The American Dream – How Yassin Terou became Knoxville’s Biggest Champion

It’s hard to imagine where Yassin Terou might be had his native country not collapsed into civil war the year he left it for good.

Today, Syria is a shell of its former self. Terou, who established Yassin’s Falafel House in downtown Knoxville – and, later on, opened a West Knoxville location – can’t go back without putting himself in danger. And when he talks about the Middle Eastern country in which he was born, his eyes stare toward the horizon of his adopted city, still so green on a cool November afternoon, both the landscape and the weather a far cry from those of his homeland.

“The revolution, when I left, was just in the beginning, so there was nothing destroyed,” Terou says, sitting on the patio outside of Yassin’s West Knoxville location on South Peters Road. A hundred yards away, Kingston Pike is a constant thrum of early afternoon traffic. Inside, it’s technically somewhere south of lunch and north of dinner, but customers still are lined up for the Middle Eastern cuisine prepared with the love Terou gives to everyone who enters his orbit.

“Even now, when I talk to my family [who still live there], they say, ‘It’s not the same as when you left,’” he says. “I didn’t see it destroyed. Now, when I see it on the news, sometimes I don’t believe it.”

Before he left in 2011, Terou called Damascus home. Established in the third millennium B.C., it’s one of the oldest inhabited cities on Earth, but seven years of fighting between various factions have turned some neighborhoods – Jobar, for instance, on the eastern side of Damascus – into what CNN described in March as “the closest thing to hell on earth.”

It wasn’t always such. Growing up, Terou was one of five siblings, and Damascus was a sprawling cosmopolitan place of industry, art and food.

“I really love food – you can tell!” he laughs, patting his belly. “This is not coming from nothing. I don’t drink, so my enjoyment comes from when I eat, more than anything else. We go out to eat, not to drink, so we always have good memories.”

Meals were a sacred time in his household, he recalls, and the family – Terou, his parents, one brother and three sisters – would set aside meal times to gather together. His mother was a good cook, he remembers, but two dishes in particular would stand out:

“She would do a chicken with potatoes and garlic and lemon in the oven, and it was one of the best,” he says. “The other thing is a very unique Syrian dish, with the yogurt and the meat together. Every day, we would eat lunch or dinner together, and we would always wait for our father to come back, and we would eat.”

He inherited his work ethic from his father, who was a city employee; by the time he was a teenager, Terou was selling clothes, dabbling in public relations and volunteering with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, an organization affiliated with the International Red Cross. He was a young man with money – not a lot by American standards, but enough to live comfortably in Syria, he says. Even then, however, he knew that money wasn’t the answer to the hunger of the spirit that gnaws at all men.

“In volunteering [with the Red Cross], one of the things I learned is that providing help to people is the best thing you can do in life. That’s happiness,” he says. “All the money in the world is not going to give you the happiness you see in the smiling face of a child, or the smiling face of an older lady or older gentleman.”

Here’s the thing about Terou: When he says as much, you believe him. There’s no hint of irony lurking behind those kind eyes, no duplicitous posturing behind that effervescent grin. If the term “good person” applies to anyone, it’s Yassin Terou; spend a few minutes talking with him, and it’s little wonder that Yassin’s Falafel House was recently named the “Nicest Place in America” by Reader’s Digest and the ABC show “Good Morning America.”

The Terou family: Yassin, Shaam (2 years old), Judy (8) and Jamileh

That was a month ago. The day the segment aired and host Robin Roberts introduced the restaurant and its owner to a nationwide audience, business jumped 200 percent, Terou estimates. It’s holding steady at 80 to 100 percent of his pre-“GMA” appearance, and he was already busy before that, he adds with a chuckle. He’s had to hire three additional employees, but in typical Yassin fashion, he’s more enthusiastic about the boost the story gave to Knoxville than to his own business.

“Downtown, we are getting a lot of people coming to visit Knoxville who have heard about us,” he says. “That is good. That is good for Knoxville.”

He doesn’t say as much, but it’s clear that Terou feels he owes East Tennessee a debt. For one, it took him in as a refugee when he first arrived in America. It also provided him with a community to call home. And it allowed him to follow a dream he likely never would have pursued had he remained in Syria.

