LIFE has never been easy for Oskar Ali.

The Syrian refugee who fled his home country for South Wales in 2015 is used to a battle, but he says the longevity of a draining year of financial pressures due to the pandemic put paid to his lifelong dream of owning his own restaurant.

On Friday Mr Ali announced, after working tirelessly for three years running Falafilo Island on the city’s High Street – a restaurant specialising in Syrian and Lebanese food, he was calling time on the business.

He’s revealed he feels let down by authorities who he feels could have done more when he asked for help last year. But he says he holds no grudges, and will move on to his next challenge.

In his own words, he’s been through a lot worse.

“I do think that, for sure,” he says. “It puts things into perspective when you’ve lived in a place like Syria.

“Between 2011 and 2015 when I fled, I was very aware my life was in danger every day.

“I am Kurdish, and when you’re Kurdish in Syria under Assad’s regime, you have to be careful of ISIS members, because they will kill you.

“I came into contact with ISIS once or twice, when they were checking people’s IDs. Luckily they did not know I was Kurdish.”

Mr Ali’s uncle and cousins were killed by an ISIS bomb prior to him leaving Syria, leading to the family creating “check points”.

South Wales Argus: Oskar AliOskar Ali

“With the check points across a few cities we felt we could protect ourselves from ISIS. In the end, a lot of Kurdish people copied what we did in other cities throughout the country.

“When things were getting even worse, I thought that I had to get out of the country.

“We lost everything – our school and home. We couldn’t study or live there. If I stayed I know I would now be dead.”

He had planned to get to Germany to join his father there, before finding out his father had died after being diagnosed with cancer in 2015.

He arrived in Britain – mostly by boat – as a refugee, eventually settling in Cardiff – and now Blackwood.


“I did feel many times on the journey that I wouldn’t make it. It was very hard and tiring. You can only understand how it is [as a refugee] if you live through it.

“When I got here I didn’t know anyone, or what to do. The Home Office sent me to Cardiff.”

Mr Ali has worked hard ever since moving to the region, spending three years at Marks and Spencer’s in Cardiff before realising his dream with the restaurant in 2018.

South Wales Argus: Oskar Ali and Maijan Hussain when they first opened the restaurant in October 2018Oskar Ali and Maijan Hussain when they first opened the restaurant in October 2018

He has run the restaurant with the help of his wife who has also now moved from Syria, while his mother is here too.

Thinking back over the last three years, he says he wouldn’t have done anything any differently.

“It went brilliantly before the pandemic,” he remembered. “We had so many people coming excited to try our food.

“Newport is a great city and we feel lucky to have had the chance to be here, but I think the culture around trying different cuisines and the nightlife is lacking. That probably hit us a little.”

He tried to do what he could to expand the business’s offering, he says, but the city council blocked any advances.

“We wanted to extend the roof and do a few things to make the place more appealing to young people, but we never got going with it. It was a definite no to everything we suggested.

“There have been many ups and downs, but most of those have been ups. I can’t complain too much, my life is certainly better now than it once was.

“I feel greatly for our workers – they have always been a very good team.”

There are frustrations that they almost made it through the pandemic, but he believes opening would have come with added strain.

“In the end the bills kept rising. We’d borrowed money from friends to get through this, because funding from the Welsh Government was no where near enough. It didn’t cover the rent we still had to pay every month.

“I can’t keep borrowing without a definite plan to pay that money back. We were running out of savings.

“If I’d have continued [with the business] I couldn’t see where that borrowing would have ended.”

As a small business in Wales, since the turn of the year Mr Ali has received around £10,000 – generally less than equivalent businesses in England.

The Welsh Government has also said it will not be providing any extra funding to businesses until after the May elections.

Mr Ali said: “We have felt on our own for sure. We have struggled to do deliveries because our driver couldn’t park outside, because the road is closed in the day. We raised that and nothing changed.

“It has all added to the mix. We’ve felt helpless at times.”

The restaurant effectively ceased trading in December, when Mr Ali’s wife contracted coronavirus, meaning they had to isolate over Christmas.

South Wales Argus: Staff at Falafilo IslandStaff at Falafilo Island

But above all Mr Ali is resilient, and a horrendous chain of events hasn’t put him off taking the restaurant elsewhere in the future.

For now though, the computer science graduate who initially ran the restaurant alongside studying at Cardiff Metropolitan University is applying for roles in that field.

“It has been our dream [running a restaurant], and we’ll never give up on it,” he added. “Particularly because we know it can work. We know so many people loved our food, and we’ve had such a positive response since the announcement [of closure].

“A big thank you to everyone who has supported us in our journey in Newport, and everyone who sent messages in lockdown wishing us well and asking us when we would be open again.

“I’m sorry we didn’t have the answers, but your support helped us through a difficult time.”