His license tag says “Falafel,” and some think that’s his last name. Others think it’s “Syrian,” for the country of his birth. But to most, he is simply Yassin.
In early October, someone vandalized his downtown restaurant – broke a plate glass window to get inside. The next morning, Yassin taped a hand-lettered sign to his storefront that said, “If you are hungry or need emergency money, just wait til we open because our food is fresh made in the mornings and our register is empty when we are closed! We are more than happy to help when we are open! All we need is love … And falafel!”
On the last day of school before the Christmas holidays, he fed the children at Maynard Elementary School. A couple of days later, he was on the stage at the Bijou Theater, presiding over the inauguration of Knoxville’s new mayor and city council members. The second event was highly publicized; the first got hardly any, except for teacher Corey Hodge’s Facebook post.
“Yassin Syrian has provided FREE food for the entire Maynard Elementary School, on the last day of school! Blessings come in many forms. Selflessness. An act that surpasses perfect food.”
And so it has come to pass that eight years after Syrian refugee Yassin Terou arrived in Tennessee with nothing more than a suitcase, a few hundred dollars and a will to survive, he has become one of Knoxville’s most generous citizens and our best ambassadors.
For some years now (I forget exactly how many), I’ve been choosing a Knoxvillian of the Year. I’ve always tried to be original, and it’s most often someone who has been overlooked or insufficiently recognized for the good they do – sometimes because they prefer it that way.
But that’s not the case this year. I’m riding the Yassin train, celebrating a man whose long string of well-deserved honors has kept him in the news and vaulted him into that Dolly/Elvis constellation of celebrities who need but one name to be recognized.
The choice wasn’t that difficult. Yassin Terou’s relentless optimism, boundless kindness and demonstrated work ethic have allowed his adopted hometown to bask in the reflected glory of his accomplishments. By now, everyone knows that Yassin’s Falafel House (he now has two locations) was named Reader’s Digest/Good Morning America’s “Nicest Place in America” last year. He can add that to his Peace Award from the Knoxville Rotary Club and his Pinnacle Award from the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce and other awards and commendations too numerous to list.
Yassin has strong views about many things, but he makes his point gently, and leads by example. When someone (it’s not clear whether it was a state trooper or a member of now-governor Bill Lee’s campaign staff or even Lee himself) attempted to make an issue of Lee’s Democratic opponent Karl Dean having a meet-and-greet at Yassin’s during the 2018 gubernatorial campaign by calling it a “Muslim event,” Yassin responded with restraint and kindness, allowing Lee to back out gracefully. (Call me cynical, but I can’t help but suspect that Bill Haslam made a phone call and warned the Lee campaign to back off).
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs mentioned Yassin when he joined Lee to support refugee resettlement in Tennessee despite both being first-class passengers on the Trump Train: “We could all learn something from Yassin’s motto,” Jacobs said: Welcome all sizes, all colors, all ages, all sexes, all cultures, all religions, all types, all beliefs, all people.”
It is difficult to imagine the pain masked by Yassin’s relentlessly sunny disposition. He has to be deeply worried about the family he left behind in a country that is being dismantled by war. Last year, he went to Turkey on a business trip and managed to engineer a surprise visit with his brother. Here is how he described it:
“After 8 years without seeing my only brother because Syrian not allowed to come to the USA and I was in need for a visa to go to Turkey finally I have some business to do in Turkey and surprise him and he come because I told hem I have a friend need help in translation. I decide to use costume because he’s a volunteer in a team and do party for kids.”
Yassin Terou has learned a lot since he came to Knoxville. And so have we.