BUILD­ING PEACE WITH CHO­CO­LATE

Af­ter los­ing ev­ery­thing in Syria, one fam­ily re-es­tab­lished their cho­co­late busi­ness on Cana­dian soil, shar­ing their story—and their amaz­ing con­fec­tions—with the world

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Front Page - BY LISA JACK­SON FROM SAVEUR

FOR 55-YEAR-OLD As­sam Had­had, a happy life re­quires two in­gre­di­ents: peace and cho­co­late. Once a lead­ing choco­latier in Da­m­as­cus, Had­had, who orig­i­nally ar­rived in Canada as a Syr­ian refugee, is now re­claim­ing both.

For three decades, Had­had’s com­pany in Syria shipped hand­made cho­co­late all over the world, but af­ter civil war erupted in 2011, in the wake of broader so­cial un­rest, he lost ev­ery­thing. Had­had fled to Canada in Jan­uary 2016, and within seven months he had re­turned to his craft, open­ing a shop in Antigo­nish, N.S., which he’s chris­tened Peace by Cho­co­late. In this town of 4,000 res­i­dents, he sells hand­made treats from a back­yard shed; re­mark­ably, his startup ven­ture has quickly be­come a cher­ished con­fec­tionary busi­ness in Canada.

“We’re not only work­ing in the cho­co­late field—we’re work­ing on peace-build­ing pro­jects,” says Tareq Had­had, As­sam’s 25-year-old son, who acts as a spokesper­son for the busi­ness. “[My fa­ther] re­ally be­lieves that who­ever eats cho­co­late will be happy in life.”

AC­CORD­ING TO TAREQ, his dad first fell into cho­co­late mak­ing by chance. Fuelled by a sweet tooth, the self-taught chef be­gan bor­row­ing cho­co­late cook­books from a Da­m­as­cus li­brary in the 1980s and “play­ing with cho­co­late when­ever he could,” says Tareq. Soon, the hobby mor­phed into a se­ri­ous ven­ture.

“He started to cre­ate his own recipes,” adds Tareq. “He learned how to roast co­coa beans, how to make spe­cial flavours and mix them with cho­co­late. He was cre­at­ing so many dif­fer­ent kinds.”

The first choco­lates he made, for ex­am­ple, broke from Syr­ian tra­di­tion by not con­tain­ing nuts—in­stead, they were made with the syrup of the Da­m­as­cus flower. As­sam started his own small fac­tory in the early 1990s. By the 2000s, the com­pany had ex­panded, em­ploy­ing 30 peo­ple and ex­port­ing prod­ucts across the Mid­dle East and Europe. “We were con­sid­ered the sec­ond [largest] cho­co­late com­pany in the Mid­dle East,” Tareq ex­plains. “The fac­tory was pro­duc­ing tons of sweets a day.”

Ev­ery­thing changed in an in­stant. In the win­ter of 2013, the fac­tory was de­stroyed by a mis­sile, just min­utes af­ter clos­ing for the day.

“We lost ev­ery­thing,” says Tareq. “We also lost our home—the en­tire

“EV­ERY­BODY MADE SURE WE WERE WARM, SAFE AND HAPPY,” TAREQ HAD­HAD SAYS OF HIS FAM­ILY’S AR­RIVAL IN CANADA.

build­ing … was bombed and burned.” Up­rooted by the war, the fam­ily of nine fled Syria and joined mil­lions of other dis­placed cit­i­zens in Le­banese refugee camps in March of that year. It was a har­row­ing de­ci­sion: most mem­bers of the Had­had fam­ily had never trav­elled, or even boarded a plane, let alone sought asy­lum in a for­eign coun­try.

“It was a very harsh time for us,” Tareq says. “We thought that if we moved to Le­banon for one or two years, maybe the war would end and we could come back to our home coun­try.”

As time passed, the Had­hads even­tu­ally re­al­ized that go­ing home might not be an op­tion. Luck­ily, in March 2015, Canada granted the fam­ily refugee sta­tus. “I was wel­comed as [if] Canada was my home­land,” says Tareq. “Ev­ery­body was try­ing to make sure we were warm, safe and happy and that we had ev­ery­thing we needed to start our life here. Now we have an iden­tity in a coun­try that re­spects hu­man rights and free­dom.”

Set­tling in Antigo­nish in Jan­uary 2016, As­sam quickly picked up where he left off, mak­ing moulded choco­lates in his kitchen. Within a few months, the en­tire fam­ily was sell­ing small batches of cho­co­late at the lo­cal farm­ers’ market. By Au­gust, they had cob­bled to­gether a tiny shed be­side their house that func­tioned as a makeshift fac­tory.

“The peo­ple from Antigo­nish helped us build that fac­tory,” says Tareq. “Plum­bers, elec­tri­cians and car­pen­ters—ev­ery­one who could

lend a hand. The peo­ple of Antigo­nish gave us a loan to start the busi­ness and to get the sup­plies. It’s a beau­ti­ful ex­am­ple of how wel­com­ing peo­ple are here and all over the coun­try.”

AL­THOUGH LO­CALS LOVED their sweets, the busi­ness’s big break came in Septem­ber 2016, when Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau shared Peace by Cho­co­late’s story at the United Na­tions in New York City. The shop was flooded with or­ders from across the coun­try, rang­ing from in­di­vid­ual re­quests to sup­ply­ing prod­uct to large-scale con­fer­ences. Tour buses be­gan ar­riv­ing out­side the lit­tle shed, un­load­ing cho­co­late-lov­ing vis­i­tors from Canada, the United States and even as far away as Japan. Just be­fore Christ­mas, Tareq launched an on­line store, only to be so over­whelmed by re­quests that he had to put it on hold.

The on­line store is run­ning again, sell­ing as­sorted boxes of choco­lates moulded into Mid­dle East­ern sym­bols such as the Egyp­tian pyra­mids and pat­terns re­sem­bling Syr­ian ar­chi­tec­ture. Each piece is hand­made with fair-trade dark, white or milk cho­co­late, as well as lo­cal or­ganic honey, pure juices, nuts, fruits and spices.

With such an over­whelm­ing re­sponse, Peace by Cho­co­late plans to ex­pand, hir­ing five more staff to work along­side their cur­rent team of 10. They also moved to a larger space this spring. The Had­hads ex­pe­ri­enced an­other high­light last Novem­ber, when they were in­vited to meet the prime min­is­ter face to face on Cape Bre­ton Is­land. Nat­u­rally, As­sam pre­sented an ed­i­ble gift that blended Syr­ian and Cana­dian tra­di­tions.

“We gave him some­thing that rep­re­sents our Syr­ian cul­ture and that we are in­te­grated in this coun­try,” says Tareq. “We mixed spe­cial gift boxes with maple leaf–shaped cho­co­late and Syr­ian shapes like the rose, the sym­bol of Da­m­as­cus. It’s to tell the story that we are proud to be Canadians, as we are proud to be Syr­i­ans.”

As­sam Had­had holds a tray of choco­lates out­side his shop in Antigo­nish, N.S.

Cus­tomers line up at Peace by Cho­co­late.

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