Prince Edward County fisherman hands family business to Syrian refugee

A veteran fisherman from Prince Edward County is handing the reins of his company over to a 21-year-old Syrian newcomer in an effort to keep the only fish processing operation left in the county alive.

Slieman al-Jasem, 21, had never cleaned a fish in his life

Kendall Dewey is turning over the reins of his family-owned fishery in Prince Edward County to a 21-year-old Syrian newcomer, named Slieman al-Jasem, in a bid to keep the business alive. (Judy Kent)

A veteran fisherman from Prince Edward County is handing the reins of his company over to a 21-year-old Syrian newcomer in an effort to keep the only fish processing operation left in the county alive. 

Kendall Dewey, 66, was desperately looking for someone to take over the commercial fishing business that had been in his family for four generations.

If Dewey Fisheries closed, shops and restaurants in the area could be left without a source of local seafood. So Dewey contacted employment agencies and scouted people locally who might have an interest.

His search was falling short until he met ​Slieman al-Jasem, a refugee from Syria who'd never cleaned a fish before — but had a knack for learning quickly and a desire to run his own company. 

"He had worked in Lebanon, starting at a very early age — 13 or 14 years old — at a stone quarry, trying to earn money for his family," Dewey told CBC Radio's Ontario Morning last week.

"He had rather nasty experiences in Lebanon working for people. And he saw this as an opportunity to have his own business and not work for anybody else."

'Getting too old'

Dewey and his wife Joanne had been starting their days before dawn, seven days a week. They'd been spending more than 70 hours each week laying and hauling traps, weighing and processing the daily catch and meeting with suppliers and buyers.

Last year, Dewey said, they decided they were "getting too old" and wanted to retire.

"We did contact government employment agencies and basically said [that] we have... a ready-made occupation, a job, we have facilities that can be used until someone can get on their feet," he told Ontario Morning.

"They weren't of any assistance."

Passing on the torch 

The family met al-Jasem at a local diner, where they watched a documentary about his life.

After a few more meetings, they chose him as their heir to the business. 

Now al-Jasem is learning how to scale and fillet the fish, and may eventually take over the fishing license as well. In just a few days, Dewey said, al-Jasem became faster than he was at processing the catch.

"I didn't want to see [our company's] particular value to the overall fishery, what's left of it anyhow, lost," Dewey said.

"He's carrying it on — and I hope he continues to do it in the future."