High on the magenta-colored wall of a restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee, is a sign that reads: "Welcome all sizes, all colors, all ages, all sexes, all cultures, all religions, all types, all beliefs, all people, safe here at Yassin's Falafel House."
Owned by Yassin Terou, a Syrian refugee, this popular gathering spot has been named the winner of the Reader’s Digest Nicest Places in America honor. The nominees included cities, businesses and even streets across the country that are just plain nice.
Terou found out about the award live on "Good Morning America" from host Robin Roberts, who was also a judge for the contest. When she told him the news, Terou said, "America is the winner. Knoxville is the winner. Tennessee is the winner. It's not me."
He told MNN what he felt when he heard the news. "The first feeling I got is that we are welcome and that love always will win," he said. "No matter where you come from, you always can do the right thing and people will keep supporting you regardless of who you are. This is what makes our country the best country in the world."
'Not here just to make falafel'
Terou arrived in Knoxville from Syria in 2011 and soon became a fixture in the area, known for opening his door as a safe place to everyone. He often is the first refugee, immigrant or Muslim that some people meet.
"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 told Reader's Digest.
Terou supports local causes and often hires people who are struggling: other refugees, people battling addiction, ex-convicts and women fleeing difficult situations.
"From someone who is coming from my background who has been welcome in Knoxville and is very proud of being Knoxvillian, it is important for me to go and welcome everybody else and pay it forward and to keep the American dream going and this is a very important thing right now," Terou told MNN.
Terou started out selling sandwiches outside a mosque after services. He sold out so quickly that his now business partner, Nadeem Siddiqi, gave him a spot in an empty building downtown to see how sales would go. Terou now has two very popular locations with plans to open two more.
"A lot of immigrants try so hard to blend in," Siddiqi told Reader's Digest. "Yassin is very much proud of his heritage. He's grateful and he understands something that's really important. With a generous spirit and with a generous heart, nobody has a negative feeling toward that."
One Facebook post for the restaurant sums it up perfectly: "We are pro-love, pro-equality and for sure pro-falafel."