'Tourists have gone': Jerusalem restaurateur struggles amid war

The owner of Jerusalem's hugely popular Sarwa Street Kitchen has lost 19 family members in Gaza and now faces closure.

Mo Sarwa
Mo Sarwa and his wife, Ilona, at his restaurant, Sarwa Street Kitchen, in occupied East Jerusalem [Courtesy of Mo Sarwa]
Mo Sarwa and his wife, Ilona, at his restaurant, Sarwa Street Kitchen, in occupied East Jerusalem [Courtesy of Mo Sarwa]

What's your money worth? A series from the front lines of the cost of living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Mo Sarwa

Age: 50

Occupation: Owner of Sarwa Street Kitchen in occupied East Jerusalem

Lives with: His wife, Ilona, and their three children - one son, Ruslan, 20, and two young daughters, Anastasia, 10, and Ulana, 5. The newest addition to their family is Yokie, a brown-and-white rabbit from the pet store across the street.

Lives in: One of seven apartments in a building that has been in Mo’s family since 1954 in Ras al-Amud, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. Mo himself was born and raised there alongside his six brothers and two sisters. In the 90-square-metre (nearly 1,000-square-feet), two-bedroom, three bath home, Mo, Ilona and the girls share the larger bedroom, while Ruslan has the smaller one to himself.

Monthly household income: Before the war, Mo earned 10,000 Israeli shekels ($2,697) each month. This compares with the average monthly gross salary in Israel of 12,009 shekels ($3,238) as of May 2023. This month, Mo made 500 shekels ($137). He is currently relying on his savings to support his family as their sole source of income, which he only expects to last for another six months.

Total expenses for the month: 23,173 shekels ($6,286.70).

Sarwa Street Kitchen
Mo's daughter, Anastasia, 10, poses in the restaurant while wearing a traditional Palestinian thobe [Courtesy of Mo Sarwa]
Mo's daughter, Anastasia, 10, poses in the restaurant while wearing a traditional Palestinian thobe [Courtesy of Mo Sarwa]

“If you Google me, I am number one,” Mo Sarwa says several times. “I am really famous.”

His small restaurant, Sarwa Street Kitchen, sits on the corner of East Jerusalem’s iconic Salah Eddin Street, at number 42. Passersby cannot miss the towering glass windows which, especially at night, show off the interior’s bright blue walls, the leftmost of which is covered by dark blue wooden bookshelves.

Another blue wall boasts the daily menu on a chalkboard, its English words written in white. The “Dish of the Day” includes Palestinian plates such as maqluba (layered vegetables, rice, and meat that literally translates to “upside down” in English), mujaddara (onions, lentils and rice), or qidreh (a rice, chickpea and meat dish).

The restaurant’s eclectic yet comforting atmosphere is a reflection of the personality of the man who hosts it.

Before the war began, visitors to Sarwa Street Kitchen would generally find Mo deep in conversation with one of his customers, all of whom he treats like family, whether they had just arrived in the city or consider themselves regulars. He would rotate between his regulars, solo travellers and small groups.

Mo knew everyone’s story, and would regularly entertain his guests with many of his own.

Sarwa Street Kitchen has become a local favourite since its establishment in 2009 when Mo returned from the United States after 19 years abroad. But it wasn’t until 2015 that he transitioned the establishment from a cafe to a restaurant.

Mo and his family have been firmly rooted in East Jerusalem for generations. His father, who died in 2014, was among the sixth generation of a Jerusalem family and ran a travel agency - Kim's Travel and Tourist Agency - right next door to Sarwa Street Kitchen. Mo set up the restaurant in the same building space, taking over three of the four entrances to the office for his business. One door still opens to the old, but now closed, travel agency in homage to his father.

Sarwa Street Kitchen
Sarwa Street Kitchen started life in the same building as Mo's father's tourist company, Kim's Travel Agency [Courtesy of Mo Sarwa]

A quick Google search for the restaurant reveals an average rating of 4.7 stars and 408 multilingual reviews, from English to Spanish to German to French. Many of them applaud the owner’s hospitality, service and cooking. On Trip Advisor, Sarwa Street Kitchen boasts the top, number one ranking out of 689 restaurants in Jerusalem.

“Shanna W” titled her post “Service made us feel like family,” writing, “There is a good reason this place is rated so highly …The food was fabulous, but the service was even better. The owner made us feel like family, and we’d never met before.”

Sally Thomas, an American from New Jersey, was a regular during the two months she lived in Sheikh Jarrah, working as an English teacher before being evacuated to Amman, Jordan, by the US programme that sponsored her stay.

As well as being one of the only places in Jerusalem where she could find vegetarian renditions of traditional Palestinian dishes, Sally looked forward to her solo dinners at the restaurant because she never felt alone. Mo kept her well entertained, moving between the kitchen and her table, keen to hear every detail about her life.

