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Ask Tareq Hadhad about building community, about investing yourself in a way that creates a home in a new place, and you’ll quickly learn that his perspective is informed by the deep culture of welcome he carried with him from his native Syria.

He began his recent interview with WHTO’s Craig Carter-Edwards by relating a personal story about a young Canadian who was lost in Damascus, Syria in 2008, at a time when relations between that country and the United States were tense. Fearful that he might be mistaken as an American spy, the terrified B.C. native opted for silence rather than ask for help in English from anyone on Damascus public transit.

Tareq saw the man and struck up a conversation with him, befriended him and brought him home, where he stayed for a week. With his friends’ support, Tareq helped the traveler recover his passport, his papers, and his sense of safety. When it was time to go, the man told Tareq “I want to stay three more months with you guys, because you are so lovely!” 

“We didn’t know that ten years later, my family would be in Canada, we would need refuge, we would be seeking safety and peace. You know how things happen in life; you host someone in your house, you welcome him, then when you need help, you will find it down the road.”

Syria itself is no stranger to welcoming people from other places, escaping other conflicts. “Being part of Syria means that you have that sense of hospitality and kindness”, Tareq said. “My country has welcomed people from all over the world when they were fleeing wars and persecution.

It’s worth noting that this includes up to 40,000 Europeans who fled both the Nazis and the Soviets during and in the aftermath of World War II.

For Tareq, being Syrian means having an innate understanding of the strength a social fabric has when it has been stitched together by generations of multicultural contributors over centuries. Damascus, the capital of Syria, is the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth, and has been home to an incredibly diverse populace over its 10,000 years of history.

Tareq is also deeply conscious of the value he brings to his current community as a newcomer, while also valuing the gift of opportunity offered by those who welcomed him. He encourages other settlers coming to Canada to adopt this perspective – to invest in their community but also to realize that they do not come empty handed.  

“As a newcomer”, Tareq says, “you come here from a country with different experiences, a different set of skills, and the first thing you really should do is translate your experiences into that community. You can really create something that is new, but also impactful and meaningful at the same time.”  

Tareq has done exactly this by rooting his chocolate company in the small Nova Scotian town of Antigonish.  While the story of how he launched Peace by Chocolate and became both a Canadian success story and an international phenomenon is a great one and worth sharing, his ideas about how newcomers can impact their communities with the value they bring as a way to to bridge the gap of language and culture is equally important to share.  

One proven way to do this is for newcomers to offer themselves as volunteers in their neighbourhood.  These opportunities reduce isolation, build community, grow networks and new friendships, offer possibilities for  mentorship, and provide the chance to practice a new language. 

Tareq is a big believer in proactive contribution. “Always remember that it’s your responsibility to share your ideas and your skills with the community that you are coming to, because no one will come and knock on your door and ask, ‘Hey, what are you going to do? What did you come with?'”

As it happens, he’s also a fan of small-town living and Nova Scotia in general, though this wasn’t the case at the beginning.

Tareq recalls his experience as his family headed to Canada.  “I had these papers with me from the IOM, the International Organization of Migration. I arrived in Toronto…Then they told me that my flight would be the next day to Nova Scotia. I said ‘Where is Nova Scotia? I want to stay in Canada!’  And they told me that Nova Scotia is in Canada, just on the Atlantic side.”

He acknowledges that the draw to be in large cities like Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal might be greater for others like him coming to Canada.  He understands this based on his own experience in the Middle East, where all the infrastructure enjoyed in the larger cities is not necessarily offered in its rural counterparts – especially facilities like hospitals, colleges and universities.  A part of his surprise about Canada is was that resources like these are more level across communities.  

“In a province like Nova Scotia, if you are living in Antigonish, you have the exact same services as someone living in a city like Halifax. The exact same things! You have a hospital, you have schools, you have grocery stores, you have a university.”  

Most importantly, Tareq believes in the quality of community afforded in rural Canada. He likes that he knows his neighbours – and that his family feels safe. He appreciates life away from the din of an urban centre and recommends it to newcomers who might feel overwhelmed by a larger city. He is careful to point out, though, that even a smaller town like Antigonish has countless activities and festivals.

Even though he acknowledges that it is more comfortable for new Canadians to gravitate towards a like-minded cultural pocket, Tareq encourages them to branch out beyond that familiar frame.  “My family, we decided that we are in Canada because we want to enjoy people from different cultures. We want to enjoy living with people that have a different set of values, and a different set of beliefs. We didn’t really fly 7,000 kilometers to live in the same lifestyle, or the same way we lived in Syria. We have a massive opportunity now to create something new.” 

Finally, when asked how he sees himself as a newcomer, and now, a new Canadian, Tareq offers this:   “I believe that I am a survivor, and I am a contributor to this country, to its ecosystem, and I am trying to give back. This is really who I am.”