“I always wanted to work in food, but back in Syria, if you work in a restaurant, they consider you as a lower class, so my family didn’t want me to work in one,” he says. “In Damascus, we are a place where people go to study, and when you do that, you are seen as being in a higher class. You have to have that class, that job, but I never thought that was right [for me].

“You have to do what you like, and there is no low class in this life for me. Because if you do it for life and for love, that’s the highest value you get. If you come see me, you know I clean the trash, I clean the bathroom, I clean up outside because we are equals. I never think, ‘This is something I should not do because I’m better than others.’”

Credit much of that to Terou’s humble start. After arriving in America, he didn’t have a long list of demands – only that he settle in a place where the climate was moderate.

After being granted an asylum visa, he came to Knoxville for the first time as a soon-to-be resident, moving into a small apartment off of 11th Street in Fort Sanders that was barely 10-by-10, “including a bathroom and the kitchen,” he says.

Still, he was grateful, albeit overwhelmed.

“I didn’t know where to start,” Terou says. “I didn’t know the language, I had no transportation. For us, when you come here as an immigrant, as a refugee, you start like a baby. I got Social Security, but I could not work at first. I had no credit history, no money. It wasn’t a lot of fun.” He did, however, find at the Annoor Mosque a community of fellow Muslims who took him in. He met his wife, who was an American citizen.

He first dabbled in cooking when he traveled to Spain in 2008 or 2009, he says; a friend who lives there owned a restaurant, and he started out making gyros and kebabs. Drawing on that experience, he began to sell falafel just to have something to do. It wasn’t life-changing, but the food put smiles on faces, and those who gathered to pray or to find fellowship began to look for ways to help out the earnest Syrian with the infectious smile and the delicious food. Eventually, a friend, Nadeem Siddiqi, offered to help him open a more permanent establishment.

The two started by offering catering out of the restaurant’s current Walnut Street location; however, the Knox County Health Department soon mandated that the pair have a permanent kitchen. Yassin’s Falafel House opened officially in 2014, and today the interior sign that’s become so famous is a direct reflection of the values Terou holds close to his heart. It reads: “Welcome all sizes, all colors, all ages, all sexes, all cultures, all religions, all types, all beliefs, all people – safe here at Yassin’s Falafel House.”

“This community provided a safe place for me; all of Knoxville did,” he says. “So why we don’t have it in our store? I’m just paying it forward. I was lucky to learn from a lot of great people in Knoxville, and our whole store is a small mirror of Knoxville. We try to keep anything negative out of our place, and even if we have this negativity, we turn it into positive things. I always believe fighting hate with love is the best way to do it.”

Case in point: a recent brouhaha between the camps of gubernatorial candidates Bill Lee, who won last month, and his Democratic opponent, Karl Dean. When the restaurant hosted a gathering for Dean, a Tennessee highway patrolman providing security offered to provide pictures of the candidate to Lee’s camp, with the insinuation that Dean’s association with a Muslim-owned establishment equated to an endorsement of extremism. There was nothing religious about the event, however, and when the trooper was removed from duty, Lee himself reached out personally, Terou says.

“He called me, and he was very clear that he is not against us, that he’s not going to be against Muslims, that he has an open heart for everyone,” Terou says. “He was very nice, very gentlemanly, and he congratulated me [on the “Nicest Place in America” win]. I told him, and I told Karl Dean, that I’m openhearted to work with anyone who wants to work for this country. I don’t believe you have to be a Democrat to work with a Democrat or a Republican to work with a Republican. You have to be American to work for the American country.”

And make no mistake, Yassin’s Falafel House may sell international cuisine, but the principles that drive the business and the values of its owner are very much American. In fact, Terou has shown more patriotism in the face of personal and community adversity than many lifelong residents of this area, some of whom have targeted the man, either in person or online, with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant vitriol. Sometimes it’s overt; they accuse him of “stealing jobs” by hiring other immigrants and refugees. Other times, it’s innocuous yet prejudiced, nonetheless. After all, as he points out, does the average East Tennessean expect to be asked regularly for his or her opinion about the Ku Klux Klan? Why, then, do some patrons feel it necessary to ask Terou his opinion of ISIS or other terrorist factions that carry out atrocities in the Middle East?

“It’s surprising to me to think that normal people would support these kinds of groups,” he says. “This is not a normal question. The problem is, this is what is dividing us, and this is why we need to be open. If you’re scared of something, you get to know it because knowing things will not make you scared.”

