When Mehmet Dari arrived in Dover he only had 1,000 deutsche mark in his pocket. He didn’t know anyone and his English only extended to “hello”, “welcome” and “bread”.
Sitting in his lawyer’s office in London six months later, a translator told him that his attempt to stay in the country as a refugee had been rejected. He was staring at the threat of deportation.
But now the 41-year-old is a successful businessman with a growing empire. The father of four runs six restaurants – all of which make over £ 1million a year – spread across Herne Bay, Canterbury and Ramsgate.
And he has his eyes set on expansion. He plans to start building a £ 4million rooftop hotel and bar overlooking the sea in Herne Bay in two years, as he continues his plan to launch two more restaurants on the Kent Coast.
However, Mehmet knows that everything could have turned out so differently.
“I asked to stay as a refugee in 1999. They told me that my refugee status had not been accepted because I had gone to France and Italy,” he recalls.
“This business lasted until 2002, when I opened my business. I then asked to stay with my pizza business.
“It was very stressful. I ran my own restaurant. I was investing a lot of my time, I had borrowed money from the bank and from friends – and I didn’t know if one day someone would say to me “Mehmet, it’s over; you come back’.
“We went to the High Court in 2003. She said ‘he has a business, he pays taxes, he employs people – why can’t he stay?’ The Interior Ministry appealed. Then the case was taken to the House of Lords and European courts. I got my first state visa in 2009.
We met at the flagship Mehmet branch of A La Turka in Central Parade, Herne Bay. Our table is inside a newly installed glass globe, one of three next to the restaurant.
Dressed in a gray flat cap and a puffed US Polo Association jacket, the restaurateur relaxes in his seat as he is served Turkish coffee. Workers bustle around us, adding the finishing touches to the outdoor dining room, which housed a decrepit archway that was closed until summer.
His life with his wife Tugba in Greenhill is a long way from his childhood. One of nine children, Mehmet lived in a Turkish village of 3,000 people near the Syrian border.
Having shown an interest in cooking, he was the only one of his brothers who helped put together meals. There he learned from his mother to milk goats, make cheese, bake bread and prepare meat.
“There was a lot of natural life in the village,” he notes. “If you live in Sturry or Broad Oak, you always go to Asda, but if you live in a village where you live, you have your own animals, veg, rice, bulgur – everything.
At the age of 16, Mehmet had started his career as a businessman. He traveled the main roads in a tractor to sell goats and onions grown on the family farm.
Despite this, he decided to leave Turkey. The movement was influenced by the sectarianism he encountered as a Kurd. He says he was banned from speaking in his native language at school and was dragged to police stations twice because of his ethnicity. It was during these five hour periods that he was beaten by officers, burned with cigarettes and said “this is a language, a country”.
“It’s difficult to be Kurdish in Turkey. I wanted to stay away from the politics of it, ”he explains between sips of water. “But when you tried to speak Kurdish at school, the teacher would come and beat you.
“Kurdish speakers would meet at the jandarma, a police station. It was a crime to speak Kurdish. They thought you were supporting the terrorists. They would come and pick you up from school. It was painful when they burned me.
“They would scare you. It was not nice. It is your mother tongue; it’s not like you’re creating terrorism. That has changed now, but the majority of Kurds were in this situation then. I wanted to stay away from it.
Mehmet’s father and friends pooled the money for his trip to Europe. But before he left, he had no idea where he would end up. Starting with Bosnia, he traveled 24 days by plane, truck, van and car across the continent, sampling life in Germany, France and Italy.
He later found his way on a bus filled with football fans in Paris. The coach boarded a cross-Channel ferry that landed at Dover. With the help of a few family friends, he made a living in London, taking off for regular English lessons.
“I didn’t know much, only like ‘bread’, ‘hello’ and ‘welcome,’ he recalls, leaning back in his chair. “When I saw everyone talking and couldn’t, it was very frustrating.
“I was 18 and the little children spoke English. I felt like little kids were smarter than me. It was difficult, but I was learning fast. I had a little book with me and I wrote down every word.
“It was so friendly here. I didn’t think I would end up in England, but I always had in mind ‘the friends of the family are here and can help me’.
After six months he applied for asylum. But his candidacy was rejected by the Interior Ministry. This sparked a long legal fight to try to keep Mehmet in the country.
During this time he moved to Canterbury and accepted a job – using the National Insurance number given to him when he applied for asylum – at a Church Street kebab, earning £ 200 a week. He was posted in the kitchen of the store, working “like a butcher” preparing meat.
“I didn’t like London very much. Can you imagine going from a small village to huge London and you don’t know much about it? ” he asks.
“Then I moved to Canterbury in 2000. I fell in love with the area – it was like my hometown, Gaziantep. I had to go to study in the morning to learn and the kebab was open late, 3 a.m. One of the girls there helped me open a bank account with Lloyds. I enjoyed the work.
On January 7, 2002, Mehmet opened its first food store, Direct Pizza, in Herne Bay. He bought the business for around £ 40,000 from his Canterbury employer, using loans from friends, family and the bank.
In the months that followed, Mehmet learned of the Ankara Agreement. Under the little-known treaty – which ended after Brexit – Turkish nationals had the right to establish themselves with a business in the UK. After a prescribed period of time, they would be allowed to reside permanently. It was by this route that Mehmet mounted his last attempt to stay in the bay in September 2002.
The case was taken to the European Court of Justice in 2007. By the time it received its first state visa, Direct Pizza in Central Parade was growing in popularity, with turnover of £ 3,000 per week. He opened other branches, before switching from take-out to Turkish cuisine.
A La Turka was launched in Canterbury nine years ago. The first of its Direct Pizzas was then transformed into the chain’s second site. Two more have been opened in Canterbury and Ramsgate, and it is expected to unveil another in Whitstable in the spring.
It also has a meze bar in the center of Herne Bay and a seaside chippie a stone’s throw away. Plus, the town he lives in will win two more Dari-funded businesses – a beachfront restaurant serving seafood and his boutique hotel.
“I love this small town. People have supported me from day one. Why shouldn’t I improve Herne Bay? The tycoon declares, his eyes darting between the glass bubbles and his restaurant.
“I want to give back to this city. This city has helped us grow. Now it’s my turn to make it more enjoyable.