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Syrian refugee and Peace by Chocolate founder shares story of coming to Canada

By Saima Asad, June 16 2017 —

Tareq Hadhad is a Syrian refugee who moved to Antigonish, Nova Scotia in December 2015. Since arriving, he has found success in Canada with the start of his business, Peace by Chocolate. He also became a TedX speaker, received the 2016 Nova Scotia Good News Award and recently gave the keynote presentation at Amnesty International Canada’s human rights conference at the University of Calgary. He spoke to the Gauntlet about leaving Syria and building a life in Canada.

The Gauntlet: When did you and your family realize it was time to leave Syria?

Tareq Hadhad: That was a hard decision. We thought a lot before we decided to leave because it’s the biggest decision that any Syrian or anyone can ever make. Immigration or leaving your homeland is the biggest transition of your life.

It all started in Syria in 2011 when protesters were asking for reform from [president Bashar al-Assad’s] regime and they didn’t respond. The violence started in Syria in 2012. We realized that the victims are just the civilians, the Syrians who just want to live their lives peacefully. They want their children to go to school, they want a better future for their families and generations to come.

My family was living in one building with my grandmother, uncles and aunts. That was in one of the suburbs in Damascus. The explosions started in June 2012. We stayed in the basement for six nights and had to leave the building because at any point in time, it could collapse on our heads. We moved to a safer place in Damascus, and then the worst news really started to come.

We heard that my father’s chocolate factory that he had been building since 1986 which was considered the second largest chocolate company and chocolate factory in the Middle East was bombed. Then we heard that our original home in Damascus was stolen from, then it was burned, then it was bombed.

Everything was fine and we decided to stay in Syria because that is our country until the moment that I was almost finished with my medical degree. I came back home and joined my brother. He was washing the car and a rocket hit near us. We said, ‘It’s really dangerous to stay in Syria.’ I told the family ‘It’s not time for me to do medicine, it’s not time for the family to do business, it’s time to survive. We cannot lose anyone in the family because of the crazy war.’

We went to Lebanon and that was just the start of the new life.

G: Why did you go back to Syria to finish your medical degree?

Hadhad: I believe my studies are worth dying for. Medicine was my passion since I was born. All Syrian mothers want their children to be physicians or doctors. The family planted in me a love of medicine. As my father loved chocolate, I had my passion in medicine. I felt that the war should not stop me from continuing my degree. So I was going back and forth until the moment the borders were blocked. I couldn’t go back to Syria anymore to do anything, so I decided I should do something to help the refugees in Lebanon.

G: How did you help the refugees in Lebanon?

Hadhad: I tried to go back to medicine in Lebanese universities but I couldn’t get a chance, so I went to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the World Health Organization. I said to them that I don’t accept myself to sit down in the country when I can help thousands of Syrians.

The health care system in Lebanon is very difficult. It’s hard for refugees to get into any hospital before paying tons of money. They cannot even go to primary, secondary or tertiary healthcare centres without having money. The refugees cannot even afford to buy their food. They don’t have any income, so how come they’re asking them to pay to get treated? The diseases started to spread out among the Syrians in Lebanon. I said to myself, ‘I have a huge responsibility to share my experiences and my skills.’

I joined a local organization in Lebanon. The team I was working with were so hardworking. They worked 20 hours a day sometimes. We were really honoured to build so many hospitals on the border between Lebanon and Syria to help Syrians fleeing the country and entering Lebanon to get treated as soon as they arrive.

I consider it such an honour for me to be able to do that. Really, it was huge experience that I gained. It’s always a huge relief even to help and support if you can. We did so many campaigns because I believe the most important thing is to prevent diseases, not treat them. We started preventing disease from spreading, we started to do more awareness sessions for the Syrians in the camps and told them how they can protect their health so they don’t get sick.

Unfortunately, I’ve heard hundreds, maybe thousands of refugees died on the doors of the hospitals because they asked them to pay US$1,000 to get in. They are patients, they have severe cases and they asked them to pay. They can die on the doors. We tried to fix that.

