A Syrian couple who came to Canada as refugees last year are the new owners of a fledgling food business they started with the help of new Canadian friends. 

Ibrahim Hajibrahim and Ranim Khochkar make several types of Mediterranean food with traditional Syrian recipes, such as Baba ghanoush, Dolma, lentil fingers and stuffed hot bread.

Syrian food in Victoria, B.C.

They now sell their food under the name Saraya Hot Bread at a deli in Victoria, B.C.

Making food comes naturally to the family but starting a new business in a new country with a long list of licences and health requirements did not. So, the couple relied on the help of volunteers from a local refugee sponsorship group.

Karen Short is a volunteer with the Harbour of Hope Refugee Assistance Society, which is working to sponsor Hajibrahim's sister to come to Canada as a refugee. In six weeks, Short and other volunteers helped the Syrian couple set up a sole proprietorship, obtain necessary licences, and find an accredited commercial kitchen. 

Ibrahim Hajibrahim, Ranim Khochkar, Lisa Buchan, and  Karen Short

Ibrahim Hajibrahim and Ranim Khochkar stand with Lisa Buchan, the deli director at the Red Barn Markets, and Karen Short, with the Harbour of Hope Refugee Assistance Society in Victoria, B.C. (Gregor Craigie)

"Ibrahim said do you think people would buy our food if we had a restaurant?" Short recalled. "There isn't a Syrian restaurant in Victoria and startup costs for a restaurant are huge. And I said, well, I think people would buy your food if you could think of a way to sell it without the expenditure of setting up a storefront operation."

The food is now sold at one of the Red Barn Market grocery stores in Victoria, B.C.

Syrian food

The deli director of Red Barn Markets, Lisa Buchan, said it was an easy decision to sell the product.

"Well, I tasted it," she said, "and that pretty much sold itself."

The Saraya Hot Bread foods are now only sold in one location, but Buchan said "we're hoping to expand to other locations soon."

Hajibrahim and Khochkar are hopeful their new business will help them make ends meet in their new hometown.

Rent is expensive in Victoria, and they have four young children to support, as well as Hajibrahim's mother.

A new business and a new life in Canada

Ibrahim Hajibrahim and Ranim Khochkar in Red Barn Market

As was the case with so many other Syrian refugees, the couple never planned on leaving their home.

But when armoured vehicles surrounded their neighbourhood in the city of Latakia, in 2013, Hajibrahim feared for his safety.

He is a pharmacist and had provided medicine to many people in the community during the fighting. He worried that he might be arrested as a result, so he fled to Turkey.

Hajibrahim hopes to work as a pharmacist here, eventually, but first he will have to recertify and learn more technical English. That is likely to take three years, but in the meantime he said the family's new business venture has made him feel like his family belongs.

"So, we feel now like we are not refugees," Hajibrahim said. "We are settled people."