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Family creates jobs in rural village that sponsored them

By Mike Strathdee

As printed in The Marketplace - January/February 2018

In an ideal world, Tareq Hadhad would be practicing medicine in his homeland.

Instead, he is the public face of his family’s chocolate company, in a country they have only called home for a couple of years.

But with an entrepreneur’s can-do attitude, Hadhad chooses to emphasize the positive. “We always have challenges in our lives,” Hadhad said in a seminar presentation about his family’s firm, Peace by Chocolate, at MEDA’s annual convention in Vancouver.Hadhad shot possible head and shoulders for pg10

Given the reality that everyone faces challenges, people have two options: sit down and complain that nothing can be done, or digging down and finding solutions, he said. “My family and I are honored to choose the second option.”

Tareq’s father, Assam Hadhad, ran a chocolate factory in Damascus, Syria for 30 years after realizing that his first profession as a civil engineer wasn’t his passion.

He got into chocolate manufacturing after attending a wedding and realizing everyone there eating chocolate was happy. Seeing the chocolate business as his family’s future, Assam built it into the second-largest chocolate factory in the Middle East by 2003, employing hundreds. The company shipped product throughout the region and into Europe.

The Hadhads were a tight-knit clan, with 60 members of the immediate and extended family living in a 10-storey apartment building. Each weekend, everyone gathered for a communal Saturday supper.

When Arab Spring demonstrations spread to Syria in 2011, Tareq was studying at the Damascus faculty of medicine. What started as peaceful gatherings turned violent. Some of Tareq’s colleagues, who wore lab coats and were carrying flowers, were arrested. Others he knew were killed.

When Assam’s factory was bombed in 2013 during the Syrian civil war, the family was forced to flee to Lebanon. They lived there in a refugee camp for three years, during which time they were mostly not allowed to work. “Staying in a refugee camp means that you won’t be able to think about your tomorrow.’’

Tareq kept busy helping the United Nations build hospitals in the camp.

The Hadhads were lucky compared to others. One of Tareq’s cousins drowned in a boat accident off Turkey.

Tareq got an interview with the Canadian embassy with an opportunity to come to Canada on a scholarship. That initial promise was dashed when he was told that officials forgot to check his age. Having just turned 25, he was ineligible for a program restricted to people aged 24 or younger.

A few months later, he was offered a sponsorship to come to Canada. Six months went by without news, then in mid-November-2015, he was told he would be leaving for Toronto soon. He arrived in Toronto in late December to sub-zero temperatures.

Having thought of Canada only in terms of its three largest cities — Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver — he was surprised to learn that his sponsorship group was from the small Nova Scotia village of Antigonish.

A month later, his family called to say they would arrive in Toronto the next day. His mother asked Tareq to send photos of their new home community. There was over six feet of snow on the ground, so he sent her pictures of Antigonish in the summer.

After a month in Canada, Assam Hadhad, who spoke no English, began asking what he should do. Tareq suggested making chocolate, so they took chocolate to a community potluck.

A week’s work disappeared in 10 minutes. Then Assam started selling chocolate in the local farmer’s market. Two hundred people were standing in line on the first day. “They loved our products before they even tasted them.”

Demand was so strong that 10 neighbors, including carpenters, electricians and plumbers, helped them build a shed next to their house. They also received a few small loans from community members for seed capital.

They opened Peace by Chocolate in August 2016, supplying chocolate for weddings and an event for the Canadian federal government.

When their online store opened in December 2016, they had 3,000 orders in three hours. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mentioned Peace by Chocolate in a speech at the United Nations. Peace by Chocolate became an international story. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) did a video on the family’s journey.

The company recently began supplying Sobey’s, Canada’s second-largest grocery chain, with its chocolates in the Atlantic provinces. Eventually, Sobey’s plans to carry the product across Canada.

Increased production will allow them to hire 25 to 30 workers, a boon to a small rural community of 5,000 where jobs are hard to come by. Hadhad is glad they can give back to a town that welcomed them with open arms.

Tareq is working in the chocolate factory and doing studies online to earn his bachelor of science degree. He hopes to be able to restart his studies to become a medical doctor within two to three years. “Everything that has happened to me is an opportunity to learn more.” ◆