A Middle Eastern couple who have built a new life for themselves in Ireland after moving from the direct provision system to running their own restaurant, have shared Cork's Person of the Month Award.
Izzedeen and Eman Alkarajeh have overcome the odds of moving to a new country, learning a new language and spending time in the State's asylum system.
Mr Alkarajeh moved from Palestine to Saudi Arabia in 1999 to find work after graduating from university with a degree in computer science. He met Eman, who is originally from Jordan, while he was in the country.
The couple planned to return to Palestine when Mr Alkarajeh's contract ended but because his partner did not have civilian status in Palestine, they opted to apply to go to Canada. However, the age requirements for visas there changed, which scuppered their plans.
Instead, the couple and their four children came to Ireland in 2016 and applied for asylum. They spent a year in direct provision, first in Dublin and then in Cork, before their applications were assessed and they were granted asylum.
While still in direct provision in Cork, Mr Alkarajeh completed a course on starting a business through the South and East Cork Area Development Partnership. The couple decided to set up a food business.
Mrs Alkarajeh trained as an interior designer in Jordan but has been cooking traditional food since childhood, which encouraged the couple to give their idea a try as they felt there was an appetite for Middle Eastern food in Cork.
One of their new friends put them in touch with Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe food operation, who introduced them to her son-in-law, Rupert Hugh-Jones who runs farmers markets around Cork and the couple began selling their food at markets.
Mr Alkarajeh said that on their first day at Mahon Point Farmers Market in Cork city, they sold out their entire stock in two hours and their success at farmers' markets led to their decision to open Izz Café on George's Quay.
“Cork has proved itself a city of sanctuary, a place of welcome and safety for people of migrant origin like ourselves. Being in direct provision was challenging for our family, but we have met some amazing people,” he said.
“And they have helped us make Izz Café possible serving the people of Cork with quality traditional Palestinian food and we are so thankful to them for their continued support.”
Mrs Alkarajeh added: “The people of Cork have accepted us with open arms and as a way of saying thanks to our new community, we have supplied free meals recently to health care workers during the Covid-19 crisis.”
Manus O’Callaghan, organiser of the Cork Person of the Year Award, said the couple were worthy winners of the monthly award, as their story offered hope and inspiration to others.
“Cork has always celebrated diversity in people so it’s not surprising to see our city give people like Izz and Eman and their four children a fresh start, just like many Corkonians got in cities around the world in the past,” he said.
“Their hard work and commitment to introducing the people of Cork to their traditional cuisine and culture is reflected in the popularity of Izz Café. We wish them continued success for the future.”