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Toronto Syrian newcomers find a piece of home at Scarborough pita bakery

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The smell of home

The Adonis grocery store with its in-house pita bakery has become a community hub for Syrian newcomers

Customers hold packages of pitas as fresh pitas are baked at Adonis grocery store in Scarborough, Ont. on Saturday, July 29, 2017.

Before the war, there were two or more bakeries in almost every neighbourhood in Syria, and most in the cities they were open 24 hours – the scent of warm pita wafting from the ovens was a constant invitation to customers. Samira al-Naser, a Syrian newcomer in Canada, closes her eyes, smiles and breathes in for a moment as she remembers that smell in the city of Daraa, describing it as "beautiful."

Today, Ms. al-Naser buys her pita at the Adonis grocery store in Scarborough, one of the only places in the GTA that bakes and sells fresh pita. Sometimes she brings her five children to watch the hot, puffed-up pita ride the conveyor belt before the bread is packaged into bags. The aroma, she said, reminds them of home.

Abdullah Nasis, who recently came from Damascus, Syria, stacks fresh pitas prepared in a large industrial oven at Adonis.

With the arrival of thousands of Syrian refugees in the area since late 2015, the demand for fresh pita and other products at Adonis has spiked. Word of the fresh bread spread fast among the tight-knit community of Syrian newcomers. It has become so popular that the grocery store has had to limit the quantity families can buy on weekends. The store has hired more than 140 new workers, mostly from Syria, and is producing the flat bread in much larger quantities these days. Adonis, which specializes in Middle Eastern products and halal meat, has become a community hub for Syrian newcomers, some of whom visit the store twice a week to buy the beloved bread, eaten at almost every meal.

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As the conflict in Syria escalated, many bakeries were forced to close as flour became scarce in areas under siege. Those that remained open were at times targeted, with advocacy organizations such as Human Rights Watch reporting that bakeries faced several attacks by Syrian government forces that killed or maimed scores of civilians waiting to buy bread.

Abdel al-Mohte al-Dibel, who arrived in Canada in January, 2016, used to walk to his nearest bakery in Homs daily, ordering the exact number of pita his family needed. Now he drives once a week to Adonis, buying it in packages of five.

The dough, which is left to sit for some time, is typically made from wheat flour, milk and yeast, and is baked at high temperatures, which causes the flat rounds of dough to puff up. Once ready, the layers of baked dough remain separated inside the deflated pita, forming a pocket. While most pita available on grocery store shelves is days old, the soft and chewy bread from Adonis is straight from the oven, with little droplets of water on the inside from the steam.

A large industrial oven at the centre of Adonis is used to prepare fresh pitas.

Adonis's pita tastes almost like the bread in Syria, Mr. al-Dibel said. Though it's much smaller, the smell stirs up memories of home. "The streets used to be filled with the smell of fresh pita. The smell would be as strong as coffee, but it's difficult to tell you what that feeling is," he said.

"But it's good here [in Canada], we have seen so many good things and we feel safe."

At Adonis's second location in Mississauga, where there is a smaller pita-making machine set up in a glass-walled room, a sign on the door tells customers they can only buy 25 bags each on weekends. The sign went up after management noticed some families would empty a whole rack of bread, sometimes taking up to 70 bags, leaving others to wait for the next batch.

"The pita machine makes our store unique," said Hani Tawil, store manager at Adonis Scarborough. "People are able to see the pita made fresh, and you cannot find that anywhere else, really."

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Workers pack freshly baked pitas into plastic sleeves at Adonis.

The large amount of bread that Syrians buy is often not just for themselves, but for guests. The well-connected Syrian community constantly hosts dinners at their homes for one another. Mr. al-Dibel, 51, has a family of five and buys more than 20 bags of pita a week for his family and guests, he said.

Pita is considered one of the world's oldest breads, originating in the Middle East more than 5,000 years ago.

The additional staff Adonis has hired since the fall of 2015, mostly from Syria, in the face of demand for pita and other popular items, has also helped to support the community by providing employment and utilizing the skills Syrian newcomers bring to Canada.

Brothers Aid Nasis, left, and Abdullah Nasis, right, who used to work as jewellers in Damascus, Syria before coming to Canada, prepare fresh pitas at Adonis.

Some people hired used to be butchers, pastry chefs and bakers in Syria. Others worked as doctors or engineers.

Aid Nasis, who oversees pita production at Adonis, used to make jewellery in Damascus. He has been working at Adonis for more than a year and found it difficult to adjust to making bread, but his determination saw him through.

"It's been okay; I've gotten used to it now. It's a totally different concept from jewellery making," Mr. Nasis said. "But everyone loves the bread. I have noticed that really people of all cultures really love to see the pita being made and the taste of it."

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