When Nicole Imgrund, owner of Rivers Edge Counselling Centre, first invited peace advocate Tareq Hadhad to speak at the Arden Theatre on Oct. 26, no one could have predicted how his keynote address would be so relevant today.
Since Oct. 7 when Hamas and Israel traded missiles and rockets killing thousands in the process, the entire Middle East is in danger of exploding into war, one that will create a domino effect around the world.
Hadhad, a Syrian war refugee, understands the situation better than most. He lived through a similar war of bombardment in his homeland. Currently, as the founder and CEO of Peace by Chocolate, an East Coast chocolate brand, Hadhad travels the country delivering messages of “renewal, reinvention and resilience.”
“It’s unthinkable. It’s very horrific,” Hadhad said referring to the Israeli-Hamas war. “Our world is so divided. It made me pause. What do we need to do to understand all life has equal weight? What we must do is work to stop these atrocities. When is enough enough? When can we come together as one race and bring dialogue to the table? I believe there will be a time when everyone will look back and ask, ‘what is this all for?”
His story begins in Damascus where the Hadhad family built the second largest chocolate factory in Syria exporting confections across the Middle East. But in 2011, President Bashar al-Assad quashed large-scale pro-democracy protests throughout Syria.
Many factions were involved in the violence. By 2012, war reached Damascus and the Hadhad’s family factory was bombed. A year later, another bomb exploded steps away from Hadhad, a medical student, and his brother.
“By March 2013, many of my family members were killed, kidnapped, and tortured. Still today I have missing family and I don’t know where they are,” said Hadhad.
Once the bomb exploded near Hadhad and his brother, his parents made the decision to leave. Packing a meagre number of items, the family sought refuge in Lebanon.
“The hardest part about living in Lebanon was moving around a lot. We felt split between the two countries. But we built friendships and had offers of assistance. We had challenges, but we were hopeful. We had skills and we could start life with the support of our Lebanese friends.”
Since Hadhad was two years away from obtaining a medical degree, he put his skills to use joining several relief organizations that treated patients.
In his downtime, the determined young man applied to 14 countries for immigration status. He did not receive a single interview.
“Then I met a kind Lebanese cab driver. While he was driving, he told me stories about living in Montreal and suggested I apply. If I had not been there at that moment, I would never have known about Canada. It was that small act of kindness that saved my family.”
It took six months for the Canadian embassy to process his application, give him a personal interview and discuss the standard resettlement package. But by Dec. 18, 2015, Hadhad and his family had arrived in Toronto. They were flown to Halifax and met by a local family that drove them to Antigonish, a small Nova Scotia community.
Although it was cold and lacked any cultural reminders of their old home, it was a refuge of peace, a place to rebuild.
“I absolutely loved it. What a shock. I loved the town. It is a place that saved our lives. I will celebrate that place forever. It was due to the kindness of a family, and I enjoyed them so much. I enjoyed their kindness, their warmth, their respect, their dignity, their courage.”
The Hadhads began making their first batch of chocolate the first week of January 2016. They were invited to a potluck. Scrapping together all the chocolate they brought from Lebanon, they made bonbons hoping everyone would enjoy their offering, yet fearful the confections would be disliked.
“They were gone in 10 minutes. We knew then we could rebuild our lives.”
An individual with a naturally positive outlook, Hadhad credits community support for the family’s success in creating Peace by Chocolate.
“They believed in us, and they wanted to be part of our integration. There is often a misguided perception of immigrants. We did not come to take. We came to contribute. We didn’t want welfare. We wanted to be productive in business, education, or any form of growth.”
Early on, the business adopted a mission of social awareness. By May of 2016, the family was watching Fort McMurray’s fires on television.
“We thought, ‘how can we help.’ We were generating good profits and we wanted to send some proceeds to help. We analyzed our needs. What we don’t need, we could donate to the cause. We knew exactly how it feels to lose everything and we decided to give our extra profits to the Red Cross. We wanted to prove that even a small difference can make big changes, and it inspired other businesses.”
Initially, the small family business launched at local farmers’ markets. Today, it is a national business with exports across the country. The Hadhad family’s story has been turned into an award-winning feature film, titled Peace by Chocolate. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and launched in Cineplex theatres across Canada in 2022.
Hadhad received his official Canadian citizenship in 2020 and considers it one of the greatest accomplishments of his life. Prime Minister Trudeau honoured the businessman, and he met former president Barack Obama.
Despite his celebrity status, Hadhad continues to pray for those stuck in Gaza unable to leave what he calls “an open-air prison.”
“This is affecting global peace on many levels. I hope the war can stop. Differences should not be fuel for conflict, but a respect for diversity. We need to approach this with compassion, empathy, and an open mind.”
“I come from a place where bodies were ripped up, buildings were strafed, and explosions killed children. I saw my cousin and brother-in-law lose their lives because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s why I am on this mission, especially today when peace is so important to the dignity of people. There is nothing good in war except the ending.”
Hadhad also wrote a book titled Peace by Chocolate and will host a book signing. Carmen Leibel, news anchor turned entrepreneur, will add an extra dose of polish to the evening as host. The Jessica McMann Trio will kick-start the evening with a range of works borrowed from the Indigenous lens.
Celebrating Resilience is Thursday, Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Arden Theatre. Tickets are $45 and are available online at tickets.stalbert.ca. All proceeds will go to St. Albert Food Bank.