Syrian family cooks up new opportunity in Cape Breton

After first coming to Sydney, N.S., as Syrian refugees in 2017, the Alhsso family is cooking up new opportunity.

Parents Ahmad Alhsso and Jenan Alahmad have teamed up with Cape Breton University graduate Ahmed Barakat to open Jenan's Syrian Kitchen, a little restaurant on George Street.

Before arriving in Canada, Alhsso and Alahmad spent five years living in Turkey after they fled the Syrian city of Aleppo during the civil war.

From Syria to Turkey to Canada, one thing remained constant — Alahmad's love of cooking for friends and family. The mother of four even spent time teaching students how to make traditional Middle Eastern desserts at a UN-operated school in Turkey.

The desserts she loves are now being served at Jenan's Syrian Kitchen, which opened its doors Tuesday. They are focusing on food patrons can take away easily, like manakish and falafels. Their signature drink is Turkish coffee.

Alahmad, according to Barakat, who acted as translator during an interview, is "very pleased to have her name on her own restaurant so she can show the public who she is and what she can do."

Brittany Wentzell/CBC

Barakat moved to Cape Breton from Cairo, Egypt, in 2010 to attend CBU and study business. He said when he heard Syrian refugees were coming to Cape Breton, he reached out to find out if anyone would be interested in selling Syrian baked goods, as they are well known in the Middle East. That's when he met Alahmad and Alhsso.

"It's always said, 'Sydney ... is quiet there's not much to do.' It always triggers in my mind there is an opportunity then, if there's not much to do there's an opportunity that could benefit residents here," said Barakat.

Even if he was not involved, he said he believes the couple was destined to open a restaurant.

"They would have found a way to get what they wanted," he said.

Alahmad and Alhsso's 21-year-old son, Abdullah, credits Barakat as being part of their reason to stay in Sydney instead of moving to a larger city.

Abdullah Alhsso struggled to find work while the family was living in Turkey and had to move hours away from his parents and live in an apartment with 14 other men, sometimes working up to 16 hours a day.

Now he works with his parents at the restaurant. He said it's "very good" in Sydney, adding that in Turkey "they don't want to talk to you at all" if you don't speak Turkish.

Showing gratitude

Ahmad Alhsso said he is grateful to the community, particularly people who offered him construction work when he first arrived. He and Abdullah extensively renovated the space the restaurant is in.

Alahmad has her own way of showing her gratitude. She has been greeting every customer with candies on an ornate dish and when a friend or neighbour stopped by on their first day, she refused to take their money.

She said she wants to thank the family's sponsors — Munro Academy and Westmount United Church.

Alahmad told Barakat everything is almost perfect. Now she is just waiting for her adult daughter and two-year-old grandchild to come to Cape Breton. Barakat said plans for that are in the works.