Tareq Hadhad on building a successful business in Canada as a refugee

By the Globe and Mail, February 12, 2018

My father’s chocolate factory in Damascus was bombed in 2012. We left in 2013, staying in a refugee camp in Lebanon [for] almost three years. I arrived in Canada [in] December, 2015, my siblings and parents [came in] January, 2016, now there are nine family members here. I am single. Being called a new Canadian at the airport was huge. You can travel anywhere. You can find a place for yourself. The regular immigrant has an option to go back to their homeland – for our family, who lost everything, we didn’t have that option. You can sit and complain about the weather or build a life.

We were asked to a community potluck. We felt chocolate is our ambassador. My father prepared chocolates in our home. Everything he made was gone in 10 minutes. After we came back, he had tears in his eyes, that was a huge moment for him. We started selling in the local market, that first day in Antigonish, people waited before it opened. I counted 200 people, to buy chocolate. People loved it before they even tasted it! They trusted us as newcomers who brought something they wanted to support.

 We didn’t come to take anyone’s job – we’re here to create jobs. We also wanted to tell Canadians about Syrians, how hard they work for their goals. One of my professors said, people buy what you do and why: People care what is behind products. I felt, ‘Why would you care if we called it “Tareq’s Chocolate.”‘ We would make ours remarkable, unique – so people would know about the business from the name, the story. With friends, we came up with Syria Chocolate for Peace, a long name, then Peace by Chocolate, because peace, in any language, is our noblest value. We realized the importance of peace since leaving Syria because of the violence. Peace is the thing we cannot live without; we cannot build businesses without peace. We can’t go to school without peace. We cannot raise families without peace.

Our first store was in a shed and opened [in] August, 2016, built by volunteers, 60 community members. In the new factory, we honour them. We’ve hired between 30 to 35 people. What my father spent 30 years building in Syria, I think it can be done in five years because of the huge support. Canada is very kind, why we have maple leaf shapes. We started a conversation with duty-free shops, but can’t keep up with orders we have. We are working days and nights. The 2018 plan is huge.

 I had no idea we would be mentioned [by the Prime Minister]. I knew he would mention Syrians, but there were thousands of success stories. We were having supper. A friend called, ‘They’re talking about you at the United Nations.’ I actually said, ‘I have no time for this.’ I thought it was a joke. I started receiving calls from CBC, CNN; those two days [in September, 2016, were] the biggest days of my life. We were thanking everyone, realizing people need to hear positive examples. That shifted my mind to another level talking about our story in hundreds of presentations across Canada.

I planned on being a physician. Life keeps changing. I have a huge responsibility now. Speaking out, travelling the country, meeting new people and connecting Syrians. Helping others, building initiatives to start their businesses, how to be educated when they come, help others trying to come and even connect with government. I am now on the board of Invest Nova Scotia. Maybe, in five years after the story settles, I will head back to my passion in medicine; it’s never too late. If you go back to 2010 and say, ‘This is your next eight years,’ I would never imagine this would all have happened.

We’re in the Maritimes in some stores, ship across Canada and United States, now creating new products for 2018. I feel the growth for the company will be franchising; we received so many offers of that already and Syrian offers. I would like it to be connected to the story wherever they are in the country.

For fun, I talk about peace. Life is really fun when you listen to [what you are called to do]. You don’t spend so much time on what’s called ‘entertainment.’ I appreciate what this country has done for us. We did not choose where to be, this community. If we had the choice right now, we would choose our town Antigonish, again and again.

This interview has been edited and condensed.