A refugee turned restaurateur hopes to appeal to Italians' passion for food with a new refugee-run restaurant. The eatery, set to open in Venice, Italy on Friday, aims to improve community relations, one of its founders said.
The restaurant's grand opening comes amid rising tension in the country due to the influx of refugees. Italy has become the main arrival point in Europe for refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Asia, Middle East and Africa, most of them crossing the Mediterranean from lawless Libya in search of a better life.
Their stories inspired Hamed Ahmadi, an Afghan refugee living in Italy, to open Africa Experience, a restaurant managed and run exclusively by refugees.
The eatery, in the centre of the picturesque lagoon city, will serve fusion dishes mixing the cuisine of various nations that sub-Saharan refugees crossed or left during their journey to Europe.
"Food is a pretext," Ahmadi said, explaining he hoped the restaurant would help bring down barriers between refugees and locals.
"Getting to know each other is essential - and empty-bellied people pay special attention to you when you give them something to eat," he said in a phone interview.
Ahmadi, a movie director, was forced to flee Afghanistan in 2006 after one of his short films stirred a controversy in the country.
He arrived in Italy and after some several months founded the Orient Experience restaurant with three fellow refugees - two of them women - from Afghanistan, Egypt and Iran.
The restaurant became such a huge success amongst refugees and Italians, that he opened a second one in another area of Venice.
Both eateries provide patrons with a combination of Pakistani, Iraqi, Greek and Turkish cuisine mixed with Afghan influence.
However, Africa Experience focuses on tastes from Africa. The restaurant employs four staff and three chefs from Nigeria, Ethiopia and Guinea, who were selected in a cooking competition modelled after hit television show MasterChef, and run with the assistance of reception centres in the area, he said.
None of the cooks had any previous work experience behind the stove.
Mohammed Sow, 20, said he learned the craft preparing food for himself on the way to Italy, where he arrived on a refugee boat in 2014, after leaving his home in Guinea as a teenager.
"I never thought I could become a cook but it happened," he said.
"I'm lucky I have found a job," he added. "I hope the restaurant is a success."
Ahmadi said all the chefs underwent a period of training after being selected.
The new restaurant opens as Italy is struggling to house almost 172,000 refugees, with some communities opposing government plans to redistribute them across the country.
Last week, residents of the small village of Gorino, about 100 kilometres (62 miles) south of Venice, set up makeshift roadblocks to prevent a small group of refugee women and children from being given accommodation in a local hostel.
"Initiatives that put asylum seekers in touch with local communities are the only way of fostering integration through knowledge and discussion," said Valeria Carlini, a spokeswoman for the Italian Council for Refugees, a charity helping asylum seekers.
Over the past three years, more than 470,000 refugees, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, have reached Italy by boat. Thousands have also died making the dangerous crossing, including at least 3,750 this year alone.