The safe arrival of several thousand migrants from war-riven Syria is one of the better chapters in Toronto’s recent history. Most Torontonians welcomed them warmly. Many formed sponsorship groups, volunteering their time to help the newcomers find jobs, homes, schools and doctors.
Despite some hesitation about whether the city, and the country at large, could absorb so many new arrivals in such a short time, the intake has gone remarkably well, with very little of the friction and tension seen in some countries that have taken in refugees.
That is what makes the story of the Al-Soufi family and its restaurant so distressing. Husam and Shahnaz Al-Soufi came to Canada in 2015 with their three children. They started a restaurant, Soufi’s, on Toronto’s Queen Street West. Staff wore T-shirts that said, “From Syria, With Love.” Food lovers flocked to the place. The New York Times credited it with introducing Syrian cuisine to Toronto.
Then, late last month, Alaa, the eldest of the Al-Soufi children, went to a demonstration in Hamilton. He and a few dozen others were protesting an event featuring Maxime Bernier, Leader of the People’s Party of Canada. They waved banners and shouted, “Nazi scum, off our streets.” When an elderly woman using a walker tried to get into the event, some protesters blocked her path. Dorothy Marston, 81, eventually made it inside with the help of police.
Video of the confrontation raced around the internet. Mr. Bernier called the protesters “thugs.” When it turned out that one of those preventing Ms. Marston from entering the event was Alaa, the family issued a statement of apology. “Alaa regrets that he did not step aside and/or stand up against the act of verbal abuse that occurred against [Ms. Marston], and would love the opportunity to personally extend his apologies to her,” it said. “Our family and business do not condone acts of hate, violence or harassment in any shape or form and advocate for peace, equality and free speech for all human beings.”
Nevertheless, the family was overwhelmed by hateful messages and even threats. Alaa found himself doxxed, his identity and contacts circulated online so that people could target him. The Al-Soufis said that, with regret, they were closing the restaurant to protect the security of family and staff.
“Since we opened up Soufi's in 2017, we have been met with nothing but curiosity, respect, acceptance, and love from the people of Toronto, and for that we are eternally grateful,” a family statement said. “We will cherish the countless memories of us sharing stories, food, music and laughter.”
The whole sorry incident shows what can happen when we let our politics grow overheated. Opponents become enemies. Criticism becomes denunciation. Reasoned debate descends into cursing and brawling. Individuals are singled out for personal attack.
Thankfully, we haven’t had too much of this sort of thing in Canada, still something of a haven from the distemper and division that seem to have seized so much of the democratic world. But we aren’t immune from it either. There was ugliness from both sides here – from the protesters who tried to prevent a woman from listening to a speech; from the trolls who set upon the Al-Soufi family. Both were in the wrong.
The Hamilton protesters had every right to gather and denounce the People’s Party for stands on immigration and other matters that they find repugnant. They don’t have the right to stop someone from listening to Mr. Bernier speak. The critics of the protesters had every right to denounce them for blocking Ms. Marston. They don’t have the right to harass and threaten.
Politics isn’t always pristine and polite. Emotion is part of the game. Anger is allowed and often justified. But a line needs to be drawn somewhere. We have an example right to the south of us of what can happen when slurs and ad hominem attacks and over-the-top rhetoric become a normal part of political life.
That isn’t Toronto. It isn’t Canada. The protesters should be ashamed for what they did to Ms. Marston. The trolls should be ashamed for what they did to the Al-Soufis. Their restaurant was a gift to the city. Like so many arrivals from so many places, they embraced their new home and made it better.
Fortunately, things were looking up for them by the end of the week. A benefactor, Mohamad Fakih of Paramount Fine Foods, announced he was stepping in to manage the restaurant while the family recovered from its ordeal. Soufi’s reopened Friday. An emotional Husam Al-Soufi said hundreds of people had sent him messages of sympathy and support – “love letters” that he posted on the restaurant wall. He even had a talk with Ms. Marston’s son, who said he hoped to bring his mother and her husband to Soufi’s for a meal one day. What a perfect answer to the merchants of hate.