Terou acknowledges that such a view is a doubled-edged sword. In Syria and in other Middle Eastern countries, the general perception is that Americans hate Muslims, and when he first sought asylum here, many of his friends and family members back home warned that he wouldn’t be received with open arms. His overall experience has proven otherwise, though. And for every ounce of negative energy he’s faced, he’s received several tons of kindness in return. And while the political climate has taken a visceral turn into discernibly darker territory since his arrival, he still believes fervently in the better angels of our nature.

“I get asked a lot about what I think of President Trump, and I say this: He is going to stay here, at best chance, for eight years,” he says. “Two terms at most, and he’s gone. There were other presidents who came before and other presidents who will come after, and that’s the longest they’ll stay. Any president is going to affect our community, but we are the people. We have the power to change, and if we believe in the right things, we can change it.”

West Knoxville location

Terou is no Pollyanna, and he does have moments when he awakens at night and holds his infant daughter, worrying over what the future might bring. After all, he never thought that Syria would be decimated by civil war. But over the span of seven years, he’s watched through television screens as the land in which he once lived and still loves turned into hellscapes of explosive-strewn rubble. And when tragedies happen on American soil, he can’t help but wonder if such a catastrophe could occur here.

“What scares me right now is that it’s not just political disagreement anymore,” he says. “When [Robert Bowers] came into the synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 beautiful souls, he killed Americans before he killed Jews. The people he hated, he didn’t care who they were. He just hated people, and we have to stop the hate.

“In Syria in 2011, things weren’t really bad, but it became bad. I came to a beautiful place, and I see the freedom and hear about how people vote, and I think American people don’t know how lucky they are. For me, I can value this. I can value all these things. I can call a military member a hero because in the Middle East people get killed by their own military.”

For Terou, anyone can be a hero – from the servicemen and women who stop by for a falafel to the cook in the back who, like he once did, has recently arrived to this country. The survivors of the 2016 Gatlinburg wildfires are heroes, and he didn’t hesitate to round up donations and deliver them during the height of that crisis. Members of Knoxville law enforcement are heroes to him. Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists – they all have a place at his table because the ties that bind them together are stronger than those that would tear them apart, he believes.

“When they come in here, we don’t say, ‘White people to this side, immigrants to this side,’” Terou says. “We want to fight to keep [those divisions] away. It’s okay to disagree, but we can live together. We can sit down together. And we can eat together.

“What makes America a special and beautiful place to me is not just because we have a strong country and a strong military, but because we have a strong community. That’s what we want to keep. Those are the values we must keep. When you get Jews and Muslims and Christians all under one roof, it’s a special thing because it’s not going to happen anywhere else, even in Europe. Even in the Middle East. Providing love to each other, this is what we need to keep.”

That, and the quality of the bread his customers break. There’s much more to the menu than falafel, but the dish that’s in the name is the one he takes pains to ensure is the best.

He’s not the “godfather of the falafel,” he admits with a laugh, and even today, he’s still learning. But the U.S. – and Knoxville specifically – have given him the ability to do that, without fear of his home being bombed in the middle of the night or his family rounded up by the military or his friends slaughtered by extremists.

“I taste it every day! I fight with the parsley supplier every day!” he says, laughing. “I now know if the parsley has gotten enough clean water during the growing. It’s just a part of my life because I’m doing food every single day. Everywhere I go around the world, I test falafel because I want to be a good listener and a good learner. That’s a big mistake people make: When people start something, they think they have to get to the top, but they never do.

“I learn every day, and I make new recipes. One of my sauces is a mix of sauces from Spain, from Syria, from the United States. Sometimes I have the other cooks say, ‘Man, this is not how we do it in Syria!’ I don’t care, I tell them. This is better than it is in Syria. I want to give you a taste of how we do it in Syria, but if we can make it better, we will. If we can make it better, let’s change it.”

And that’s a philosophy that extends beyond food and into the life he lives as one of the faces of the Scruffy City.

“For me, it’s not only about the food: It’s about the community,” he says. “I want to see in every city a place where you can come and be who you are and be there for everyone. I don’t want to open just another restaurant; I want to open a safe place where the very right of people and the very left of people come and sit next to each other. That’s what makes us great.”

photo by Bill Foster

Photos submitted unless noted otherwise 

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