G: Are you still practising health care here in Canada?

Hadhad: Going back to medicine in Canada is pretty much impossible for my case. They said I have to do my undergraduate degree again, and do my med school again, then go back to the residency and practice medicine. I’m actually following that. I’m now in St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish and I finished my third year in biological sciences. Now my graduation is hopefully next year and I will get my undergraduate and get back to my passion in medicine.

G: When did you arrive in Canada?

Hadhad: I arrived on the second flight that brought Syrians to Canada in the campaign that brought 25,000 Syrians to this country. The fascinating thing is that I didn’t know where I was going. I just knew that I’d arrive in Toronto airport, nothing else. So when I arrived in Toronto before my family, they said to me ‘You didn’t arrive to your final destination. You should travel to Halifax.’ I said ‘What’s Halifax? I want to stay in Canada.’ They told me Halifax is in Canada, on the East side. I arrived in Halifax and even in Halifax, they said, ‘You didn’t arrive yet. You have to travel three hours by car to a town called Antigonish.’ I came from Damascus, and now we are living in Antigonish, the town of 10,000. That was a transition in the beginning.

When I arrived in Halifax, I met the people who formed the sponsorship that brought me and my family to this country. Those moments are unforgettable. I saw people there, they were carrying signs with my name and flowers and they were saying ‘Welcome to Canada, Tareq.’ They drove after midnight to pick me up from the airport. That was so unbelievable. When I arrived, I didn’t know any one of them. They didn’t ask about my background, my religion, my ethnicity, my colour, even my passion and my goals they didn’t know anything about me. But when I met them, it was a very cheerful reception.

I realize those people gave me faith in humanity again. Those people are my new family. I drove with them to Antigonish. My family [in Syria] followed me after two weeks, started learning about the place we moved to, learning about the Canadians and the Canadian culture. The family got introduced to the weather, first of all.

The transition was easier than we expected. The people in Antigonish were all with us. It’s important to feel safe wherever you are. My family felt safe when they arrived in Antigonish. The first week in Antigonish erased three years of suffering in the Middle East.

My family started their new life here as new Canadians. They didn’t feel like refugees. The Canadians didn’t call us refugees at the airport they called us new Canadians. That was very encouraging to the Syrians that arrived here, to feel themselves they are part of this country. That gave everybody a huge push of motivation to do more. The family started thinking about how to give back to this country.

G: Why did you decide to do start a chocolate factory in Canada?

Hadhad: My father thinks that work is life. And he didn’t come here to take anybody’s job. He knows exactly how to make chocolate and he told my mother that we’ll start making chocolate in the home kitchen. He had such incredible feedback from the Antigonish community about his first pieces. He started going to the Farmer’s Market and at 7:30 a.m. people were in line at his table to get chocolate. That was very encouraging to him. He continued making chocolate in the home kitchen until my mother told him, ‘This is not a factory. Move to the basement.’ Then we realized we had to make a small factory. Around 5060 people came from Antigonish to help. The carpenters, the plumbers. Everyone who had a hammer and a nail came to build a new factory.

I believe from the experiences that I gained outside of the medical field that entrepreneurship is about being remarkable, being unique and also sharing some emotion with everything you do. People don’t buy what you do, people buy why you do it. My father knows how to make chocolate. We should also share something else in addition to the beautiful taste.

Chocolate is the product of happiness. But also we suffered violence and we are here to spread the message of peace. Peace is the most noble value on earth that everybody should fight for. We call it Peace by Chocolate not to be a business, but to be a message from the newcomers to the new homeland and to be a positive message to the world about how the Syrians are sharing their skills and are giving back whatever they can. They are not taking anybody’s job. In Antigonish, we are offering jobs.

G: Is there anything else you want to say to our readers?

Hadhad: This country can continue do more to help the Syrians that are arriving. Anyone who saves one person should be regarded as though they saved all of mankind. Anyone thinking of helping the Syrians should keep this in mind.

For information about Tareq’s story and his business, visit peacebychocolate.ca

Edited for brevity and clarity.

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