But then the war changed everything. Bullets periodically hit Almotaz’s house, and the army kept calling, “inviting” him to join. When a bomb hit his father’s supermarket, he finally decided to leave. When he reached Lebanon, Almotaz tried to get a Colombian tourist visa to reunite with his fiancée in Bogotá, where she was studying philosophy, but it was denied. Not certain of what to do, he moved to Istanbul, where he knew other Syrians and thought he could get a job and save money.
He barely scratched by there. He worked every job but often he was not paid. He had no papers, so how could he complain? He was miserable, and everyday he longed to be with his bride. Jessica wanted to go to Turkey and marry Almotaz there so he could apply for a Colombian visa, but she couldn’t find the money to make the trip. So they decided to get married online.
In Colombia, you can sign a document, called a poder, which grants someone else legal authority to sign any document for you, even a marriage contract. Almotaz authorized his soon-to-be mother-in-law, who went with Jessica to find a public notary in Bogotá to marry them. Almotaz followed the proceedings from the other side of the world on his small phone’s screen, and from there he said “I do.”
But this wasn’t enough for Colombian law. To get the visa, Jessica had to be in Turkey with him. Jessica, desperate, contacted the only mosque in Bogotá asking for help. One of the members of that mosque, a Colombian lawyer, was in charge of that email account. He received Jessica’s message and promptly replied that he was in Istanbul vacationing, and that he would meet her fiancé there. “God is great,” Almotaz says. “Finally, it seemed like my dream of being with my love might become true.”
Jessica arranged a meeting without realizing a huge obstacle: the Colombian lawyer spoke no English and Almotaz spoke no Spanish. But as he met the lawyer in front of a mosque, he caught another lucky break: a Palestinian man who had lived in Mexico and happened to pass by overheard them struggling and offered to translate.
He started selling empanadas outside of the mosque but was told to move
The Colombian lawyer had a simple message to relate: Get three thousand dollars and buy a ticket to Ecuador. Get a thousand dollars for pocket money and cross the border to Colombia. When you are there, you can apply for a refugee status.
“When I heard that, I felt ill,” says Almotaz. “Where was I going to get four thousand dollars working as a refugee in a foreign country? I was lost and defeated.” But he remembered another Syrian in Istanbul, Abu Faref, who, Almotaz says, “is a good Muslim and has a big heart.” Almotaz told him his story, seeking advice. Abu Faref gave him much more than that. He told him he would buy him the plane ticket to Ecuador, on the condition that he became an exemplary Muslim: he had to work hard, he had to be a good family man, he had to be a good host, he had to be devout, and he had to show the people of Colombia the beauty of their faith.
In 2014, Almotaz flew to the UAE, then to Brazil, and finally, after eight months of travelling, he landed in Ecuador in August. There he met Jessica again. “It was an overwhelming feeling, the greatest feeling,” he says. They both got a bus to Ipiales, on the Colombian side of the border. They passed through five border controls, but no one stopped him. He figured that if he kept his mouth shut, people would assume he was Colombian. When it was Jessica’s turn to show her papers, he moved behind a guard, and they forgot about him. A few minutes later, they were in Colombia.
A Catholic NGO, Pastoral Social, helped Almotaz get a refugee status with UNHCR (the UN High Commissioner for Refugees). But now he was lost again. He didn’t have money, he didn’t speak Spanish, and he had no valid academic or professional title here, so he couldn’t work or study. He started going to the mosque where the Colombian lawyer who met him in Istanbul worked, but he found no help.
He started selling empanadas outside of the mosque but was told to move. He started working for Middle Eastern restaurants around Bogotá and its suburbs, but the work was sporadic and usually underpaid.
That was when Almotaz’s mother told him he should start selling Syrian food. Almotaz didn’t know how to cook, but his mom started to teach him via Skype every night, if the fighting had not cut electricity in Damascus. Almotaz started making Syrian-style pitas, which he sold to a local Mexican restaurant and a few other neighbors. But as he learned more recipes, and knew more people in the area, he thought he could expand. He asked Pastoral Social for help and they gave him some money to buy a food cart with a grill. Every midnight in Colombia—when it was morning in Syria—Almotaz and his mother would talk through her recipes.
With Jessica’s help, he started selling Syrian street food—falafel, kibbeh, sambusak—in a nearby park. The locals loved it and soon it seemed like everybody wanted to try it and learn about the man behind the cart. Who was this Syrian refugee in Colombia, and how on Earth had he ended up selling street food in an unheard of corner of Bogotá?
He started to learn Spanish by talking with his customers. The urgency of learning the language accelerated when Jessica became pregnant with their first child. When she was about five months pregnant, she couldn’t help him with the cart anymore, so he had to communicate on his own.
Throughout his life in Colombia, he had kept his promise to Abu Faref: he worked hard, he treated people right, and he prayed five times a day. Jessica also decided to convert to Islam. “I am very happy about this,” says Almotaz. “I was sure God would help us find a way forward. That was what my mom had told me: ‘keep praying and God will provide.’”
One day, a small drugstore in the neighborhood shut down and the space became available to rent. Almotaz had no money to rent it, but Pastoral Social told him they would give him the money for the first month’s rent. The same month that he and Jessica opened the restaurant, their first son, Gabriel Adam, was born. Almotaz decided then to name the restaurant “Al-Banún” a Spanish rendering of part of an Arabic phrase which means “children come blessed.”