For Mohamad Fakih, everything changed after his visit to one of the Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon.
“My heart was shattered when I saw what I saw in that camp,” the Lebanese-Canadian entrepreneur tells Newsweek Middle East.
“Children had no jackets; they were playing out in the cold without shoes,” he recalls.
But Fakih wanted to do more than just donate money.
“You can give them money, but you can give them money once, twice, and that’s it,” he argues.
Instead, the founder and chief executive officer of the popular Middle Eastern restaurant chain in Canada, Paramount Fine Foods, realized that something even more valuable and lasting could help the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees now living in Canada: jobs.
Earlier this month, Fakih pledged to hire as many as 100 Syrian refugees in Paramount locations across the province of Ontario. That is about three to five refugees per restaurant.
“That [work] experience has to start somewhere,” Fakih says.
“We know they don’t have Canadian experience, so how are they going to get over it if we all don’t put our money where our mouth is?”
As of March 20, Canada had taken in more than 26,000 Syrian refugees.
After finding housing in their new cities, many of the newcomers say their next major challenge is finding work to provide for their families.
“[The refugees] are a reality, they’re existing, they’re here today. I really don’t see what else we can do,” Fakih says.
Fakih moved to Canada from Lebanon in 1999, and at the beginning, he too, struggled to find a job that matched his qualifications.
He was rejected for the first five jobs he had applied for and was repeatedly told, he didn’t have Canadian experience.
“I didn’t know how to write a resume,” he recalls with a smile.
“I always put in my mind as a goal to make that experience different for people when I become one day an employer, if I do. And I did.”
“The best people are people who do not forget their own suffering and will not let other people go through the same [thing],” he insists.
His first job was at a Tim Hortons coffee shop, but being a Muslim he quit five days later because he didn’t want to work in a place that wasn’t halal, in reference to some food items that were sold there which were not compliant with Islamic law.
He said the surprises didn’t end after he got his first, more permanent job, either.
When he got his first paycheck, after tax deduction, he couldn’t believe his eyes. “Why did they take my money?” he thought to himself.
“I ran to my manager and I complained about it, and my manager laughed and told me: ‘This is Canada,’” he says with a laugh, as he remembers his first encounter with tax deductions.
A Success Story
In 2007, Fakih opened his first Paramount store in Mississauga, a city just west of Toronto, after he bought a Lebanese restaurant that was going bankrupt.
Today, Paramount Fine Foods can be found in more than 30 locations across Canada, and by the end of the year, the company hopes to open 60 restaurants internationally, including in New York, Florida, Pakistan, Dubai and Germany.
Each restaurant serves Middle Eastern culinary staples—from fattoush and manakeesh to grilled meats, falafel and knafeh—and boasts wood-fire ovens and an elegant decor that is bolstered by top-notch service.
Taking the Pledge
Rima Zbib, the franchisee owner of a Paramount restaurant in Yorkville, in downtown Toronto, tells Newsweek Middle East that she is eager to hire Syrian refugees.
“It’s a good idea. Helping people is good and that’s why we are here in Canada: to help everybody,” Zbib says from behind the sweets counter during lunch-hour rush at the restaurant.
Zbib moved to Canada from Lebanon in 2000 when she was eight months pregnant. Her difficult immigration experience has motivated her to help the Syrian newcomers.
“It was a very painful experience for me and thank God that I found friends and everybody helped me. That’s why anybody [who] comes to Canada, I like to help them,” she says.
Working in a Middle Eastern-themed restaurant, Zbib adds, will ease the refugees’ transition.
“They will feel like they are still back home. They will feel safe. They will feel that somebody actually cares about them, and not everything is new or strange,” says Zbib.
Partnership to Give Back
Fakih has hired an employment coordinator in partnership with Ryerson University in Toronto to help the refugees integrate into the Canadian workforce.
The refugees will learn how to prepare a resume and gather information about local labor laws and standards, while being matched to potential employers. “Even if they fail at the first job we place them at, they will learn on the go,” Fakih says.
According to him, some of the Paramount franchisees have already hired Syrian refugees.
He further called on all entrepreneurs and businesses to step up the employment efforts to help whenever possible.
“Let them live with the pride and dignity they deserve. They already [lost] three, four, five years of their lives [to the war in Syria],” Fakih says.
“The intention is supporting the government initiative to help people that were not as fortunate as we are [and] to move them to a better life with dignity and pride,” Fakih tells Newsweek Middle East.
“Let’s [put] our hands together to employ them and get them back to a real life,” he adds.