From Syria to Antigonish

 An Inspiring Older Immigrant Story

By Peggy Edwards, Council on Aging of Ottawa

Tareq Hadhad was worried about his father: Issam did not know what to do with his life. Before the war began in Syria, Issam had run a chocolate company for over 20 years. But that life was gone now. The factory was destroyed and he and his family had spent three years in limbo as refugees before coming to Canada. So, in an unfamiliar kitchen in a small town, Issam began to make chocolate again.

This was one of the amazing stories told by our wonderful guest speaker at the recent Council on Aging of Ottawa Spring Luncheon. Tareq Hadhad had the audience laughing, crying and nodding in agreement as he told stories about the journey of the Hadhad family from war-torn Syria to Antigonish, Nova Scotia and about the building of their successful Peace by Chocolate business.

Tareq explains, “We named the business Peace by Chocolate because peace is deeply valued in our family, especially after experiencing the unthinkable horrors of war. Peace and chocolate are universal and understood in every corner of the planet. We wanted our business to be a symbol of human connection, relevance, peace and hope regardless of where we are born, what languages we speak or what faith we practice.”

Welcoming Older Immigrants

Issam was 53 years old when he and his wife Shahnaz arrived in Canada.  “Leaving Syria was incredibly difficult for both of us. It felt like we were leaving behind everything we had ever known—our home, our friends, the people we grew up with and our business. It was especially challenging for my wife, who was in her late 40s, to leave her family and familiar surroundings. However, the warmth and support we found in Canada, particularly in our beautiful town of Antigonish, helped us a lot in our transition and integration.”

Issam suggests that understanding and community support are at the heart of welcoming older immigrants and refugees. Language barriers can be a major challenge and the cultural differences and emotional strain of starting over can be daunting.

“In Antigonish, the people and the community went out of their way to make us feel at home. They offered friendship and a sense of community. Small gestures and acts of kindness, like offering ESL classes led by volunteers, inviting us to local events, holding a potluck to welcome us to our new community, and helping with our everyday tasks. All this made a huge difference every day, especially during the first year of our journey in our new adopted home.”

Embracing the culture of older immigrants and their families is also critical to a sincere welcome. “Canadians have been incredibly open and curious about our culture and heritage. They’ve shown a great interest in our traditions, food and stories. My Antigonish community was excited when we started to share our dances, music, language and history. We are so grateful because we saw ourselves free to be who we always wanted to be, without judgements.”

Sharing cultures goes both ways. “My family and I embrace many aspects of Canadian culture, particularly the community spirit and inclusivity. I also love to be free. I enjoy watching hockey, which is such an important part of Canadian life. And yes, I do have some favourite Tim Hortons doughnuts. I love the double chocolate and the maple dip.  Of course, it has to be chocolate and maple! These are the two flavours that connect me to my past and present.”

Tareq and Peggy Edwards at the COA Spring Luncheon.

Looking Ahead

Issam and his family have built an amazing business in their new home. We asked Issam whether continuing to work hard at something you love is important as you get older?

He said, “Absolutely. Working hard at something you love brings purpose and joy to life, no matter your age. As long as you work with what you are passionate about, you will find an unmatchable sense of satisfaction. It keeps you mentally and physically active, which is very important as you get older, and it’s incredibly rewarding to see the positive impact of your work in your community. My culture taught me that work is the spice of life.”

Issam believes that his children and grandchildren have a bright future in Canada, with access to education, healthcare, and the freedom to follow their dreams. “Canada has offered us peace, safety, big opportunities, and a welcoming community that we call our big family. We are so happy to be here.”

The Last Word

Some parting words from Tareq and Issam: “We are incredibly grateful for the love and support we’ve received from our fellow Canadians. Our journey has been very challenging, but it has also been filled with moments of kindness that kept us believing in hope. We encourage everyone to welcome refugees and immigrants with open hearts, and to support older immigrants as they restart their journey and eventually feel they belong. You never know the amazing stories and talents they might bring to your community.

Learn More

  • Shop for delicious chocolate and order the book Peace by Chocolate, The Hadhad Family’s Remarkable Journey from Syria to Canada by Jon Tattrie at ca
  • Watch the movie Peace by Chocolate (2021): com/title/tt11236228/