'We empower one another': Winnipeg restaurant hires Syrian refugees

When refugees come to Canada, one of the first things they want to do is get a job and help contribute to the society they now call home. A Winnipeg restaurant is making it a little easier.

Arabesque Hookah Café and Restaurant owners say it’s important to give people a chance

Arabesque Hookah Café and Restaurant has hired three Syrian refugees. (Arabesque Hookah Café/Submitted to CBC)

A restaurant is cooking up a recipe for success for Syrian refugees in Winnipeg. 

Co-owners Heba Abd El Hamid and Mohammad Naser of Arabesque Hookah Café and Restaurant opened their restaurant three months ago on Corydon Avenue and decided to round out their staff — five people including themselves — with Syrian refugees.

"I am a first-generation immigrant and I'm Egyptian ethnically, and my partner is Palestinian and he is a refugee and came from Syria," Abd El Hamid said.

"Both having that newcomer experience, we think it's really important to give people the chance."

Naser said, being a refugee his entire life, it was important.

"Empowering those often looked down upon by society is one of our values. We believe that we are only as strong as our weakest member," he said. 

"This is a learning curve for all of us. We all learn from one another and consider ourselves as a team."

Arabesque Hookah Café and Restaurant co-owners Mohammad Naser and Heba Abd El Hamid say it was important for them to hire Syrian refugees. (CBC)
Abd El Hamid said that when people come to a new country there can be major hurdles, such as language and having education credentials transferred over. She also added that people often leave extremely dangerous situations and are still dealing with trauma.

"It is something so close to both of our hearts, having come from countries that underwent revolution," she said.

"We understand what it's like to give up your land and your culture and your home and start somewhere fresh, and it's really important for us to give refugees a shot."

The restaurant's menu is a fusion of Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian cuisine so Abd El Hamid said "no one else would make the food as well as people from back home."

Beyond the shawarma and falafels, the small staff also provide each other a lot of support.  

"We all work together and we empower one another, whether it's through ensuring that their English is getting better or ensuring that they are getting essential life skills," she said. "Whatever it may be, so that when they leave us they are confident in what they do afterwards."

For customers, they are also able to have one-on-one conversations with the staff.

"I think something really important about our restaurant is that it breaks stereotypes around what being an immigrant or a refugee means by creating a safe space for different sorts of people to come together and sit and talk," Abd El Hamid said.