allowed to enter the country right now.

This saddens me because I know how much refugees can benefit America. Refugees in the U.S. earn about $77.2 billion a year and pay $20.9 billion in taxes, according to the bipartisan non profit New American Economy, and 13% of us are entrepreneurs. Here in Knoxville, I own two falafel restaurants, serve roughly 4,000 people a week and employ nearly 30 people. Some of my employees are refugees like myself, but I also hire U.S.-born Tennesseans, including ex-cons, recovering drug addicts and women who have survived domestic violence. We’re planning to open two more stores within the next year and increase our employee base to 50 or more. 

All of this was possible because the United States welcomed me and my family when we were most in need. I grew up in the capital of Damascus to a father who was an employee in the city’s agriculture department and a mother who stayed home to raise us. My four siblings and I enjoyed a quiet, middle-class upbringing, and we were heartbroken when violence and war broke out in our beloved country.

In 2010, I was working in public relations for a Kia dealership, but because I’d been a critic of the government, the secret police questioned me and held me in captivity. When I was finally released, I knew it was no longer safe for me to remain in Syria. I applied for asylum in the U.S. and started my new life as a refugee. As hard as it’s been, I believe it was the right decision. Many people I knew in Syria are now missing or dead.

When I arrived in the U.S., I rented a studio for $300 a month, but air leaked through the windows and my first winter was painfully cold. I didn’t speak English and struggled to find a job, even though I had papers to work legally. I was determined to be self-sufficient, so I asked a local mosque if I could sell sandwiches outside after services. I was amazed at the reception – I couldn’t make sandwiches fast enough. In 2014, I opened Yassin’s Falafel House with two plastic tables, a credit card machine and a gallon of water. We didn’t even have a kitchen at first. But business has grown ever since.

Along the way, I met my wife, a Palestinian immigrant. We’re proud to be part of this country and build a future for our two children here. I want to teach them the importance of hard work and giving back. In 2016 when a fire tore through Gatlinburg, I spent a long night distributing water and food to victims. It was the least I could do. This country and community welcomed me, and I want to pay it forward however I can. I was humbled to win the Knoxville Rotary Club’s Peace Award last year, and honored to give the $1,000 prize to the local nonprofit, the Seeds of Abraham, which builds understanding between different faiths. 

I hope all of this demonstrates that there is no reason to fear newcomers like myself. We care deeply about America and lifting up our communities. My father and sisters are still in Syria and I worry every day about the dangers they face. I know they would thrive in the U.S. and I hope to welcome them one day. 

In truth, I know the person who vandalized our sign is part of a tiny minority. My customers are kind and welcoming. They are the America I know. They believe in my motto: “When you break bread, you break hate.” And if you still aren’t sure you agree, come by for a falafel and good conversation sometime.

Yassin Terou is the owner of Yassin’s Falafel House in Knoxville.

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New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…