Netherlands | Social entrepreneurship

Young asylum seekers make a new start in Sarban’s kitchen

14 April 2022 16:01

Imagine you arrived in the Netherlands years ago as an asylum seeker. You’ve experienced how difficult it was to make a new home, but you managed to do it. In fact, you’ve built more than just a home; you’ve also started a successful business. So what do you do when you see new refugees struggling with the same problems? Rabia Alizadah and her family knew just what they needed.


“Everyday, I’d watch children walking by on their way to school, living the lives I wanted too.”

Searching for your place in the world

Rabia knows how it feels when you don’t belong. Or as she puts it: ‘not to have a place in the world’. She and her family fled from Afghanistan in 1992, when she was only four years old. The family wandered from country to country ‘without rights or identity’ for another four years. Their travels ended in the Netherlands, where the family was given a house in 1997. “On the one hand, that was a moment of happiness I’ll never forget. After all those years of uncertainty, we finally had our own place. With walls we were allowed to paint in our own colours.” On the other hand, however, it was difficult to make the house a home. “We could barely speak Dutch, and everything around us was unfamiliar.”

Look for possibilities

Yet some of Rabia’s best memories are of that time in her life. “I have incredibly strong parents, and they presented the journey to us as one with new, beautiful landscapes, people, scents and colors in every place we passed through.” Another thing her experiences gave her was the strength to make something of her life. To be someone that nobody could ignore. “My parents always encouraged us to look for all the possibilities that the world had to offer.”

After a Master’s in private law and a job as an attorney, Rabia joined her family business in 2015. The rest of the family had also landed on their feet by then. Rabia’s brothers had opened an Afghan restaurant called Sarban, named after the guides who lead trade caravans through the Afghan desert. Her parents lent a hand in the kitchen for the first few months, and later four of her sisters worked there as well.

“When you see a point of light, use it to make your own sunny day.”

Create your own sunny day

The Alizadahs noticed that more and more young Afghan refugees from a nearby asylum center were hanging around the city with nothing to do. “They told us about the obstacles they encountered. They didn’t speak the language, and didn’t feel like they were part of society.” Those were the exact same problems that Rabia and her family struggled with when they arrived in the Netherlands. And they knew that the only way to solve them was to seize every opportunity that comes your way. “When you see a point of light, use it to make your own sunny day.”

The family decided to offer one of the young people an opportunity by hiring him as a dishwasher. “Suddenly he was too busy to worry about his problems, and so tired that he could sleep like a baby without any medication.” More young men soon followed. In the kitchen, they found more than employment: they found the belonging that they’d been lacking. They were encouraged to go to school, got help when they needed it, and received reassurance when times were tough.

“The boys felt like they were part of a team, with colleagues who were relying on them. And isn’t that what we’re all looking for? Someone who says: I need you.” That motivated the young men to make something of their lives.

Achieve more together

Over the years, the family business added four new restaurants, and its social role grew as well. To give that role a firmer foundation and continue expanding, they needed extra hands. “My brothers asked me if I wanted to help, so I decided to join. How great is it to build something together with your family, and to serve a higher purpose? To make your restaurant mean something for society?”

In 2018, the family organized its social work activities via the Sarban de Toekomst (Sarban the Future) Foundation. The foundation offers unaccompanied minors paid employment in one of the restaurants and access to vocational training in the hospitality industry. Sarban itself also trains people with refugee backgrounds for a future in the hospitality industry, with the opportunity to eventually become entrepreneurs themselves. In the process, they have helped several hundred newcomers gain work experience and education over the past few years.

“When you hold on to one another, nobody falls down.”

Hold on to one another

“We motivate and activate these young people. For example, two of the young men who started out here as dishwashers have gone through our internal training program to become entrepreneurs themselves. Now they successfully run two of the Sarban locations.” (See ‘Paying it forward’.)

The Alizadahs and their ‘boys’ also work to help people in their surroundings. People who need it to get the attention they deserve. “A few years ago, we cooked for elderly people in Tilburg, and last year we cooked for homeless people in Utrecht. We have a proverb in Afghanistan: ‘When you hold on to one another, nobody falls down.’ That’s our motto. We want to treat strangers with just as much love as our own family. Not just the people we offer opportunities to, but everyone around us.”

Paying it forward

Selim started washing dishes at Sarban. It wasn’t enjoyable work, but he was happy to have the opportunity. “It was extremely hard when I arrived in the Netherlands. I had no idea where I was, or how things worked here. Before, I’d always had my family around me, but here I was entirely on my own. Until a friend of mine introduced me to the Alizadah family. They’re the sweetest people, and they offered me an internship at Sarban.”

Salim worked his way up from washing dishes to head chef, then kitchen manager, then waiter, and finally wait staff supervisor. “The Alizadahs became my second family, and eventually they offered me yet another opportunity: running my own restaurant in Utrecht under the Sarban banner. I run it together with another employee, and we’re both co-owners.”

Salim proudly describes how well the restaurant is doing: “We have a team of 12 people. Many of them have immigrant backgrounds. The Dutch team members serve as a bridge to the rest of society, and they even give language lessons. I think it’s wonderful to be able to help people find their way, and to pass on what I’ve been given. Because I know all too well how important that is.”

Sarban and Rabo Foundation

Rabo Foundation provided Sarban with a loan in collaboration with the Brabant Outcomes Fund (BOF). The Province of Brabant is the first Dutch province to pioneer the use of an Outcomes Fund, in which investors earn a return on their investment by contributing to a social result together with entrepreneurs.

Why do we finance Sarban? Because we strive to contribute to building an inclusive society. One of our objectives is to offer people who have trouble finding jobs more opportunities for paid employment, so that they can participate fully in society. Via Sarban, we aim to help asylum seekers get ahead in the Netherlands.

Would you also like to contribute to a more inclusive society? Then reserve a table at Sarban in Tilburg, Den Bosch or Utrecht. There’s no easier (or more delicious) way to make an impact! Do you want to know more about how Rabo Foundation is making an impact via supporting social entrepreneurship?