Places

Peace by Chocolate: from Syria to Antigonish

How this small town chocolate factory in Nova Scotia is making a big impact

  • Jan 19, 2023
  • 1,119 words
  • 5 minutes
The Hadhad family. (Photo courtesy Peace by Chocolate)
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This is a story about peace, the human spirit, refugees, chocolate, and the promise of a small-town Canadian dream. It is a tale that inspired a community, a film, a book, the prime minister’s speech at the United Nations, and even astronauts in space. It certainly inspired me.

We begin in Damascus, where a former civil engineer named Isam Hadhad reinvented himself as a chocolatier, pouring his heart into a business that eventually grew into the second-largest chocolate manufacturer in the Middle East. He courted his future wife with a box of chocolates and a note that read: ‘I don’t make chocolate, I make happiness.” Life is good until war comes to Syria, and bombs begin to fall.

Isam Hadhad making chocolate. (Photo courtesy Peace by Chocolate)
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The factory is destroyed, the business collapses, and the family flees as desperate refugees to Lebanon. Tareq, Asim’s son and an aspiring medical student, applies for an international scholarship to continue his studies. Canada’s refugee program reaches out and invites the extended family to join him. Scouting ahead, Tareq arrives north in the dead of winter with only a few possessions, expecting to settle in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. Instead, the refugee agency sends him to Antigonish, N.S., population 4650. He is the first Syrian refugee to arrive in a town with no established Muslim community. His nine-member family follows shortly thereafter.  Locals welcome the Hadhads at the airport with signs and open arms. This is the Atlantic Canada way.

The Hadhads knew what best to offer their neighbours at a communal potluck.  Sourcing ingredients, Isam made chocolate over the stove in their small kitchen, set in ice-cube trays. Their neighbours literally ate it up, quickly suggesting they sell the phenomenal chocolates at an upcoming winter farmer’s market. Word spread throughout the community, who arrived early and bought every last piece within a half-hour of the market’s opening.

The grand opening of Peace by Chocolate in Antigonish, N.S.. (Photo courtesy Peace by Chocolate)
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The small-town Canadian dream offers community, support, safety, and friendship. For refugees like the Hadhads, Antigonish offered acceptance, dignity, empathy, and a sense of belonging. “In major cities, nobody stops strangers on the streets to ask their name and hear their story,” Tareq tells me. They stopped him on his second day in Antigonish.   

Community volunteers rallied to build the Hadhads a small shed so they could get serious about making chocolate. They loaned the family money to buy equipment, helped build a website, and told everyone far and wide: did you hear about that family of Syrian refugees making the best chocolate around? Recognizing an opportunity, young Tareq put his medical studies on hold and got to work helping his father. It was the Fort McMurray wildfires that sparked a mission beyond just the processing of cocoa. The family created specific products to raise money for desperate residents in Alberta, and $100,000 was soon donated to the Red Cross. Chocolates became more than just an indulgent delicacy. Each truffle or gold bar became a vessel for positive social values and a celebration of the best of humanity. Peace by Chocolate was born, and it grew with astonishing speed.

Photo courtesy Peace by Chocolate
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Photo courtesy Peace by Chocolate
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“We had no idea Prime Minister Trudeau was going to share our story in his speech to the United Nations,” says Tareq. Media inquiries flooded in from around the world, along with requests to stock their products. They hired more people – a few, then dozens – inviting new refugees from Syria and later Ukraine. A heartwarming true-story movie was made, a book was written, and a chance meeting with an astronaut saw Nova Scotian chocolates shared aboard the International Space Station. Peace by Chocolate products can now be found in over a thousand retail stores across the country, and the company employs more than 75 people, making it the third largest employer in Antigonish.  

It had taken decades for the family to grow their business in Damascus. Peace by Chocolate had become a resounding national success not long after Isam first poured chocolate into ice trays. Just two years after arriving as a young student in a town and province he’d never known existed, 25-year-old CEO Tareq Hadhad was invited to join the Board of Directors for Invest Nova Scotia, a public body that grants provincial economic incentives. In 2020, the family became proud Canadian citizens, congratulated by their proud community and the prime minister too.

Tareq's welcoming party. (Photo courtesy Peace by Chocolate)
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I ask Tareq, now 30, if the family would return to Syria. “Canada is not a hospital that you leave when you recover. It is our home, the greatest country on Earth,” he replies.  “It celebrated us as human beings worthy of dignity, giving us a chance to create a sense of belonging after we lost everything.” This gratitude extends deep. A portion of the profits from every chocolate sold is contributed to charities and causes, including Indigenous, LGBTQ and international relief organizations.

As acute cultural and political conflict continues to proliferate across North America, Peace by Chocolate’s mission is more important than ever. “Hatred and anxiety are much easier to spread than love, kindness and peace,” says Tareq. After rebuilding their lives, he’s also aware that Canadians take many things for granted. “Most Canadians have never lived in areas of war or conflict. They haven’t had to fear bombs and mortars. They have peace in their day-to-day lives, access to healthcare, education, and freedom of movement.” Moreover, small communities can access many of the services and amenities one finds in a big city. Tareq encourages refugees and immigrants to embrace our small towns, which offer stability, safety, community support, and, most of all, peace. 

Syria has lost skilled workers and bold entrepreneurs to Canada’s gain. Refugees and immigrants have made enormous sacrifices to be here, and we do not take it for granted, myself included. We work hard, we give our best, we open our hearts, adopt strange customs, and treasure our opportunities. We know that life is as fragile as a chocolate bar; easily broken, quickly stolen, suddenly melted or tragically lost.  

Yes, life is a box of chocolates, and you never know what you’re going to get. Pistachios, hazelnuts or maple syrup? Sea salt, cranberries or caramel. Inspired by the spirit and mission of the Hadhads and their community in Antigonish – not to mention those heavenly truffles – the Peace by Chocolate story contains all the ingredients Canada aspires to be.

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