Crash leaves Syrian family struggling to hold onto its Edmonton business — and its dreams

·3 min read

In a matter of seconds, a road crash in southern Alberta changed everything for a family of Syrian refugees who were just starting to see glimpses of a bright future.

On Aug. 21, about two months after Halimah Bekfalouni and her husband Ahmad El-Akdy opened a north Edmonton produce store, El-Akdy suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a truck crash near Calgary.

Four months later, he's still in the hospital, unlikely to ever walk again, while his wife desperately tries to keep the store afloat while raising their four children.

"One day, I remember, I came to my kids and told them I will close the store. And they said, 'My dad gives his life for the store," Bekfalouni told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Wednesday.

Last June, the family opened Veggie Palace at 9026 132nd Ave. in the Glengarry neighbourhood. At first, the store only sold tomatoes and cucumbers but by mid-August, it had expanded to offer everything from apples to zucchini.

Pippa Reed/CBC Edmonton
Pippa Reed/CBC Edmonton

El-Akdy picked up fresh produce twice each week, driving to suppliers based as far away as the Okanagan and southern Alberta.

On Aug. 21, he was returning from Medicine Hat with a load of fresh fruits and vegetables when the crash happened, leaving him with a complete C7 spinal cord injury, according to a GoFundMe page set up to help the family.

El-Akdy underwent extensive surgery at the Calgary Foothills Hospital. He was transferred to Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital, where he spent several months before moving to the nearby Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.

Bekfalouni has visited her husband every day. But because of COVID-19 restrictions, their four sons — the oldest is 16 — have only seen their dad via WhatsApp, she said.

Mohammed Hiddo, a family friend who acted as a translator for the CBC interview, said some people in the Arab community have been pushing Bekfalouni to give up the store.

Store is the future

Other costs have risen, including expenses for transportation that previously would have been done by El-Akdy.

"She will do her best to stay in the store because that's the start, the future for her children," Hiddo said. "It's a hard decision to take."

Hiddo and his father have been helping Bekfalouni with the business.

Other family friends, including those who sponsored them to Canada three years ago, started the GoFundMe initiative. It aims to raise $175,000 to help the family with home, business expenses and rehabilitation expenses in the months ahead.

Grace Elliott, who has known the family since they arrived in Canada, said they have earned the admiration of the community.

"I've known the family since they arrived at the airport three years ago and I've been so impressed with the strength of this family from Day 1. They're amazing people, very hard-working and tenacious and very loving," Elliott told Edmonton AM.

"They came here and worked so hard to learn English and to start their business and to make a life for themselves and to contribute to the community. And then tragedy struck. And it's very heartbreaking, but they're still showing tremendous strength of spirit."

Bekfalouni is deeply grateful for the helping hands that have been extended, but expressed a heartfelt wish that family members in Lebanon could be sponsored to Canada.

"Because now I don't have anyone," she said.