Slieman al-Jasem, 21, chats comfortably with customers as he weighs and bags snowy filets of fresh-caught white and yellow perch and pickerel from nearby Lake Ontario. He even attempts a little French for a Montreal couple at his booth at the Wellington Farmers' Market.
Not bad, for a kid who had little formal education and spoke not a word of English or French just a few years ago, when he and his family arrived in Prince Edward County in one of the first waves of Syrian refugees to be sponsored by Canadians.
“Not a lot of people speak Arabic here,” he says. “That is the reason I learned fast, I guess.”
Less than a year ago, Mr. al-Jasem had never cleaned a fish either. And yet, he has become an unlikely saviour for Dewey Fisheries, the only fish processing operation left in the county.
Run by a husband-and-wife team, Kendall and Joanne Dewey, the backyard facility was in danger of being shut down, leaving the region’s restaurants and shoppers without a source of local seafood.
The couple wanted to find someone younger and hungrier to take over their processing operation, leaving them to do what they love best – fishing.
They are in the midst of an evolving transition to Mr. al-Jasem, who is learning to operate the processing end of the business and may eventually take over the Deweys’ fishing licences.
The Deweys wanted to ensure the community had a place to process and sell their catch, and locals had access to fresh-caught fish.
“I’m 66 and Joanne is 58. We’re tired of working 70-hour plus weeks,” Mr. Dewey says.
“We tried all sorts of things to find someone who would take over, but we had no takers,” his wife adds.
Then, in late fall, a friend showed them SponsorLand, a TVOntario documentary chronicling the al-Jasems’ arrival in 2015. The family had been pushed out of their village in Syria by bombing, and spent four years in a Lebanese refugee camp before heading to Canada. The Deweys reached out to Carlyn Moulton, founder of the sponsor group that brought the al-Jasems to Canada, to see if Slieman (the oldest son) might be interested in taking over their clients.
They faced an array of questions when they met with Mr. al-Jasem and Ms. Moulton. “If you’re making money at this, why would you want someone to take it over,” Mr. al-Jasem wanted to know. “You’re basically handing someone a ready-made business.”
The Deweys explained they were looking to retire. They also hoped if Mr. al-Jasem liked the work, he might eventually buy their fishing licences for Lake Ontario and the Bay of Quinte.
Mr. al-Jasem has been out in the boat with his mentor several times, but he is more excited at the prospect of selling to customers. So in March, with the help of a grant from Prince Edward Learning Centre’s Inspire youth employment program that paid his salary for 17 weeks, the Deweys began to train him to scale and fillet fish.
By May, Mr. al-Jasem independently launched a Facebook page for the County Catch and set up his first booth at the Wellington Farmers' Market. He has since expanded to other markets and built his roster of restaurant clients to almost 20.
On the scorching Canada Day weekend, he arrives at the Deweys’ home flushed and sweating after delivering fish to eight restaurants and making a run to Sandbanks Farmer’s Market to replace a broken scale for his brother, Ramez, who is manning the booth there. He complains about the traffic like the local he has become. “Even in Picton I can’t get anywhere,” he says.
Driving, at least, was a skill Mr. al-Jasem had already mastered when he arrived in Canada – he’s been driving since he was 12 or 13, he says. “Where I lived [in Syria] we don’t have to have a licence.” He did, however, have a tremendous amount to learn about running a business.
Initially, Mr. al-Jasem admits he was less than enamoured with the time-consuming, smelly work of processing fish. But he grew accustomed to the odour and he got faster – he can now clean and fillet three fish a minute.
He is no stranger to hard work, Mr. Dewey says. “He laboured in a quarry in Lebanon from the time he was 13 or 14.” But invoicing, tracking payments and organizing deliveries are another matter. When it comes to receipts, “it takes me a long time to do just one page,” Mr. al-Jasem adds. His childhood teachers, he says, did not prepare him for this kind of work.
The Deweys want to keep helping Mr. al-Jasem stay on track. “It has never been a conventional employer-employee relationship,” Mr. Dewey says. “It’s like having another son.”
Under the current arrangement, the Deweys continue to fish, supplying two larger buyers with whole unfilleted catch. Mr. al-Jasem maintains the retail side, as well as cleaning and filleting. The economics are tight – Mr. al-Jasem relies on his restaurants buying in bulk, and on farmers' markets, where he can unload as much as 50 pounds daily per market (purchased for $2 to $3.50 a pound) for $6 to $14 a pound.
It’s early days. Mr. al-Jasem still has a few things to figure out, including how to manage the seasonality of his business and cover the additional costs the Deweys are currently footing. They’ve been paying for the ice machine, the lights, the cooler and the freezer that keep the processing facility going.
“I might need a loan maybe, to get me set up with a processing facility in Picton,” Mr. al-Jasem says. But ultimately, he sees a future in this new occupation. “Fish processing is not easy, it’s a dirty job and many people don’t want to do it,” he says. “But I don’t mind. If I sell enough fish, I can make good money and help my family.”