Soufi’s Restaurant, the Syrian cafe in Toronto that closed due to harassment and then reopened is a messy tale. Find out the full story here.
It’s time for me to confess a guilty pleasure. Every time I’m at the supermarket, I pick up a box of a particular brand of chocolates. It’s the last thing in the world I should be eating, but I have an excuse. The chocolates I buy are called Peace By Chocolate. They’re made by the Hadhad family.
The Hadhads are Syrian refugees. They fled to Canada along with the wave of refugees our country welcomed in 2015/2016. Not only have they blended in with Canadian society, they now employ many of their neighbours at their chocolate factory in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. So, I indulge myself with their products as often as I can. It’s wrong, but I feel good about it anyway.
On Tuesday, they announced they were closing the restaurant due to harassment
I mention them because another Syrian refugee family has been in the news this past week. I’m sure you know the story I mean. It’s about the family that owns Soufi’s Restaurant in Toronto. On Tuesday, they announced they were closing due to harassment. As of today, their restaurant has reopened. I’m writing this post because I want to make sure that everyone knows the full story. It’s not as simple as you might think.
Soufi’s Restaurant belongs to the Al-Soufi family. Like the Hadhads, they also fled Syria, moving to Saudi Arabia, where they ran a resort for twenty years. When she was old enough, their daughter Jala moved to Canada to study architecture and psychology at the University of Toronto. After a couple of years here, she convinced her family to come and join her.
Jala’s father is a civil engineer, and her mother is qualified in Special Education. Sadly, like so many immigrants, they found that their credentials were not recognized in Canada. So, like the Hadhad family, they decided to go into business for themselves.
The staff wear shirts saying, “From Syria with Love”
They noticed that the quality of middle eastern food served in Toronto wasn’t authentic by their standards. That led them to start a trendy little restaurant on bohemian Queen Street West, selling Syrian street food. Their restaurant employs nine people, including local Syrian refugees. The staff wear shirts saying, “From Syria with Love.”
Like most family businesses, everyone at Soufi’s Restaurant pitches in. At the same time, they have each settled into roles based on their personal strengths. Husam, the patriarch, takes care of the books and the finances. The kitchen is the domain of his wife, Shihnaz. Their youngest son Ayham is the official taste tester. Jala used her architecture skills to create the interior design of the restaurant, and she applies her psychology to craft the marketing. Until recently, their son Alaa took charge of the front of the house as the head barista.
Our story takes a turn for the worse with Alaa. Alaa decided to take part in a demonstration in Hamilton against the People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier. Why in Hamilton? Well, as it happens, Hamilton has a problem.
For example, Statistics Canada just issued a report on hate crimes in Canada’s metropolitan areas. They set out the number of hate crimes reported to police in 2018 per 100,000 people. The national average for metropolitan areas was 5.9. Toronto had 6.4, Guelph had 7.8, Kitchener had 6.7, London had 6.4, St. Catharines had 1.7 and so did Windsor.
Hamilton had 17.1. That’s not a typo.
“We have longstanding issues with hatred in Hamilton”
As the figures show, Hamilton has challenges with hate crime. What’s more, they’re nothing new. Associate Professor Ameil Joseph of McMaster University told the Hamilton Spectator, “We have longstanding issues with hatred in Hamilton. We have a history of hate groups in Hamilton that goes back over 80 years.”
Since the beginning of the year, a group of people wearing yellow safety vests have amassed every Saturday in front of City Hall. They’re trying to give the impression that they’re connected with the Yellow Vest movement in France, but they’re not.
They carry signs denouncing immigrants and the LGBT community, as well as disparaging climate action. They’re connected with far-right movements across North America. Muslims know not to go anywhere near City Hall on Saturday.
Anti-fascist groups have been holding counter-demonstrations to challenge the yellow-vesters. The confrontations came to a head at the Pride Parade, when fights broke out in Gage Park between yellow-vesters and LGBT supporters. The police are investigating.
Alaa was becoming a budding human rights defender
While all this was brewing, back in Toronto, in his free time away from Soufi’s, Alaa was becoming a budding human rights defender. He took part in demonstrations promoting LGBT rights and opposing racism against immigrants. This led him to join in the September 29 demonstration against the PPC fundraiser featuring Maxime Bernier. It took place at Mohawk College in Hamilton. Like most of the other protestors, Alaa wore a mask.
During the protest, a group of masked demonstrators prevented 81-year-old Dorothy Marsden and her husband from accessing the Mohawk College building. She was using a walker. Like everything that happens these days, someone caught this on video.
It’s not clear what role, if any, Alaa played in this intervention. In a statement issued by Soufi’s Restaurant, his family declared, “He did not in any way verbally or physically assault the elderly woman and has nonetheless offered to apologize personally for not doing more.”
A couple of days later, someone in Ottawa with a Twitter account and too much time on his hands claimed he had identified Alaa as a Syrian “terrorist” and accused him of taking part in the obstruction of Dorothy Marsden. It goes without saying that self-appointed online vigilantes managed to spread this libel around the world instantly.
The Al-Soufi family received hundreds of credible death threats
The Al-Soufi family received hundreds of credible death threats. Internet trolls doxed Alaa. Then someone physically assaulted him. Police are investigating. The Al-Soufis decided that was enough. Last Tuesday, they announced that they were closing Soufi’s Restaurant.
This appalled Dorothy Marsden and her family. As her son put it, “Anybody that would ever threaten that poor gentleman is a disgrace to Canada. We should never penalize a hardworking immigrant family because he has a son … I’m not going to back everything my children have done.”
The announced closing led to a massive outpouring of public support for the Al-Soufi family. Mohammad Fakih, the CEO of Paramount Fine Foods and a survivor of hate speech himself, persuaded the Al-Soufis to reconsider. He offered to manage Soufi’s Restaurant at no charge temporarily. Mr. Fakih also committed to arrange whatever police presence or private security might be needed. The fellow immigrant entrepreneur hoped that this would give the family time to deal with their traumatic experiences.
“We do not want to set an example for future immigrants and refugee business owners as the business that gave in to hate”
The Al-Soufis relented. As Husam put it, “We do not want to set an example for future immigrants and refugee business owners as the business that gave in to hate.” The family will retain control of the business, and all staff have been rehired. Husam plans to post the letters of support the family received on the walls of the restaurant.
As of today, Soufi’s Restaurant is back in business. They’ve invited the Marsden family to join them for a meal at the restaurant. Husam has offered his forgiveness to the Internet trolls who threatened his family. He said, “I understand their position. I understand their fear. I understand why they are worried. But I want to assure them we are just a family, we came here just to live our lives, do business, pay our taxes.”
“I remain fearful for my family’s well-being and safety, and that will always be my first concern”
As for Alaa, the family isn’t saying much. All we know is that Alaa is “not doing well.” He has not returned to Soufi’s. In Husam’s words, “I remain fearful for my family’s well-being and safety, and that will always be my first concern.”
It’s tempting to say that there is a moral to this story or that at least we have a happy ending. That wouldn’t be honest. What we have here is a struggle between love and hate. It’s still not clear which side won and we have no guarantees. We’ll have to wait and see what’s in store for Alaa and for the family business. Then we may understand the meaning of this messy tale.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.