“Where are you from? What are you doing here? Tell me about your family,” he would ask.

“Mo makes you feel like the only person in the room,” Sally says. “You feel as if you just had a lucky day, but it’s like that every time.”

In Mo’s first conversation with Sally, he introduced her to other tourists, whom he had recently met, and even offered to help her secure an apartment around the corner.

He was eager to share his stories from his time living in the United States - where he moved at age 16 to escape Jerusalem during the chaos of the first Intifada (1987 - 1993) - and regale her with the history of his restaurant. Memorably, Sally says, he showed her pictures of his girls, brimming with pride about their bilingualism in English and Arabic, and even a little Russian from their mother.

“I lost a great customer,” Mo says now of when Sally moved to Amman.

She isn’t the only customer he has lost since the start of the war on Gaza and the military crackdown on the West Bank.

Just months ago, Mo was booked through to the end of December. This all changed when the war began on October 7 and, with no resolution in sight, Sarwa Street Kitchen’s foreign client base has mostly fled the city and cancelled trips to Jerusalem en masse, taking their business with them.

“The Old City was packed, man. You couldn’t even walk in it. I used to see thousands of tourists every morning when I went to work,” Mo says in disbelief. “Now, I don’t see one.”

Sarwa Street Kitchen
Mo's popular restaurant, Sarwa Street Kitchen, is usually buzzing with customers. These days hardly anyone comes [Courtesy of Mo Sarwa]

A one-man show

These days, Mo says he misses his father and his mother, who died six years after his father. He still treasures an old invitation card for their 1953 wedding.

Mo’s parents met in Jerusalem after his mother fled Yaffa in 1948 during the Nakba - “the catastrophe” in English, which refers to the systematic ethnic cleansing of at least 750,000 Palestinians from their homes by Zionist militias during the creation of the Israeli state between 1947 and 1949.

On his mother’s side, 19 members of the Abu Madeen family in Gaza were killed in October at the start of the war. It is a terrible loss which weighs heavily on Mo.

Mo met his own wife, Ilona, who is Russian, in 2001 when they were neighbours in Los Angeles. The two married the following year and moved to Mo’s birthplace of Ras al-Amud in 2009.

Mo says he is grateful to his wife for taking care of their home and family as a stay-at-home mum. While Mo is Muslim and his wife is Russian Orthodox, they do not consider themselves a “religious family”. Still, occasionally, Ilona observes prayers at the mosque Mo attends.

The transition from the US to Jerusalem was not easy for his wife but, after 15 years, she is the one who now does not want to go to the United States to escape the war - an idea Mo has been floating lately as both of them hold US citizenship. However, he recognises that if his financial situation is difficult in Jerusalem, the expense of living in the US would put an even greater strain on his bank account.

“My life is good here,” he says. “Jerusalem is the most beautiful country in the world. My father used to say that all the time, and now I say it, too.”

But he has had to scale back on operating costs for the restaurant - and may have to make the ultimate sacrifice of closing up altogether if the situation does not improve soon.

These days, Mo operates his restaurant as a one-man show. He cannot afford to pay extra employees, nor does he need them. He still buys and cooks food daily, but has few or even no customers to serve. As the war continues and his savings deteriorate, Mo is contemplating closing for good.

Despite this, Mo says, his business is the least of his concerns right now. The loss of his family members and the war in Gaza has overshadowed everything.

“I am really deeply upset inside, in my heart. All this war is useless,” he says, his voice cracking. “Why do people have to suffer like this?”

Mo cycles daily through a range of emotions, foremost frustration, anger and depression. Some nights he can’t sleep at all. He wakes up and turns on the news which drives him crazy, he says.

“It’s always sadness, it's misery, our lives are not the same as they were before the war,” Mo adds. “I am always sad.”


Over the course of January, Mo tracked his monthly expenses in collaboration with reporter Laila Shadid. Here are the expenses that tested his finances the most.

Expenses over a month

Sarwa Street Kitchen


Every Thursday, Mo goes grocery shopping for his family of five. Since the war began, food prices have shot up. However, he spends less on food now than he did before the war since the family has stopped ordering takeout and only buys essential items.

This month, Mo spent 4,481.36 shekels ($1,221.81) on food, 1,293.93 shekels ($352.78) of this on meat, the remainder on fruit, vegetables, water, coffee, tea and other essential household items. Mo says that, before the war, he would spend at least 5,500 shekels ($1,492.04) per month, opting for more expensive items and brands when he “didn’t have to think about money”.

His weekly Thursday grocery shopping trips remain one of his largest expenses but he says: “I can’t save money on food because I have kids and the girls love fruits,” Mo says. The price of fruit has risen particularly steeply since the war began.

