A Middle Eastern family is putting down roots in a community that opened its doors to them after life at home was turned upside down.
The Alhsso family was the last of eight refugee families to settle on Cape Breton Island within the last three years.
The family consists of mother Jenan, father Ahmad, and children Abdullah, 21, Bader, 13, and Hala, 8.
Although they were warmly welcomed into their new hometown, the family faced cultural differences and a challenging language barrier.
But what transcended the lack of spoken words was traditional food, particularly Syrian dishes the family shared with their new friends and neighbours.
And now the Alhssos will be offering the taste of their homeland through opening of Jenan’s Syrian Kitchen takeout and catering.
The restaurant will open Tuesday on George Street a little over two years since the family first arrived in Sydney in August 2017.
“When they lived in Syria, lots of people came to the house,” said Anne MacDermid, who was part of the sponsorship group that brought the Alhsso family to Sydney.
“Jenan was used to cooking for a large group of people as that is the Syrian way that families gather and eat together.”
MacDermid, who Jenan refers to as her “Canadian mom,” said when the Alhssos first arrived they lived in a rented home near her place in Westmount.
About a year ago, the family purchased their own home on Alexandra Street in Sydney.
“Because they lived so close they came down often,” said MacDermid of the relationship she developed with the family.
“Of course, the children went to school and they picked up English quickly. It was a harder struggle for Ahmad and Jenan, but they’re coming, just a little slower.”
The Alhsso family first moved from their home in the city of Aleppo in 2011 after civil war and violence broke out in Syria.
They travelled to Turkey where their oldest daughter married and remains with the couple’s first grandchild.
A former construction worker and owner of his own car rental company, Ahmad Alhsso found himself with little job prospects in Turkey.
“It was difficult,” said Ahmed Barakat, the family’s restaurant partner in Sydney.
“They didn’t feel welcome as Syrians in Turkey. A lot of Syrians moved to Turkey when the war started, so I guess the Turkish people would feel like they’re taking jobs and consuming their space, basically.”
THE ALHSSO FAMILY
- Arrived in Cape Breton: August 17, 2017
- From: Aleppo, Syria, via Turkey
- Father: Ahmad Alhsso, 46
- Mother: Jenan Alahmad, 46
- Oldest son: Abdullah Alhsso, 21
- Son: Bader Alhsso, 13
- Oldest Daughter: Hala, 22, married and living in Turkey with a two-year-old.
- Daughter: Hala Alhsso, 8
A Cape Breton University business graduate, Barakat has lived on the island for nine years.
He became interested in opening a restaurant with the help of a Syrian family about two years ago.
“I knew that there were Syrian families coming to Cape Breton,” said Barakat.
“I’m from Egypt and I know Syrian food is top food. It’s the best food in the Middle East, so I wanted to meet a Syrian family that knows how to bake.”
Barakat said he approached New Dawn Enterprises as they were helping Syrian refugees settle within their new hometowns. Among the newcomers were the Alhssos, who spoke of starting their own bakery.
“That’s how I met them two years ago,” said Barakat.
“When we sat down, I told them, 'you know, let’s keep it simple in the menu.' Too much is confusing for people and they get a little overwhelmed with so many items.”
Barakat said although the menu will feature Syrian favourites from fatayers, Turkish coffee, manakish, shawarma wraps and kibbeh, that isn’t meant to worry customers who have more adventurous tastes.
As part of the restaurant’s regular meal specials, traditional items not often served locally will make their way onto Jenan’s menu.
Barakat said although it took a little while for them to find a good location, once the George Street property hit the rental market they knew it was the right spot.
“This just worked out to be perfect timing,” said Barakat, who signed the lease in late September.
“Everything is under Jenan, that why her name is here. It’s her place. She’s the cook A to Z. We help her, but she’s the main person cooking.”
As part of making the space their own, a variety of updates were made at 270 George St.— most of which were performed by the Alhsso's son, Abdullah.
By translating in Arabic through Barakat, Ahmad Alhsso said he wanted to thank the Cape Breton community that has helped his family create a new home.
“The sponsor group was really kind and helped us through everything,” he said.
As part of the new venture, Jenan’s Kitchen business’ hours will be Monday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.