Tolerance trumps hatred in Toronto

Soufi’s, a Syrian restaurant in Toronto, shut down on October 8 after receiving a barrage of hate mail and threatening phone calls.

On October 11, the popular restaurant reopened and its nine employees were back at work, serving up Syrian food like Maneesh, a savory flatbread slathered with various toppings; Knaffeh a shredded phylo pastry soaked in ghee and orange blossom syrup and sprinkled with raw pistachios; Sfeeha, a ground beef and mixed vegetable dish, and Msakhan, grilled chicken seasoned with onions and sumac.

Soufi’s restaurant in Toronto (Sheldon Kirshner photos)

I don’t normally following the comings and goings of restaurants in the city, but this story, which is broadly about immigration, xenophobia and free speech, captivated me.

Soufi’s is owned by Husam and Shahnaz Al-Soufi, Syrian refugees who immigrated to Canada from Damascus three years ago this month with their two grown children, Alaa and Ayham. Their third child, Jala, arrived here in 2012 to study at the University of Toronto.

Millions of Syrians have left the country since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, and about 60,000 have settled in Canada, a country of mass immigration, in the past few years.

The Al-Soufis opened their modest restaurant on Queen Street West, a cosmopolitan neighborhood, in 2017. The New York Times published a glowing piece about it as an example of how a Syrian refuge family had successfully integrated themselves in Canada. “We were inspired to open up Soufi’s by our love for our Syrian culture, music, and delicious home-made food,” the family wrote on its website.

Last year, my wife and I dropped by and ordered Maneesh. Having reported from Syria, I was drawn to Soufi’s Levantine cuisine. On summer days, I often cycled past it en route to one of my favorite places, Trinity Bellwoods Park.

The closure notice

Like some Torontonians, I was surprised to learn that Soufi’s had abruptly closed. As I paused at the shuttered restaurant, I glanced at a notice pasted on the window. Headlined “Permanently Closed,” it indicated that Soufi’s had shut due to a torrent of hateful messages and death threats. It also thanked its neighbors and customers for their support and extended its love and appreciation to its staff. Under it was a hand-written sign: “Refugees are welcome here!”

The reaction to the closure

What had happened?

Toward the end of September, Alaa Al-Soufi attended a demonstration at Mohawk College in Hamilton to protest a fund-raising event for the right-wing People’s Party at which its populist leader, Maxime Bernier, spoke. The party, if elected to power, would radically reduce immigration, scrap Canada’s multiculturalism policy, and screen potential immigrants to ensure they share Canadian values.

Protesters, some wearing masks, shouted epithets such as “Nazi scum off our streets” at people who entered the building where the Bernier event wasting place. Dorothy Marston, an 81-year-old woman with a walker, was among the recipients of this verbal abuse. By all accounts, Alaa Al-Soufi was one of the masked protestors who tried to block Marston and her husband from going inside. Eventually, she and her husband were escorted into the building by the police.

A day later, Alaa Al-Soufi was identified on Twitter as a Syrian “terrorist” who had reportedly harassed the Marstons. In short order, an avalanche of social media users in North America and Europe bombarded him and his parents with hateful messages and death threats.

Bernier, a former Canadian foreign minister, retweeted a story about the incident and described Marston as “brave” and the protesters as “thugs.”

I agree with his choice of words. Canada is a democracy and its citizens are free to support whatever political party they please. Alaa Al-Soufi should have respected this elementary rule.

Frightened by the venomous backlash unleashed by their son, the Al-Soufis panicked and closed their restaurant. They then issued the following statement: “We would like to reiterate that our son Alaa regrets the incident that occurred in Hamilton this past weekend. That said, he did not in any way verbally or physically assault the elderly woman and has nonetheless offered to apologize personally for not doing more.”

Adding that Alaa had been physically assaulted, they noted, “Alaa has been an activist and humanitarian, fighting for the rights of oppressed communities in Canada and worldwide. We support and love our son for standing up against oppression.”

In another statement, the Al-Soufis said, “We know this hate does not reflect the people of Toronto. The people of Toronto are loving, welcoming people. We have heard from countless community members and organizations who have restored our faith in the city.”

Notes of solidarity

Amid the tension, Mohamad Fakih, the chief executive officer of the Toronto-based Middle Eastern restaurant chain Paramount Fine Foods, asked the Al-Soufi family to reconsider their decision and offered to run Soufi’s free of charge so they could focus on the death threats, which are being investigated by the police as hate speech.

On October 10, the family invited reporters to their restaurant to announce they were reopening Soufi’s. “The public reaction to (our closing) was beyond what we imagined,” said Husam Al-Soufi. “We received hundreds of heartfelt messages from across Canada offering support.”

“We do not wish to set a tragic example for future immigrants and refugee business owners as a business that gave in to hate,” he noted. We want to foster hope in the face of intimidation and hostility.”

On October 11, Soufi’s reopened. When I cycled past it on a pleasant autumn afternoon, it was crowded, back in business, as if nothing amiss had occurred. Whether the family will be harassed again remains to be seen, but Fakih has promised to arrange a police presence or hire a private security company should there be a need.

This is a story that could have ended badly. It could have tarnished Toronto’s reputation as a friendly multinational city. And it could have stained Canada’s image as a country that welcomes and accepts refugees from war-torn nations. Fortunately, it took a turn for the better when the Al-Soufis, boldly challenging their tormentors, reopened their restaurant.

Their decision was an unmistakable sign that tolerance had trumped bigotry in Canada.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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