By Tareq Hadhad and John Tattrie, as told to Lauren La Rose
Tareq Hadhad ended the year much like he started it: marking two major milestones of his remarkable new life in Canada.
The week before Christmas 2020 marked five years since Tareq landed in Canada as a Syrian refugee, resettling in the small town of Antigonish in northeastern Nova Scotia. Eleven months earlier, the Peace by Chocolate founder became a Canadian citizen.
In between those two memorable moments, Tareq was able to celebrate another incredible achievement: seeing his family’s extraordinary journey-from Syria as refugees to entrepreneurial success in Canada-documented in the bestselling book “Peace by Chocolate” (Goose Lane Editions.)
“When we came to Canada a few years ago, we had a dream and mission: A dream to rebuild our lives and a mission to share our story of hope and resilience,” said Tareq, whose business was born in his home kitchen in Antigonish, launching in 2016. The Hadhad family had previously run a chocolate business for more than 30 years in the Middle East.
Jon Tattrie, a CBC journalist and author based in Halifax, had been following the Hadhad family’s story from the beginning. His CBC Nova Scotia colleague, Carolyn Ray, had documented the family’s first year in Canada.
“I knew that beneath the surface of what we can tell you on the news, they had an extraordinary family story of how they got to Canada, and I knew the community of Antigonish could show the world how and why we all should embrace newcomers,” said Jon.
Over the course of countless hours of interviews with the entire family, community members, and “everyone that has been a close part of the journey,” the book took shape. Tareq and Jon share their thoughts on the experience, reflect on the generosity of the host community, and more.
Tareq, what was the process like in working with Jon to document your story?
It opened our memories to the past 40 years with all the ups and downs, all the challenges, and all the milestones that our family had lived back home in Syria. Jon was very thorough in his questions about every single detail in regards to the family and the circumstances as well as the environment surrounding all the events. From starting a chocolate company in Syria, until the war started and the reasons for leaving, to Lebanon and on to Canada.
What was it like for you to revisit some of the more difficult or challenging parts of your family’s story including being forced to flee Syria to seek safety in Lebanon?
It was a great reminder that the war in Syria has shaped us to understand suffering and struggles way better as we have lived it.
We also remembered that we might have reached safety, but millions around the world are still looking for place to call home.
It was very rewarding to compare between what we had to live through and where we were at the time of the interviews. Time is the biggest healer and with full gratitude and acceptance, we remembered every story, every laugh and every tear.
The success of Peace by Chocolate has been fairly well-documented in the news. Jon, what part of the Hadhad family story did you feel was important to document and share with readers?
The women’s stories. Tareq and his father, Isam, have become the face of Peace by Chocolate, but Shahnaz, Alaa, Batoul are its beating heart. Shahnaz, the mother, really stepped up and took over the family dream after the disasters in Damascus. She most clearly had the vision to settle in Canada and to start a new chocolate company. Alaa, the eldest sister in Canada, had a hard and heroic journey guiding her two very small children out of Syria, through Lebanon, and to safety in Nova Scotia. She’s so inspiring. Batoul lost her homeland in her teenage years, erasing her entire social world. She became the first Hadhad to graduate high school in Canada and is now a married young woman with a bright future.
Tareq, it was incredibly moving to hear about the role that Canadians played in helping to not only sponsor your family but to support the launch of your business. Can you describe what it means for you to be a part of Antigonish community and sharing that aspect of your story with readers?
Antigonish is a small, beautiful community that stepped up to sponsor our family, and many more families without even knowing us. They have done everything possible to make us feel the warmth of the hearts in a very cold country and made the transition from the big city of Damascus to their lovely town very seamless and enjoyable. All community leaders who stepped up to sponsor our family have formed committees to help in integration, education, housing, transportations and much more. They have taught us lessons that you can be a “human being” and at the same time great at “being human!” For our family, that all meant that we have arrived home and that the path was clear to start rebuilding what was lost. In the book, Jon captured all the heartwarming moments in Canada, and the heart-wrenching moments before I landed here. Since I first set foot on Canadian soil, I was treated like a citizen. I was welcomed into my new home with more care and warmth than I could ever imagine. I felt like I belonged.
Jon, is there a particular passage in the book or an experience that Tareq shared with you that have documented as part of the Hadhad family story that struck a personal chord with you? If so, what was it and why?
I love the story of Tareq’s first Christmas in Canada. He arrived days before Christmas 2015 and Syrian-Antigonish Families Embrace (SAFE), the group that brought the family here, invited Tareq to share a local family’s Christmas. He livestreamed some of it to his mom to show her he was safe and with people who cared for him – a stranger.
I interviewed Robert and Moira Sers, the host family, and learned all about it. It was such a familiar Christmas, so similar to my own family Christmases, but seen through the eyes of Tareq, it was a unique delight. It was an extraordinary ordinary Christmas.
Jon, Canada has led the world in resettlement for the last two years, and the generosity of Nova Scotians who sponsored the family really shines through. Tell us about that aspect of this story.
I joined the SAFE team for an airport welcome for a new Syrian family during the writing of this book and I asked Lucille Harper, the founder of SAFE, how it felt to have brought more people to safety. “It felt human,” she said. She almost shrugged. It seemed like no one in Antigonish saw anything remarkable in what they were doing. People needed help, so they helped. They spoke about it as if the Hadhad family car had got stuck in snow and they just helped push it to dry pavement. Who wouldn’t do that?
The other big lesson I learned was if you want to feel good, do good. So many Antigonish volunteers started out with the idea that they would do something to make the newcomers feel better – and they ended up having one of the greatest experiences of their own lives.
It’s true for me, too. I started the book thinking it would perhaps a way I could help the Hadhads, and it wound up deepening my own life.
Tareq, you and your family have overcome so many obstacles in your journey to safety and success in Canada but remained so determined throughout your journey. What is that compels and motivates you to be so positive in the face of hardship?
Every one of the Hadhads believes that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We are part of a very resilient family that had overcome so much in the past 10 years and we have realized that happiness, success, and the feeling of fulfillment are always on the other side of our fears. No matter what we do, there will be challenges in each life journey, but everyone will have two options whether to sit down and complain, or to dig down and find solutions. Life is a balance between comfort, inspiration, persistence, honesty and empathy, and light will shine at the end.
What are you hoping that readers will take away after reading the story of the Hadhads and Peace by Chocolate?
Jon: The feeling. This is not a book I want you to read to learn more information – it’s a book I want you read to feel it. I put you in each adult family member’s shoes. You will feel the horror of losing your home, your business, your friends and family, and being forced to run. You will feel the dark depression of the stuck life of a refugee. And you will feel the joy – and peace – of finding a new hope and a new life.
Also, you should feel the smooth chocolate melt in your mouth and slide happily into your belly.
Tareq: No one was born to immigrate and being a refugee is not a life goal, it is not a decision and it is not a choice. Peace is the noblest value on earth that everyone should fight for because without peace, no one can go to work, no one can go to school, no one can build businesses, and no one can have anything! I also hope that our story inspires and uplifts at the darkest of times. What you live one day won’t define what the future might hold for you. With determination, resilience, peace, fairness and kindness and freedom to be the best you can be, you can rebuild and determine the ending of your story, and always remember, When life throws bricks at you, use them to build a firm foundation so those bricks can’t hurt you in the future.
Note: These interviews have been edited and condensed.