How a tiny town in Nova Scotia became a haven for Syrian refugees

The Hadhad family outside of their new factory

Since 2015, the tiny town of Antigonish Nova Scotia (home to Outside the Lines Press) has welcomed eight Syrian refugee families to our community thanks to the Canadian government’s private refugee sponsorship scheme. Attending fundraiser events for refugees is part of life for many Antigonishers, which is how a town of just 4,000 people managed to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to help resettle their new Syrian neighbors.

Perhaps the most famous of Antigonish’s Syrian families are the Hadhads, described by the CBC as “arguably the best-known former refugees to land in Canada.” The confectionary company they began, Peace by Chocolate, brought major media attention to Antigonish and is now a tourist destination.

The shed where it all started

Tareq Hadhad and his father Assam started Peace by Chocolate out of a tiny shed (built by local volunteers) in their garden in 2016, selling a few dozen chocolates at the local farmer’s market. Two years later, they opened a huge chocolate factory in town, and now sell chocolates around the world. What’s more, they employ 20 people and are looking to hire more.

Tareq has become an international celebrity – name-checked by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the United Nations.  He’s a sought after speaker and presenter (check out this TEDx talk and this one), and has given over 400 media interviews.

The Hadhad’s success is a beautiful thing. But nobody in Antigonish expected the Hadhads – or any of the other Syrian families – to boost the community’s international profile. Or even necessarily contribute significantly to the local economy. But, as is the case for most refugees, that is exactly what families like the Hadhads desire.

“When we came here as newcomers to this country, we really wanted to support this country to grow and prosper,” Tareq told Global News.

And that they have. As have the other refugee families in town. The local newspaper in Antigonish recently listed all the ways in which Syrian refugees are contributing to the economy by “repairing cell phones and electronics, maintaining apartments and school buildings, constructing and renovating buildings at St.F.X., pruning trees and vineyards, landscaping, welding and machining, auto detailing, at fast-food and locally owned restaurants, at the library, sewing and upholstering, catering and selling at the Antigonish Farmers’ Market.”

Not to mention their cultural impact. Majd Al Zhouri, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Antigonish in 2016, performed an award-winning one-man-show about his harrowing escape from Syria during the war. His mother, Rabiaa Al Soufi,  runs a sewing and alterations business and makes and sells amazing desserts at the Antigonish Farmer’s Market.

Antigonish is lucky to have families like the Hadhads and the Al Zhouris; families that so visibly contribute to the culture and economy of Nova Scotia. But also lucky to have the other Syrian families who, while perhaps less famous, are clearly a vital part of the Antigonish community.

Tareq Hadhad

The thing is, refugees do not typically create world-famous businesses that bring notoriety to their new community. With all the media focus on the economic benefits of accepting refugees (often used to counter anti-immigration arguments), we often lose sight of why Canadians are so keen to help refugees in the first place. The people in Antigonish who work so hard to bring refugees to  the town do not do it because they are concerned with strengthening the local economy (although this is almost always the case). They do it because people need help, and they have the capacity to help them.

“The Canadians who sponsored us, they didn’t know (what) we looked like. They didn’t ask about our religion – about our background,” Tareq told the BBC recently. “The only thing they cared about is that we are human beings who are seeking safety and peace.”

Everything that followed after was a happy bonus.

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You can help! Antigonish just began a new campaign to raise $60,000 to sponsor two new Syrian refugee families. If you’d like to help, please consider donating to  SAFE (Syria-Antigonish Families Embrace) at the below link:

https://www.canadahelps.org/en/charities/syria-antigonish-families-embrace-safe-society/

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Half of all the 54,000 Syrian refugees resettled in Canada are here thanks to private sponsorship schemes like this. Any money donated at the above link will help with the following:

  • providing the cost of food, rent and household utilities and other day-to-day living expenses;
  • providing clothing, furniture and other household goods;

Volunteers with our local sponsorship organization(s) also help with the following:

  • locating interpreters;
  • selecting a family physician and dentist;
  • assisting with applying for provincial health-care coverage;
  • enrolling children in school and adults in language training;
  • introducing newcomers to people with similar personal interests;
  • providing orientation with regard to banking services, transportation, etc.; and
  • helping in the search for employment.