Back in May, Project Happiness Founder Randy Taran teamed up with Reader’s Digest and judges including Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts to ask you where are the Nicest Places In America. We received hundreds of applications, and in June, we shortlisted the Top 10. America voted and now the results are in!
It’s Yassin Terou’s Falafel House in Knoxville, Tennessee!
Just a few days before Christmas 2017, dozens gathered at the Nativity scene at the First Baptist Church in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, to march to nearby Market Square to hold a rally and a vigil to “welcome the stranger,” a Christian call to treat friends, neighbors, strangers and even enemies with love and compassion. One of the people there was Yassin Terou, a refugee who came to Knoxville in 2011 and has since become a beloved local celebrity.
But not beloved by all.
A man in the crowd draped in an American flag was yelling at anyone who would listen that immigrants were preventing him from getting a job. When it was Terou’s turn to speak at the rally, he invited the man up on stage so they could hold the flag high together. When the man refused, Terou went into the crowd to find him so he could introduce himself and offer to buy him dinner so they could talk.
He also offered the man a job. Terou is the owner and operator of Yassin’s Falafel House, which employs 30 people and has been open for the past four years.
“I always do that,” Terou told Reader’s Digest, “I always invite anyone who hates us to the store. I want them to know us more. When you break bread, you break hate.”
Terou is a refugee, an immigrant, and a Muslim. There are some places in the world where strangers aren’t welcomed, especially if they don’t look, talk, or worship like everyone else. But that’s not Knoxville, where Terou has been given a shot at the American dream. His restaurants are safe places for everyone, powerful engines of charity, and symbols of the best of America. That’s why Yassin’s Falafel House is this year’s Nicest Place in America.
“I’m not here just to make falafel and make money,” Terou said. “I’m here to build this community.
Serving Up Kindness
Terou is likely the first immigrant, refugee, or Muslim that many of his customers and fellow Knoxvillians have met—yet he embodies their closely held belief that all people are created equal and deserve a basic level of dignity and respect. He is also a reminder that these values aren’t good because they come from Knoxville; good people everywhere hold them.
While other Middle-Eastern restaurants have come and gone, Terou’s restaurant is popular and expanding. But the secret isn’t in the falafel.
“With Yassin’s, it’s the atmosphere,” said Mary Constantine, a food writer at the Knoxville News Sentinel. “It makes you feel good because he’s a good person and he’s good to his people and his family.”
At the downtown location, folks have made Yassin’s one of the most popular places to eat, and it isn’t just because of the deliciously fried chickpea balls served on a pita. Terou supports his customers and many of the causes important to them. In West Knoxville, which is more conservative than the city center, the store is even more popular and profitable. Why? It all comes down to Terou’s message, which is perfectly captured in the sign outside of each
“At any given lunch hour, you’ll see what makes Yassin’s so special all for yourself: From power business leaders and tourists to Muslims and Christians, the breadth of our community are sharing meals together,” said Pastor Tom Ogburn, whose First Baptist Church is just blocks away from Yassin’s.
In some ways, Yassin’s Falafel House stands alone as a shining light of what we all want our communities to be like. In other ways, it shares so much in common with nice places all over America, where neighbors are friends and trust and civility are winning. But, for the people of Knoxville, Yassin’s Falafel House is a place to go where you will feel welcomed.
Read Yassin’s full story. Loved reading about Yassin? Here are stories of the other 9 Nicest Places Finalists: