The Al-Soufi family were sold the same rosy narrative about life in Canada as millions of immigrants before them: This was a country where dozens of ethnicities lived side by side without incident.
In 2017, two years after the Syrian family arrived in Toronto, they were living that reality, serving traditional Syrian street food – manaeesh and knaffeh – in their restaurant on the same trendy stretch of Queen Street West as an Iranian eatery that prepared braised cow tongue and a Japanese noodle house serving steaming bowls of miso ramen.
Last week, they saw a different version of Canada. After receiving hundreds of hateful and xenophobic messages and phone calls, including death threats, they closed their restaurant, Soufi’s. And now – even after catching a reassuring glimpse of the country they had fallen in love with and deciding to reopen – they still can’t unsee that ugly side of the country.
The Al-Soufis’ eventful week was triggered by their son, Alaa, being identified as a masked protester in a viral video from a People’s Party of Canada fundraiser in Hamilton, Ont., in which an elderly woman with a walker and her husband were blocked from entering by a group of protesters.
Vigilantes distributed information about their son and the restaurant, inciting others to send hateful messages and make harassing phone calls to the business, including gruesome threats of violence. On Sunday, their son was physically assaulted, the family said, and they announced Tuesday they were permanently closing their restaurant owing to safety concerns.
Mohamad Fakih, the chief executive officer of Middle Eastern restaurant chain Paramount Fine Foods, reached out to the Al-Soufi family Wednesday and asked them to reconsider. He offered to temporarily take over management at no cost so they could have time to deal with the threats they received, which are being investigated by Toronto Police as hate speech.
The family unlocked the doors to Soufi’s Thursday morning to invite reporters in for a press conference, to announce they were reopening Friday. The Al-Soufis will retain ownership of the restaurant and all nine staff members who were laid off this week will be rehired. If a police presence or private security are needed when the restaurant reopens, Mr. Fakih said he will arrange for it.
“We do not want to set an example for future immigrants and refugee business owners as the business that gave in to hate,” said Husam Al-Soufi, the owner and family patriarch. He planned to print out all the supportive messages he’d received and put them on the walls of the restaurant, he said, beaming.
But when asked about details of his son’s assault, an update on how the young man was doing, and for his reflections on the vitriol that was posted on his business’s Facebook page, Mr. Al-Soufi’s expression darkened. His wife, Shihnaz, who silently stood beside him, was red-eyed.
Their son is not doing well and, when they reopen the restaurant, he will not be working there. No, the father didn’t want to discuss the details of the assault. He’d prefer to talk about the messages of love that he received from customers, rather than dwell on the ones that wished him and his family painful deaths.
“I remain fearful for my family’s well-being and safety, and that will always be my first concern,” Mr. Al-Soufi said.
In a post this week, the group Anti-Racist Canada exposed dozens of messages from alt-right Facebook groups, in which members discussed the ways in which they wished to hurt the Al-Soufis. One member posted a picture of their open palm with a bullet in it. Another said, “time for a good ole fashion Lynch mob. Like horseback, rope, pitchforks and torches.”
During the press conference, Mr. Al-Soufi also reflected on the fear that motivated the people who said they wished him dead – even offering them his forgiveness.
“I understand their position. I understand their fear. I understand why they are worried. But I want to assure them we are just a family, we came here just to live our lives, do business, pay our taxes.”
Before the press conference, Mr. Al-Soufi spoke to David Turkoski, the son of the elderly woman who was blocked from entering the People’s Party fundraiser, and invited him to bring his mother and her husband to Soufi’s when it reopens.
Earlier this week, Mr. Turkoski told The Globe and Mail he was horrified to hear of the attacks on the Al-Soufis.
“Anybody that would ever threaten that poor gentleman [the elder Mr. Al-Soufi] is a disgrace to Canada,” he said. “We should never penalize a hardworking immigrant family because he has a son ... I’m not going to back everything my children have done.”
Mr. Fakih said he reached out to the Al-Soufis because of his own experience battling hate. Earlier this year, he won a multimillion-dollar settlement after a Mississauga man was found guilty of posting hate speech about him online. In a series of videos, the man made many defamatory allegations about Mr. Fakih and Paramount having ties to terrorism.
“When I went and dealt with hate, people thought, ‘It’s okay, Mohamad has business and has money,' " Mr. Fakih said. “Money and business does not help when you’re dealing with hate, especially when it involves your family and your staff."