“We used to get strawberries from Gaza,” he explains. Last year, 1kg of strawberries from Gaza cost 10 shekels ($2.65). Now that they come from inside Israel instead, the price is 10 times as much at 100 shekels ($26.53) per kilo.

Oranges are another family favourite, but “to pay for 8 kilos of oranges is too much”, Mo says. These days in Jerusalem, “good oranges” cost 9 shekels ($2.45) per kilo, when they used to be less than a dollar.

So, at the end of December, Mo decided to drive to his father’s house, which now sits empty, in Jericho near the Dead Sea, to pick oranges from the trees in the garden with his wife and daughters.

The journey used to take 25 minutes before the crackdown on the West Bank, but this time they were forced to wait for nearly an hour at the checkpoints which have popped up since the war began on both legs of the journey.

The couple tried to prepare the girls for a long wait at the checkpoints. “We tell them we are going to wait and they understand.”

They left his father’s home with five bags of oranges which he carefully hid in his boot - painfully aware of the restrictions Israeli forces have placed on the movement of people and goods around the West Bank.

“You can’t bring meat or produce out of the West Bank,” he says. If Israeli soldiers had found the oranges, they would have thrown them away, Mo explains.

This is the only trip Mo has taken to the occupied Palestinian territory since the start of the war and he doesn’t expect to take many more. “The situation is only getting worse.”

January 2023: 5,500 shekels ($1,492.04)

January 2024: 4,481.36 shekels ($1,221.81)

Price rises

Children and pets

“Sing a song!” Mo calls to his youngest daughter, Ulana. She giggles and shakes her head, embarrassed by the audience. “Come on, you got it,” he urges her.

“Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim…” she begins reciting the first verse of the Quran. “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”

“She learned it in school,” Mo beams as she continues from memory.

Mo is very much a family man. When he is not at the restaurant, he can be found spending time with his children, especially now that he has more free time.

Apart from spending on food the family eats, Mo budgets a portion of his salary - and now his savings - for his children’s activities as well as for expenses such as birthdays and Yokie the rabbit, whose food (20 shekels, $5.45) and cleaning supplies (40 shekels, $10.84) cost 60 shekels ($16.26) per month. He often feeds Yokie leftover produce.

“He doesn’t say ‘meow meow’ or bark,” Mo laughs. “He’s cheaper than a dog or cat.”

Outside their apartment, the family also continues to feed the stray cats each day from their back patio.

Sarwa Street Kitchen
The family's pet rabbit [Courtesy of Mo Sarwa]

Ulana and Anastasia’s main activity is ballet, which costs 267 shekels ($72.36) per month. The price has risen since the start of the year from 233 shekels ($63.14) per month as many people in Jerusalem are in similar financial hardship because of the war. But Mo enjoys taking the girls to classes every Monday and Thursday from 5pm to 6pm. It’s something he wasn’t able to do before because of work.

He could find cheaper ballet lessons in West Jerusalem but he is willing to pay a bit extra to support Palestinian businesses in East Jerusalem. Mo feels the same about grocery shopping - he only shops in West Jerusalem if he can’t find a specific product in East Jerusalem.

Mo’s 20-year-old son, Ruslan, is a dedicated boxer. He used to work with his father five days a week at the restaurant after practice, but now Ruslan’s main focus is his sport. Mo supports his son’s passion, paying 600 shekels ($162.58) per month to cover boxing sessions five days per week from 6pm to 9pm, a cost that, like the girl’s ballet, just went up by about 150 shekels ($40.65) each month.

On January 14, Anastasia turned 10. She wore a pink turtleneck sweater and sat with five of her friends at a table covered with rainbow paper plates, party hats and sweets. She bounced in her seat as the group sang Happy Birthday in English and then in Arabic, posing in front of a coconut cake topped with strawberries, pineapple and a sparkler that shot sparks at least a foot into the air. The cake was the most expensive purchase for the celebration at 100 shekels ($27.25).

Mo and Ilona baked the rest of the cupcakes and cookies themselves, only spending an additional 5 shekels ($1.36) on Cokes and 20 shekels ($5.45) on nuts and chips. Before the war, Mo would spend at least “a few hundred dollars” on a birthday party - for a barbecue, hosting many more guests and potentially even renting a venue.

Sarwa Street Kitchen
Anastasia's birthday party was a much more modest affair than usual this year [Courtesy of Mo Sarwa]

The couple have also cut back on clothes shopping for the girls.

“Before the war, they needed clothing because they grow fast,” Mo said, which he might spend up to 1,000 shekels ($271.21) on, but this is a luxury he can no longer afford at all. The girls will have to make do with the clothes that they have for now.

It seems unimportant when Mo thinks about the children who have been killed in Gaza - a number now exceeding 10,000 - which, in turn, makes him think of his own children.

