Nova Scotia

Circle of giving among Syrian refugees helps launch new halal shop

Rafat Harb's new halal shop wouldn't be possible without the helping hand he's getting from fellow Syrian refugees who, in return, are getting a boost toward achieving their own aspirations.

Skills from newcomers needing Canadian work experience help a fledgling Syrian grocery store

Rafat Harb, shown with his father, Mohammad, opened Syrian Meat Shop three weeks ago. It's staffed by Syrians like himself who are hoping to sharpen their business and language skills for future endeavours. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Twenty-year-old Rafat Harb has risked his savings on a new grocery and halal butcher shop to serve the community that's given his family a future.

It's a venture that wouldn't be possible without the helping hand he's getting from fellow Syrian refugees who, in return, are getting a boost toward achieving their own aspirations.

Harb has invested his earnings from shovelling snow, working at Sobeys for a year and profits from his share in a Middle Eastern pastry business, to open Syrian Meat Shop in central Halifax three weeks ago. There's no government money in this enterprise.

The store is benefiting from a circle of giving among Syrian refugees who began arriving in Nova Scotia in 2015.

A win-win

It's a fledgling business and while Harb can't afford to hire staff, there is a butcher working behind the counter — thanks to an exchange between newcomers.

It's a win-win.

Naser Al Masalmeh, 53, slices beef with quick and neat precision, while he sharpens his English language skills.

Even though he has a sought-after trade, he's using his butcher skills to help out at the shop. It's Al Masalmeh's way to gain Canadian work experience and to pick up some English. That will help him improve his chances of landing a job, to carve out a future in his new home.

Naser Al Masalmeh is a halal butcher who helps out at Syrian Meat Shop to gain Canadian work experience and to practise English. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Harb is grateful.

"[Naser] helped me a lot," explains Harb. "This is his work for 30 years. I cannot find anyone to work this job and have the same experience."

There's also a chef who's pitching in at the shop while he works toward his own personal goal.

Harb says his wish is to eventually hire all the people who are helping him to launch his business.

Feel good shopping

Not all of Harb's customers are Muslim and the young grocer wants to sell Middle Eastern food to everyone.

However, many people walking into his store are, like him, re-building their lives. 

Three women in patterned head scarves and long black robes load up on special coffee, tea with Arabic labels, and goat meat.

One of them, Saleema Almisleh is spending more than $70 on groceries she says she can't find at stores such as Costco, Sobeys or Walmart.

Syrian refugees are among the customers who shop for Middle Eastern foods at Harb's store. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

She also gets another benefit from shopping here: The feel-good vibe knowing that she's supporting a fellow Syrian refugee trying to make it in their new country.

As the women leave the store, they get a wave goodbye from the store's greeter, who's also there as a temporary helper.

He's Harb's father, Mohammad, who spends most of his time learning English, and helping his family get to school and appointments.

The Harbs are a family of 10, and half have muscular dystrophy, including Mohammad. Their lives in Canada are vastly improved, thanks to the medical care and the education they're receiving.

Mohammad Harb is proud that Syrian newcomers are coming together to contribute to his son's business and strengthen each other, one coffee or halal meat sale at a time.

"I'm happy to service the people [who] came to Canada because we had a very difficult life before [we] came to Canada," said Mohammad.

Mohammad Harb and Naser Al Masalmeh greet a customer. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

A grand plan

Rafat Harb admits opening a solo business is scary, but he has a grand plan — and it's not to establish a food empire.

"Maybe this business will help me, for university and for my dream," he says.

Rafat Harb stayed away from school so he could push his father's wheelchair around the refugee camp, as well as earn some money for the family. He wants to put his education back on track.

He hopes the store turns a profit so in a few years he'll have the money for tuition to study computer science to pursue his own dream career.

See more articles from CBC Nova Scotia

About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.

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