The sweet thereafter: Tareq Hadhad’s warm welcome in a cold land

After his family’s chocolate factory was bombed, kind strangers in a small community in Canada gave the Syrian refugee ‘a second chance to live’. Now an entrepreneur, it’s his turn to treat

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It had taken Tareq Hadhad’s father decades to build the family business in Damascus into a thriving chocolate factory that exported across the Middle East and Europe.

But the empire that sold its confections even to the Belgians was destroyed in just an instant by bombs as the Syrian war raged in 2012.

The conflict forced the Hadhads to flee to neighbouring Lebanon, where, unable to return to Syria, they spent the next three years trying to decide which new country to call home.

On the recommendation of a taxi driver, Tareq, the oldest son, applied for a scholarship through the Canadian embassy in Lebanon despite the chilly country in North America not even being on the family’s initial list of potential destinations.

The application was unsuccessful, but the medical student was granted entry via a community programme in Canada that allows citizens and organisations to sponsor refugees.

“It was like winning the lottery,” Mr Hadhad, now 28, told The National.

Though excited about his new life, he knew very little about the country he was moving to.

“In the Middle East, not too many people really talk about Canada because it's like the end of the world for them. It's [thought of as] that coldest country that escaped from the Ice Age ... no one really is willing to live here in February,” he said with a chuckle.

Mr Hadhad arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on a bracing December night in 2015. While the weather required a bit of an adjustment, he immediately felt at ease.

“Arriving here was the biggest, heartwarming moment of my life,” he recalled.

Tareq Hadhad was welcomed by citizens of Antigonish in Nova Scotia. Photo:  Peace by Chocolate / VOX Management Agency

When he landed at the airport, Mr Hadhad was welcomed by members of the tiny community of Antigonish who had rallied together to sponsor him.

“They didn't know what I looked like even before I arrived here and it didn't matter to them,” he recalled. “What mattered was that I was a human being seeking safety and peace.”

That moment set Mr Hadhad on a mission to rebuild the family dream that had been crushed by a devastating war.

“It was a true honour for us to be coming [to Canada] when there are millions of people who are dreaming of the opportunity to land in this country,” he said. “When I look back, this was like dying and being given another chance to live.”

Though he had studied four years of medicine, Mr Hadhad decided to start making candy with the help of his parents, Essam and Shahzaz, and siblings, who joined him in Nova Scotia. At first, they sold their sweets at local farmers markets, then out of a shed before opening their own shop in downtown Halifax.

“Chocolate seeks to raise happiness and medicine seeks to reduce pain. There was that mutual connection between medicine and chocolate,” he explained, going on to joke that the specialty treats should be consumed “in moderation, of course”.

The Hadhads have adjusted their chocolate recipes to Canadian tastes. Photo: Peace by Chocolate / VOX Management Agency

With Peace by Chocolate, his goal is to not only “spread happiness” through chocolates, but also to run a socially conscious company that benefits the community.

“I felt the moral responsibility to give back,” said Mr Hadhad.

The family’s commitment to rebuilding what they lost has won them the praise of their local community as well as world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former US president Barack Obama.

Mr Trudeau told the Hadhad story at the Leaders Summit on Refugees in July 2019, revealing that the family had donated their first profits to the Canadian Red Cross to help their Fort McMurray neighbours who had been displaced by wildfires.

In October 2020, the Prime Minister made a personalised video message for Mr Hadhad.

"Tareq, my friend, I wanted to take a moment to wish you a very happy birthday and to thank you for everything that you do for your community and our country," he said.

"Your story of perseverance, determination and resiliency has inspired us all."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets the Hadhads. Photo: Peace by Chocolate / VOX Management Agency

For Mr Hadhad, chocolate is more than a business - it's a passion and a bond between the family members.

It even helped bring about his own birth: while courting his mother, Mr Hadhad’s father gave her two boxes of chocolate. The gesture succeeded and the couple eventually married.

The company also keeps the Hadhads connected to their Middle Eastern heritage. They infuse some of their chocolates with nuts and dried fruits as they did in Syria, but have also adapted the products to Canadian tastes.

“We mix new types of stuff, especially maple syrup. It’s a big deal here in Canada,” said Mr Hadhad, laughing.

In June, Peace by Chocolate, a film based on the family's story was shown online through the Tribeca Film Festival, starring Ayham Abou Ammar as Mr Hadhad and the late Syrian actor and director Hatem Ali as his father.

But no matter how big their fame grows, the family has put down deep roots in their adopted town.

“You cannot succeed on your own in a country like Canada,” said Mr Hadhad. “So, at the end of the day, it was the kind of supportive system in the community that has led to our success story.”

In many ways, the Hadhads' tale is that of modern Canada, where people fleeing persecution find refuge in a cold but welcoming land.

The Hadhad family began by selling chocolate at farmers markets in Nova Scotia. Photo:  Peace by Chocolate / VOX Management Agency

Mr Hadhad became a Canadian citizen in 2019 and celebrated the achievement by appearing on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, one of the country’s most popular comedy shows.

“Canada is a great country because we are diverse, we are multicultural, we celebrate people from around the world,” he said.

He hopes his family’s journey can serve as a positive inspiration for other newcomers, but also fellow Canadians who have experienced extreme loss, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“My belief is that what was lost can be rebuilt with the fortitude of resilience.”

Updated: August 11, 2022, 8:06 AM