From refugee to entrepreneur: Peace by Chocolate CEO to become Canadian citizen

Shelby Thevenot
Published: January 10, 2020

Four years ago Tareq Hadhad came to Antigonish, Nova Scotia, as a Syrian refugee, and next week he will officially become a Canadian citizen— something he calls “a great honour.”

The ceremony will take place in Halifax, Nova Scotia on January 15— a two-hour drive from where the Hadhad family set up their now-successful chocolate company, Peace by Chocolate.

The company that started out as a home-kitchen operation now has 64 specialty vendors across Canada and their products are available in big-name grocery stores like Sobeys, Foodland and Safeway.

Hadhad is not only the CEO of Peace by Chocolate but he sits on the board of directors for Invest Nova Scotia and is a professional speaker who has travelled to several countries in Europe, Jamaica, the U.S. and almost every Canadian province.

Becoming a Canadian citizen feels like a natural progression for Hadhad, who said he always felt Canadian since the moment he landed.

“Now I can travel around the world and I am part of this big amazing [Canadian] family that is doing great things in the world,” he told CIC News.

His story started in Damascus, the capital of Syria. After war broke out in 2011, the Hadhad family’s chocolate business was destroyed and they were forced to flee to Lebanon.

In a TEDx Talk at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Hadhad recounted what he told a worker at the refugee camp who called him by his number: “I’m not a number,” he said. “When I was in Syria I had dreams.”

Hadhad said that he was on track to be a physician, and his father owned the second-largest chocolate company in the Middle East when they lost everything to the war.

“When I landed in Antigonish in December 2015, I had nothing but a set of goals that we would live our lives in the service of others and be a service for our community,” he said.

When they arrived in Canada they came with only the clothes in their suitcases. Hadhad was the first to arrive, followed by his father, mother, and three siblings.

At the time, Hadhad recalled how their main concern was starting from scratch. It took them 20 years to build the chocolate company in Damascus and they did not know how they would do it in Canada.

None of them spoke English at a high enough level to conduct business. Furthermore, the family’s religion forbids them from paying interest on loans, limiting their sources of start-up funds.

Hadhad said the family also had to overcome the culture shock of going from the huge metropolis of Damascus to the rural community of Antigonish, a university town with a population of around 5,000 people.

“We expected that this can be a really difficult challenge for our family,” he said. “When we arrived here, then we realized all it takes is having faith and making sure we make lots of connections.”

Find out if you are eligible for any Canadian immigration programs

“If it’s not working, go networking”

The community of Antigonish got their first taste of the Hadhad’s chocolate at a community potluck where they ate them up within 10 minutes.

From there the momentum built. The Hadhads started selling their chocolate in a local market and eventually decided they would need to buy special equipment, called a chocolate wheel, in order to make a feasible business.

They would need a storefront and a factory, all without a bank loan.

“We don’t deal with interest so the community stepped up, actually,” Hadhad said. “They had funds raised internally that was going to be paid in six months… we paid it off in one month.”

With the help of about 30 to 35 volunteers in the community, they built their storefront and opened up shop.

Peace by Chocolate officially opened in 2016, and would eventually make national news. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave them a shout out and shared their story at the Leaders Summit on Refugees at the United Nations in New York.

Today, Peace by Chocolate donates a percentage of its profits to peacebuilding projects around the world. They also have a partnership supporting a community program called "Nitap" that hosts culturally specific activities in Paqtnkek First Nation. A portion of the profits from the "Nitap Bar" goes towards their programming.

"He does connect with the community," said Karla Stevens, one of the coordinators for Nitap, "He is such a very kind person. He is very open and honest and that goes very well with our people."

Hadhad also plans to hire 50 Syrian refugees across Canada by 2022 and to create a mentorship program for 10 startups run by Syrian refugees in Canada.

Though part of Hadhad’s job as CEO is ensuring the sustainability of the business, he says Peace by Chocolate had a bigger goal than just to turn a profit.

“It is not a business, it is a message— another way to send our mission and vision for peace in Canada and around the world,” Hadhad said.

Find out if you are eligible for any Canadian immigration programs

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