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Rania and Basem Almethyb create friendships from their restaurant in New Glasgow, NS

There’s a cheerful chime of bells as I open the door to Maple Cedar Syrian Kitchen, a modest restaurant in a strip mall just off the highway in New Glasgow. Tempting scents from spices and cooking waft through the air, and shelves along the walls are brimming with groceries—spices, dates, oils, teas, sweets and more—for those with a fondness for Middle Eastern cuisine.

Rania Almethyb emerges from the kitchen with a warm smile and a welcome. As she prepares tea for us, two of her friends arrive: Sue MacIntosh and Cathy Hanley, both of whom are volunteers with Pictou County Safe Harbour, a non-profit and volunteer-driven refugee sponsorship society. (See sidebar). Although Rania’s English is very good—whereas when she and her family arrived in 2016, none of them spoke any, she is more comfortable speaking with me with her friends there, to help clarify anything she might not completely understand. Within a few minutes, with hot tea and a plate of Syrian cookies to tempt us, Rania starts to tell her family’s story.

And what a story it is. She and her husband, Basem, and their three oldest children, Mohammed, Abdullah, and Ali, fled their home city of Daraa, Syria, in 2013, and spent more than two years in a refugee camp in Jordan.

Rania says, “we thought we were leaving Syria for just a couple of months, and I was heartbroken that we left family and our beautiful home and good work behind.” When the family was asked if the Almethyb family was interested in immigrating to another country, they quickly agreed. “We needed a future for our children,” she says. “There was no future, no life, nothing in the camp.” To add to their complications, Rania had the couple’s fourth child, daughter Raneem, while in Jordan, and Basem had knee replacement and couldn’t work for months, so their eldest son, Mohammed, left school and began working to help the family. “I just kept praying for something to happen.”

Seemingly out of the blue, recently-arrived immigrant Tareq Haddad, (now owner of Peace by Chocolate), called Basem and told him about Pictou County Safe Harbour, the local organization that had agreed to sponsor the Almethyb family to come to Nova Scotia. Rania says she was frightened about this strange new place, but she and Basem knew they had to go to a safe country for the sake of their children. Within 40 days, they were in Nova Scotia—arriving in February of 2016, and moving into a house in New Glasgow.

Rania’s observation? “It was so cold,” she smiles, “it was a hard year for me, no language, hard weather, and not too many people locally spoke Arabic when we first moved here. But when we arrived, everything was ready for us—with love, with beautiful people, they make us feel like family. And I feel the same as if in my own country.”

For the first year, while under sponsorship from Pictou County Safe Harbour, the family focused on learning English, settling into their new community and getting the children into school. A fifth child, Hamza, was born after they arrived in New Glasgow. Word of Rania’s love of cooking began to spread in the Safe Harbour organization. As Cathy explains it, “her love of cooking showed immediately, because whenever we would bring something to the house to help the family out, there was always food.”

Maple Cedar Syrian Kitchen, New Glasgow NS

Encouraged by her friends, Rania began making sweets—cookies and baklava—and selling them at the New Glasgow Farmers Market on weekends. The response was immediately positive, so she began to add chicken shawarma to her offerings. Her sales jumped, and people were encouraging her to open a restaurant. But how?

In the meantime, Basem had found work with a man originally from Lebanon, Fred El Haddad, who ran a small restaurant in the town, Maple Cedar. The name celebrated both the national tree of Canada, the Maple, and that of Lebanon, the Cedar. After two years, Fred sold the restaurant to Basem and Rania in 2019 with the advice to “make the food with love, like you would for your own people, and you will be a good owner.” 

Maple Cedar Syrian Kitchen was born, and was immediately successful. Then came COVID-19, which could have played havoc with the Almethyb family’s business, but Rania says proudly that they didn’t have to close a single day. “Our customers knew our restaurant, and we already did a lot of takeout, plus we were at the market when it reopened, so we were fortunate.”

The restaurant has a mixed menu of Middle East and Canadian foods—pizza, fish and chips, and donairs, plus Middle Eastern delights like the ever-popular shawarma, falafel, fattoush, tabouli, stuffed grape leaves and more. Lunchtime during the school year is always very busy, as dozens of students come from the nearby high school to grab a slice and pop for a very reasonable price.

Asked how the community has responded to the newcomers in their midst, Rania is adamant. “This seems to be a very inclusive community,” she says, “I didn’t see anything like racism here, everyone was welcoming and helpful. I thought maybe, where I wear a hijab, it would be different, but it’s not. Maybe someone not loves me, but I don’t know it!” All of the family members are now proudly Canadian citizens, too. Rania recounts how she goes to the grocery store with her children, and many people stop to say hello. Plus she has customers coming from all around the area, saying, “I couldn’t do all this with just my husband because I don’t have enough English, but I have beautiful friends and they help me all the time!”

Are there challenges in running the restaurant? Rania says, sometimes it’s hard to find halal chicken required by Muslim diets, and “At first, we didn’t have enough language for the customers, and there were a lot of mistakes.” She laughs, “My customers helped me and weren’t mad. We didn’t know anything about business, about taxes and computers, and we had to get licences, inspections, food handler certification, and our friends in Safe Harbour gave us so much help.”

Encouraged by the positive response to the restaurant, Rania and Basem began bringing in Middle Eastern groceries to sell at the restaurant. “We hope in the future to make the restaurant bigger and to open a grocery for multicultural people, this is a dream for us. But not yet.” The couple and their restaurant were recently honoured with the 2022 Newcomer Award from the Pictou County Chamber of Commerce—and Rania took the opportunity during her acceptance speech to invite people to come to the restaurant.

Rania and Basem are very conscious of being able to give back to the community, always supporting various groups when there are events or fundraisers. “My husband and me, people helped us, and we love back, we help back in return.”

Cathy Hanley speaks of a situation several years ago when members of the Syrian Civil Defence force—the White Helmets—were being threatened in their homeland and Canada and other countries came and took many people to safety. It’s fitting that Rania was the translator at the airport when one of the five families sponsored by Pictou County Safe Harbour arrived in Nova Scotia. The family has also helped some Ukrainian families who have moved to the area.

“We are repaying kindness with kindness,” Rania says firmly.

 

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