We’ve all heard of the biblical “road to Damascus” but, in the case of two childhood friends, the path has led away from the Syrian capital all the way to West Cork.
Restaurateurs Mohamad Alsaadi and Abed Alkafe Saad Alah were neighbours growing up, living in such close proximity in Damascus that, after a day playing outside, they could then hear each other knocking on the bedroom walls.
This year, the pair succeeded in finally achieving a childhood dream — opening their own restaurant, Bayleaf Bistro in Bandon. As their present-day neighbours might put it: it’s far from that they were reared.
“It is a pretty surprising story,” Mohamad, a father-of-two said. Married to his Irish wife Mags and living in Clonakilty where their two children attend the local Gaelscoil, it’s a different life to the one he had growing up in Syria’s vibrant capital.
Mohamad, now 39, first came to Ireland, and West Cork specifically, in 2002, and straight away began working at the Inchydoney Lodge and Spa Hotel in Clonakilty.
As he began a spell there, that would lead ultimately to him becoming head chef of Dunes Pub and Bistro at Inchydoney, back in Syria his old friend Abed missed his friend.
And so he came over as well, just two years after his friend and also started working in Inchydoney.
“I loved it straight away,” says Mohamad of West Cork. He said his reason for first travelling here was he wanted to see the world, but it seems West Cork quickly took a hold of him.
He met Mags 11 years ago when she was waitressing at the hotel.
They got married five years ago with Inchydoney again the venue. To continue the link, Mohammad’s younger brother, Ahmed, now also works at the luxury beachside hotel.
Like his friend, Abed, or Kafe as he is affectionately known, also has two children. With all the parallels between them, opening a restaurant made sense.
Since it opened last month, Bayleaf Bistro has proven popular with locals and those from out of town. “The biggest surprise has been the reaction of local people,” Mohamad said.
“We get all generations, which we’re delighted about. The restaurant that was here before us closed very suddenly and the locals really didn’t want an empty building so they were delighted when we opened. Bandon is a nice town.
There are always plenty of people around and we’ve been given a huge welcome and great feedback.”
The venture has not been without its challenges. Asked as to what the biggest issue has been, Mohamad replied: “Sleepless nights before we opened. It’s more relaxed now that we’re open. We’ve been moving on, finding a routine and finding out what people want.”
The menu hatched by the two friends is a mix of Irish and Syrian cuisine, with the later selling “really well”, says Mohamad.
Such is the popularity they are considering holding special Syrian evenings, with customers latching on to the idea of eating in large groups and trying new things.
However, discussion of their homeland prompts thoughts of the tragedy that has unfolded there.
Mohamad’s parents came to Ireland two years ago under the government’s Syrian Admission Humanitarian Programme. Both Mohamad and Abed have six siblings, with the unfolding civil war creating a long-running uncertainty.
“My parents would love to go home, but it’s not an option at the moment at least. We don’t even know if our house is still there. I’d love to go and visit the rest of my family. My childhood home,” says Mohamad.
Far away from the devastation surrounding Damascus, the family and friends are forging a new life in West Cork. According to Mohamad, there are a few cultural similarities.
“My mother loves it here. You walk into Clonakilty town, people smile and say hello. It’s similar to home,” he says.
They all feel at home, with Mags a special needs assistant in the Gaelscoil. “We wanted them to learn the Irish language,” Mohamad said. “It’s a cool school and a great community.”
Bayleaf Bistro is open seven days a week at St Patrick’s Place, Bandon. For bookings call 023 884 2589.
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