A Syrian refugee’s ‘Peace by Chocolate’
This is a story about the successful rebirth of a Syrian refugee family in a new land. But it’s really a story of two kitchens — one in Damascus, Syria and the other in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada.
In 1986, Isam Hadhad started a chocolate-making business from his grandmother’s kitchen in Damascus. He was very good at making the sweet confections and over the years his business grew to employ 30 people working from his own factory. His chocolates were sold across the Middle East. Then the Syrian civil war started. The Hadhad factory was bombed and Isam, his wife and their four children were forced to flee with nothing.
The next three years were spent in a Lebanese refugee camp just trying to survive. Then in early 2016 the Hadhads learned that they would be among the 40,000 Syrian refugees taken in by Canada. So they took their first-ever plane flight and ultimately ended up in Antigonish. It’s a small town of about 5,000 in the north-eastern part of the province, best known in Canada for being the site of St. Francis Xavier University.
A few weeks after arriving, Isam went into the small kitchen of their new residence and made some chocolates. He wanted to donate something to a community potluck, a gathering where every family brings a dish to be shared. The Antigonish community loved the chocolates so Isam decided to make some more. But his wife chased him out of her new kitchen. Fifty volunteers from the local community helped him build a small shed to make and sell his chocolates.
He called his new chocolate-making venture “Peace by Chocolate.” Soon word spread and people from around the province and the region would visit the shed to buy chocolates. Then in September 2016 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the family’s story during a speech at the United Nations. Suddenly they were the best known Syrian refugee family in Canada. They began to receive tweets and emails from around the country inquiring how their chocolates could be purchased. They put up a website last Christmas to take advantage of the new demand but were forced to take it down within a few hours after thousands and thousands of boxes of chocolates were ordered. So the Syrian refugee family hired several Canadians to help them and they relaunched the site within a month.
Fast forward to this past week when the Hadhad’s opened a new factory in Antigonish. It will employ 20 people to start. “Peace by Chocolate” is hiring other Syrian refugees throughout the country to be their distributors. The family has repeatedly told the media how they have been overwhelmed by the reception and support from the local community. They would not build their new factory anywhere but Antigonish. Then Tareq Hadhad, the oldest son, who had dreams of being a doctor in Syria but instead has become a successful chocolatier, was appointed earlier this month to the board of Invest Nova Scotia, an independent group that grants incentives to businesses throughout the province.
Not every Syrian refugee family in Canada has been as successful as the Hadhads but, as Tareq has pointed out in repeated interviews, his family’s story is just an example of what can happen when Syrian refugees are given a chance to be successful. He says there are many other Syrian refugee success stories; they just need to be told.
The Hadhads are a great example of how the Canadian government’s decision to give so many displaced Syrians refuge is paying dividends. It makes one wonder how the story could have been repeated in the United States if that country’s leadership had not been so Islamophobic.