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
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.