Now or Never

Fourth generation Syrian keeps family soap making tradition alive

Two years ago Abdulfatah Sabouni and his family arrived in Calgary with very little, except 50 pounds of soap. The Syrian refugees had been living in a refugee camp in Jordan for four years. Now, in Canada, this fourth generation soap-making family continues their work.
Abdulfatah Sabouni proudly holds soap made in his new factory in Calgary, Aleppo Savon. (C. Wagner/CBC)
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Two years ago Abdulfatah Sabouni and his family arrived in Calgary with very little, except 50 pounds of soap. The Syrian refugees had been living in a refugee camp in Jordan for four years.

The name Sabouni means 'soap-maker.' True to his name, Sabouni comes from a long line of soap-makers in Syria — four generations, in fact. 

"When I was 15, I like this job," he said. "I ask my father to teach me and my father say no because 'you young now.'"

"But after five or six years I start my business and my father teach me everything."

Abdulkaedr Sabouni, father of Abdulfatah with partner (L-R in upper photo); uncle, worker and brother of Abdulfatah Sabouni (L-R in lower photo) Circa 1973 (A. Sabouni)

When the war in Syria began, the Sabouni family was forced to flee. They lost everything, except the family soap recipe. 

"The recipe — here in my mind. I don't forget," explained Sabouni.

In Canada, Sabouni threw himself into learning English. At one point a friend invited him to sell the soap he brought with him from Syria at a local craft fair. It sold out in 15 minutes, so Sabouni decided to make more.

"I made my first batch of soap in the kitchen," he recalled. "I take the soap, the pictures and put it on facebook for fun," he said. "And many people contact me about 'please need the soap.' People come two or three times to order the soap."

This gave Sabouni hope that he could realize his dream of making soap again. So he teamed up with two friends — Syrian-Canadian Husny Hadry and Syrian refugee Walid Balsha who helped with the paperwork and financing. 

Walid Balsha, Abdulfatah Sabouni and Husny Hadry teamed up to created Aleppo Savon in Calgary. (C. Wagner/CBC)

In January Aleppo Savon had its grand opening. It's the first Syrian soap factory in North America. 

True to his family tradition, Sabouni and his team make the soap by hand, stirring it in a huge kettle with long wooden paddles.

The process is long and the soap cakes must dry for five months.

They use all natural ingredients, including olive oil, coconut oil, laurel berry (bay leaf) oil and fragrance to make the soap. There are no chemicals or additives.

Abdulfatah Sabouni stirs the soap mixture by hand, in a large kettle, using long wooden paddles. (C. Wagner/CBC)

Sabouni is continuing his family's legacy by teaching his eldest son how to make soap, to ensure it continues for generations to come.