“I’m proud to have forged ahead with my work from the start”
Thu, 14/11/2019 - 15:30
Interview. We spoke to Pierre Kassab, of Lebanese origin, who reached Barcelona in the 1990s as a political asylum seeker.
Pierre Kassab comes from a Lebanese family who suffered the fratricidal war between religious factions during the war in Lebanon in the 1980s. Through his work as a bodyguard for politicians, he became very familiar with their hidden agendas and decided he didn’t want to be a part of it, fleeing instead to Barcelona. While he initially had no intention of requesting political asylum, he soon realised he would be in danger if he was made to go back to his country and so the application for international protection was the only way out. Thirty years on, Pierre is the owner of a small restaurant and feels a Barcelona citizen through and through. We spoke to him at his restaurant in Carrer de Verdi.
Lebanon was engulfed in a terrible civil war in the 1980s. Is that why you left?
My family and I had already left our town as it fell under the control of a fundamentalist Islamic group. Our Christian name alone meant our lives were at risk. We were living in Beirut when I joined the army. After a time, I became a bodyguard for various politicians. That job showed me that everything was rotten to the core. My bosses said one thing publicly (to the population who were suffering) but later, behind the scenes, they had an understanding with our “enemies” and all together it didn’t add up. I actually left when the war was nearly over, in 1989.
Why did you choose Barcelona? What concept of Spain and Europe did you have from there in those days?
I lived next to the Spanish embassy and through my work I knew a lot of people, including the Spanish ambassador. I told him I’d given up my job as a bodyguard and he told me to go to Spain and that he could give me a visa. I also had a cousin living here who could help me out. I can’t really recall what I thought about Spain at that time. What I did know is that life was very complicated and dangerous in Beirut and that I wanted to get out of there no matter how.
“The truth is I felt very well received: I was treated really well, more than anything they helped me with the language”
Did you think of requesting political asylum when you came? How were you received in Barcelona?
I had no idea about what I’d do when I got here. I didn’t even know what it meant to request international protection. It was when I went to the Red Cross, because my cousin recommended it, that they advised me to apply. Most of all, the thing was that I didn’t want to go back or be made to go back. So, I took their advice. The truth is I felt very well received: I was treated really well, more than anything they helped me with the language as I only spoke French and Lebanese. I went to Spanish classes a couple of times a week at the Red Cross in Plaça d’Espanya and we also went on outings in the city with volunteers, some of whom I still have a relationship with.
“Jordi taught me lots and lots, not just about the profession, which he was really good at, but also about things here, like Spanish-Catalan bilingualism”
How did you build a life in the city over time?
Firstly, I knew I had to work. I didn’t have my definitive papers, just a residence permit, and I couldn’t look for a job with a contract, so for quite a while I worked as a motorbike courier. Rosa, a woman from a small company, sent me racing off on errands and I spent all day going all over the place on a motorbike. That was when I started my life here. Later I worked as a builder in another small company and the owner, Jordi, taught me lots and lots, not just about the profession, which he was really good at, but also about things here, like Spanish-Catalan bilingualism. He’s really pro-Catalan and now I understand certain things that go on because he spoke to me about them. I also worked in a pizzeria and a disco. At one point I had three jobs at the same time, but I didn’t get tired.
You were saying that you never gained refugee status.
It’s not exactly that I didn’t get it, but that I took advantage of a measure before that, which must have been a regularisation, I can’t recall, whereby if you presented a work contract with a company from here you got all your papers, including the work permit. Thanks to the courier company giving me a contract, I was able to get them. And as the war in my country had been over for some time, I paid my first visit, just as a holiday. Later on, I became a Spanish national.
And how did you get into the restaurant business?
Some years after getting here I managed to save some money and as I knew a bit about the restaurant business, because I’d seen how the pizzeria worked even though my job there was as a delivery person, finally I got some premises in Poblenou and set up Sundown, my first restaurant. After that I embarked on the Gràcia adventure. I’ve opened seven restaurants in all (including the one in Poblenou), but now I’m focused on this one in Carrer de Verdi, which is starting to work very well.
I’m very proud to have forged ahead from the start without having to ask for help, living from my work. I’ve never been on the dole and I’ve created jobs for other people.
You’ve formed a family here. Do you have intention of going back to Lebanon?
Although I’ve had Catalan partners, my wife is Lebanese. I met her on one of the trips I made to Beirut. She came here and we had two children. I’ve got no intention of going back, except on holiday, but my wife doesn’t even want to do that. She’s happy here and our children have few ties with Lebanon.
What do you think is behind the current protests in Lebanon?
The corruption is terrible. I’m not at all surprised people are protesting. The other day I read that if the politicians there gave back all the money they’ve stolen, Lebanon could pay back its debts, recover the prosperity it had many years ago and reduce inequalities. There needs to be an end to this political system. The structure is very similar to the factions that existed during the war. Many of the current parliamentarians used to lead the former militias. The protests started because of a tax of six dollars a month to use WhatsApp, but that’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back, because people are fed up with paying while the government blatantly steals.