Nova Scotia

For this Syrian refugee, proving himself meant business

Khaled Al Hilal, owner of Al-Hilal Meat Shop in Halifax, runs his business while juggling English classes on the side.

Khaled Al Hilal runs his own meat shop while juggling English classes on the side

Khaled Al Hilal opened Al-Hilal Meat Shop in Halifax in August 2017. (David Laughlin/CBC)

When many customers walk through the door of Khaled Al Hilal's meat shop, grocery and takeout in Halifax, his only mode of communication with them is through hand gestures.

The Syrian refugee hardly knows a word of English, but that hasn't stopped him from opening Al-Hilal Meat Shop inside a yellow building on Herring Cove Road that's now adorned with an Arabic sign and a Canadian flag.

"I feel like I need to prove myself in this country," he said through an interpreter during an interview in Arabic.

'I am healthy and I can work'

Al Hilal escaped Syria in 2011, fleeing to Lebanon where he perfected his cooking craft.

He and his family of seven are among the wave of 25,000 Syrian refugees who were admitted into Canada in 2015 and early 2016.

His push to start his own business — even in an industry that typically requires speaking directly with customers — is a personal one. Despite all the barriers, he wanted to prove he could quickly get off government assistance and be self-sufficient.

Al-Hilal Meat Shop is located on Herring Cove Road in Halifax. (David Laughlin/CBC)

"I've been on welfare and benefit, but I feel like there are people who need it more than I do — like seniors and people who can't work because they're sick," he said. "I am healthy and I can work."

Barriers to opening business

It's not easy for many refugees to do so. A survey in late 2016 found just 10 per cent of government-assisted adult refugees across Canada had found work, while around 53 per cent of privately sponsored adult refugees had jobs.

Al Hilal opened Al-Hilal Meat Shop last August.

The shop serves up halal meats and other products. The laws of halal dictate how an animal is butchered. Often a prayer is said and the animal is drained of all of its blood. 

Meat roasts, falafel mixes and jars of Syrian cuisine stock the shelves. Before opening each day, he attends English language classes from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Al Hilal works the grill in his shop's kitchen. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Rihab Al Mansour, Al Hilal's wife, does her best to help her husband with translations, but she is also new to English.

"I work with my husband to support him and help him communicate with people when he's feeling nervous," said Al Mansour.

Helpful customers

Al Hilal said he owes his business's success to the people of Halifax.

"There's even Canadians who come to the store and use Arabic words to order, making it easier for me to understand," he said.

"Without these people, these customers, I wouldn't be where I am today."

Al Hilal and his family know they have come a long way in the past year, and want to continue growing the business. He hopes to expand his shop, get a freezer, more tables and chairs and hire employees.

Stocked shelves inside Al-Hilal Meat Shop. (David Laughlin/CBC)

"I need to be patient," he said.

By expanding the business, Al Hilal says more people will have a taste of his cooking. And once his language improves, he'll have a better shot at being successful.

"This shop is for everybody — not just Arabs. And Canadians have been so understanding. They come in the store and notice how I'm struggling with the language so they take it slowly and calmly to communicate with me."

About the Author

Ross Andersen

Associate Producer

Ross Andersen in an associate producer for current affairs in Halifax. He previously studied journalism at Sheridan College and University of King's College.

With files from Aya Al-Hakim