By Fiona Irvine-Goulet
Imagine you’ve just arrived in a foreign country with almost nothing to your name. You know little about this cold land, but at least you speak the language, though it’s not your own. You’re educated and ambitious but have no family or friends to guide you. And you need a job—fast.
This was 29-year-old Bahjat Joubi’s dilemma after arriving as a Syrian refugee in Montreal one freezing February day in 2016. So he did what any millennial might do: he Googled “How do you find a job in Canada?” Surprisingly, said Joubi, “All the links I visited stated, ‘To find a good job, start by volunteering.’”
Joubi and fellow Syrian refugee/childhood friend/now-business partner Adel Sakkal, 29, began volunteering with TCRI (Table de concertation des organizations pour la service des personnes immigiés et immigrants), an umbrella community organization dedicated to supporting refugees and immigrants in Quebec. They translated documents from Arabic into French and English for asylum seekers hoping to come to Canada, and Joubi accompanied a TCRI representative making presentations to Montrealers on how they could sponsor Syrian refugees.
“He accepted me as a person, as a human,” Joubi said. “That gave me the motivation to be a volunteer.
“We went to schools and universities and I was able to tell Canadians, ‘Please do not judge me just because I’m a refugee. I speak English. I speak French. I go to church. I live my life. I’m just like you. I deserve an opportunity just like anyone else; I’m not asking for more than anyone else.’”
SmYd is not just a business
Joubi, who holds a Master of Science degree in management from Leeds University in the UK and co-owned a small hotel with his father in his hometown of Aleppo, Syria, now works in retail as a customer service supervisor for a large chain store.
Sakkal, who arrived in Canada in December of 2015, has a bachelor’s degree in food science from the University of Aleppo, and co-owned a café in Aleppo. He now works for a major coffee chain in Montreal.
While both enjoy their jobs, their passion lies in their dream of creating a successful business, inspired by both their Syrian roots and the warm welcome they have received in Canada.
They’ve created SmYd (pronounced Smed, with the capital “S” and “Y” representing Syria), a crunchy-on-the-outside, cakey-on-the-inside twisty dessert coated in a sweet glaze. Meant to be eaten warm, the flash-fried confection is based on mshabak, a traditional Syrian treat.
“It fits the weather. It fits the culture. It fits the country,” said Joubi. More importantly, SmYd is not meant to be simply a dessert fad (remember cronuts?), ready to be pushed off sugar mountain by the next trendy treat.
“SmYd is not just a business. We have a message,” Joubi explained. “SmYd is going to be presented as a story of peace, of love, of hope and big dreams.”
Both Joubi and Sakkal feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to come to Canada and wanted to combine two cultures by giving back in one delicious way. “When we got here we really felt like we were home and that gave us the motivation to do something. There was no judgment about us, about where we came from,” Joubi added.
Joubi and Sakkal have spent almost a year testing recipes for SmYd—helped by Sakkal’s training in food engineering, and many happy (and full) volunteers. The Refugee Centre in Montreal has provided funding for ingredients, testing, and marketing support.
The city they came from, and where both attended the same primary school, is now unrecognizable. “When I left Aleppo in 2014, it was like hell,” Sakkal said. Every day when I left my home and said goodbye to my mother and sisters, I would wonder if I was going to come back.” Sakkal’s house was bombed twice, and he was forced to close his café because of the Syrian war, which is now entering its eighth year. Both Sakkal and Joubi spent years in neighbouring Lebanon, but it was difficult; jobs were scarce, pay was low, and opportunities were few for two young men with ambition and dreams.
“Here we have so much opportunity”
The entrepreneurs proudly served trays of SmYd when United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi visited the Refugee Centre late last year. Telling their story to Grandi and meeting Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen, as well as Montreal’s then-mayor Denis Coderre, gave Joubi and Sakkal even more motivation. When the business is up and running they are committed to donating a portion of sales to a Canadian charity.
The pair would like to have a food truck or open their own shop, adding specialty coffee and a sweet soup to the menu; in the future, they would love to build a franchise.
But they know this takes capital, business savvy, and long hours of hard work.
They remain undaunted: what’s most important to them is that they have been given a new life, where they can make their own future. “I’ll never forget the day when we landed at the airport and we had people waiting for us, complete strangers,” Joubi said. “And I heard people saying, ‘Welcome, bienvenue.’ Here we have so much opportunity. And we have peace and love of the majority of Canadians.”