“The kids don’t realise there is anything going on because we don’t let them watch TV,” Mo says. Even so, he knows that they are aware of the war. He sees that they are sad, and he knows why.

January 2023: 2,743 shekels ($744.12)

January 2024: 1,052 shekels ($285.21)

Petrol, car insurance and days out

Every Friday, Mo used to plan an activity for his family. They would go to the beach, to Jericho or to somewhere else in the West Bank, spending at least a couple of hundred dollars, and certainly a minimum of 2,000 shekels ($542.27) per month, he says.

Now, the family spends the majority of their time at home to save money and because the military escalation and road closures in the West Bank make it difficult to travel in that direction.

This month, Mo only spent 185 shekels ($50.16) on petrol, compared with his usual 400 shekels ($108.45).

Sarwa Street Kitchen
Mo poses for a photo on a day out, with the Old City of Jerusalem in the background [Courtesy of Mo Sarwa]

He also made his yearly January payments of 2,650 shekels ($718.46) for his car registration and 6,340 shekels ($1,718.89) for car insurance which has gone up by 2,250 shekels ($609.92) since last January and has put a significant dent in his already limited savings.

“We don’t do much right now because of the [war],” Mo says. “We don’t go out to the malls, we don’t go out to the beach, we don’t do any activities at all, zero, since October 7.”

January 2023: 9,040 shekels ($2,449.96)

January 2024: 9,175 shekels ($2,486.54)

Utility bills, property tax and health insurance

The cost of running the family home includes bills for water (400 shekels, $108.89), electricity (700 shekels, $190.56), phone and internet (500 shekels, $136.12) and property tax (485 shekels, $132.03). These have not changed significantly since the war began. Mo says he is grateful that he doesn’t have to pay rent as prices are already steep and rising in Jerusalem. This, he admits, puts him in a better economic position than many of his neighbours.

Sarwa Street Kitchen’s largest expense is the Jerusalem property tax, known as Arnona, at 4,000 shekels ($1,089.01) a month.

The restaurant is not costing as much to run, however. This month, spending on electricity decreased from 1,500 shekels ($408.38) to 200 shekels ($54.45), water went from 300 shekels ($81.37) to 80 shekels ($21.70) and the cost of food for the restaurant fell from 15,000 shekels ($4,066.16) to 700 shekels ($189.86).

Sarwa Street Kitchen
Anastasia, 10, poses with some of the traditional dishes her father prepares for the restaurant - and the family eats at home [Courtesy of Mo Sarwa]

Mo’s health insurance is directly tied to his monthly restaurant income and usually costs around 750 shekels ($203.35), but this month he only had to pay the minimum (200 shekels, $54.23).

The expenses that remained the same were his accountant’s fee (1,000 shekels, $271.37) and internet and phone (200 shekels, $54.23). Mo paid the majority of these expenses from his savings, since his January income from the business was only 500 shekels ($135.61).

Mo says it’s a bit like what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, which took him until the end of 2022 to recover from. In 2023, the uptick in tourism increased business by a huge amount, however, and he was just getting back on his feet when the war started in October.

His friends have given him ideas on how to boost business, Mo says, such as using Facebook advertising, operating happy hours and introducing other enticing deals. But this doesn’t feel right to him.

“No ideas come to my mind about my business. I don’t have the mood to improve business,” he says. “I’m not going to do anything until the war is over.”

“Everyone is being hurt economically. Every day I wake up and hope there is going to be peace. I just want to live in peace with my family and everyone else,” Mo says. “I go to work and whatever God gives me, I am happy with.”

January 2023: 24,835 shekels ($6,730.50)

January 2024: 8,465 shekels ($2,294.09)

Sarwa Street Kitchen
Traditional hummus prepared by Mo Sarwa [Courtesy of Mo Sarwa]

Six quick questions for Mo:

1. What's one thing you had to forgo this month? Not buying expensive gifts for my kids and my wife for their birthdays. If I give my wife money she’s going to spend it on food. It is sad and good at the same time. I don’t have that much to give her, but whatever I give her she will spend it on us.

2. What’s the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? I had to make six or seven payments on credit cards for the insurance and registration payments for the car. Usually, I pay it right away.

3. What has been the most worthwhile expense from this month? Buying my daughter a cake for her birthday to make her happy and see a smile on her face. And giving my kids a few dollars on January 1 for the New Year.

4. When finances get tough, what advice do you have? Cut down on travel, inviting people over, doing your hair, nails, going to the mall, drinking alcohol, smoking, but don’t cut down on food. You can’t cut on food.

5. What’s your biggest money worry? Now, I think about money day by day so I don’t worry about anything. We haven’t gotten to the worst part yet.

6. What’s the saving hack you are proudest of? Every month I try to save part of my salary. This is a thing I learned from living in the US - always have a little bit of money on the side because you never know what’s going to happen.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera