A SWEET CANADIAN STORY
A Syrian family is welcomed in Antigonish, N.S. They respond with chocolate,
Before the missiles came and destroyed his family’s chocolate factory in Damascus in early 2013, pretty much the only thing Tareq Hadhad knew about Canada was the little he’d picked up from MTV.
He’d heard of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. He’d heard that Canada was “a nation of diversity.” What the rest of his family — father Isam, mother Shahenaz and four siblings — knew about their future home was the usual. It “was the coldest country in the world.” Back then, had you mentioned “Antigonish” to Hadhad, he might have responded with the Arabic equivalent of Bless you!
“I hadn’t heard about Halifax, or Nova Scotia before,” he laughed this week. “So Antigonish was a surprising destination for me. Antigonish is not famous across the world.”
But what a few years it’s been. And what wonderful ambassadors for Antigonish the Hadhad family has become.
On Sept. 9, less than two years after landing in Canada — a safe haven after three years in a refugee camp in Lebanon — the Syrian family celebrated the opening of a new chocolate factory in the little Nova Scotia university town that took them in.
The accomplishments of the Hadhads, their gratitude to the locals who helped them and their almost immediate giving back to Canada have already been the subject of a TED talk by Tareq, a documentary about their experience, a speech by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the United Nations, and earned Tareq an appointment to Invest Nova Scotia, the province’s economic development agency.
Their extraordinary story began more than 30 years ago, when Isam Hadhad was teaching himself to cook.
“He came back to the house one night and told my grandmother that he wanted to learn to cook with chocolate,” Tareq explained.
In the family telling, Isam Hadhad’s inspiration came after attending a wedding.
“After the celebration, he was just like really fascinated that everybody was happy when they were eating chocolate. He looked at the pictures after the wedding and the most happy pictures were the ones with chocolate.” His experiments began in the family kitchen. Before long, he was a chocolatier of renown, eventually owning the second-largest chocolate company in the Middle East, shipping his products to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and some countries in Europe. Then came the war. A missile took out the factory. The family lost its home. Tareq and his brother were almost killed in a bombing. They decided it was time to leave Syria.
They reckoned on travelling to Lebanon, waiting for things to calm down. They expected the war to end and to return home in a month. The universe had other plans. For three years, the family — but for one sister who was trapped in Syria when the borders closed, and remains there — was mired in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
“It was really a terrible time,” Tareq, now 26, told the Star. Their challenge became mere survival and keeping the family intact.
What the Hadhads had no way of knowing was that in Nova Scotia, the warmest possible welcome was already being arranged in a new home they had no idea was waiting.
Lucille Harper works for the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre. By 2015, she told the Star, local residents decided they wanted to help displaced Syrian families.
“There was a group of us got together and said, OK, surely we can sponsor a family.”
They formed a group called Syria Antigonish Families Embrace, or SAFE, and applied to bring a family.
Sean Fraser, Liberal MP for Central Nova, said the commitment during the 2015 election campaign by Justin Trudeau to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees initially concerned many of his constituents.
“I spoke with hundreds, maybe even thousands of constituents who had mixed feelings,” he told the Star. “Any trepidation was really based out of fear; fear for security, fear for the economy, whether people would take their jobs, or fear that the community wouldn’t quite be the same.”
Fraser said he told them the refugees “are going to change our community, but for the better.”
At any rate, SAFE got word in 2016 that a Syrian family was coming.
“We didn’t know who was coming,” Harper said. “We just knew that a family was coming.”
Tareq Hadhad — who speaks English and represents the family — arrived first in Antigonish. (He found himself playing in a Boxing Day ball hockey game that’s apparently a local tradition.) Two weeks later, in early 2016, his family followed.
“When Tareq arrived we were delighted,” Harper said. “As the rest of the family came, we learned a little bit more about what they had been doing.
“We found that in Syria they had a chocolate factory. And we thought, ‘Well, that sounds good for Antigonish!’ ”
The welcome the Hadhads received was both extraordinary and entirely typical of the greetings that the Syrians arriving in Canada received all across the country.
The locals found housing. Antigonish is fortunate that as a university town with a hospital, there were resources not always available in smaller rural towns.
Retired teachers stepped up to help the newcomers learn English and settle in school. Health-care workers helped the refugees get health cards, find doctors and dentists and to line up initial checkups.
The women’s centre had a settlement worker who helped with paperwork. Some rounded up winter clothes. Others made the trip to Halifax to get Syrian foods.
“The community really wrapped themselves
“Antigonish was a surprising destination for me. Antigonish is not famous across the world.”
TAREQ HADHAD SYRIAN REFUGEE
around the Hadhads,” Harper said. Then there was serendipity. Frank Gallant and his family made a rental house available to the Hadhads at reasonable cost. And as it happened, a Gallant daughter was raising money for university by selling chocolates at local farmers’ markets.
“Frank knew where to find chocolate and knew where to find equipment for chocolate,” Harper said.
And, for the second time, Isam Hadhad went to work building a chocolate factory .
He started, as he did in Damascus, in his kitchen. Before long, local carpenters, plumbers and electricians pitched in to build him a small “factory.”
He started by selling at markets. When the prime minister told their story at the UN, the business boomed. And last week, the Hadhads opened their new factory in a plant leased by the Sobeys supermarket chain, which is carrying their products.
Their company is called Peace by Chocolate.
From their arrival, the Hadhads have been eager to give back, Harper said.
When Fort McMurray, Alta., was evacuated last year because of wildfire, they donated money to victims there because “they knew what loss meant.”
“They want to be employers here. They want to help their community. In every box of chocolate there’s a little card talking about Antigonish, welcoming people to come visit.”
Tareq “has been such a great ambassador for the family, and the community and the whole Syrian cause in many ways,” she said.
“They have just integrated well, but also taken up Antigonish as a community of their heart that they want to promote.”
Mayor Laurie Boucher told the Star the experience “really gave the community a sense of what they can do.” It also inspired creation of the sort of ongoing supports for future newcomers, immigrants on whom Canada will rely for future population growth.
“We need as many as we can, for sure,” she said. “Getting them here is one thing, but then keeping them, especially in a small rural town like Antigonish, to be able to deliver the services that they need is another.”
In all, it may be that Antigonish hasn’t been mentioned so often in media across Canada since former prime minister Brian Mulroney regularly sang its praises as the launching pad for his career. (He’ll be in town Sept. 20 for the sodturning of the Mulroney Institute of Government building, named in his honour.)
And it may also be that Atlantic Canada hasn’t been as synonymous with chocolate since the Ganongs set up in St. Stephen, N.B.
Harper said there are now several Syrian families in Antigonish, with the fourth family sponsored by SAFE scheduled to arrive Sept. 21.
She delights in telling of other success stories among the newcomers.
Majd al Zhouri was 19 when his family arrived. Because of the war, he had to leave school at 15, then work in Lebanon to help support his family.
“So he came here with a Grade 9 education and in a year and a half learned English, completed high school and got accepted in an engineering program at Saint F.X. (St. Francis Xavier University).”
And al Zhouri’s accomplishment doesn’t stop there. As part of learning English, he began to write his story. A friend helped him turn it into a one-act play, titled To Eat an Almond, a story about fleeing the war. When al Zhouri, now 21, first performed it, “everyone was in tears at the end,” Harper said.
The learning continues, and it works both ways. “Now, the community in Antigonish gets invited to celebrate Eid with the families,” Harper said. “So we’re learning more about the whole Islamic faith, and the celebrations and what they mean and the sharing of food. And the families, they’re just incredibly generous.”
As for Tareq Hadhad, who laughs easily and often, he knows a lot more about Canada now than he did just a few years ago.
“There is so much about this country more than just the weather.”