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Tareq’s First Christmas in Canada

Excerpt from Peace by Chocolate

This Christmas the Peace by Chocolate movie will be available for viewing online, and you can buy tickets by clicking here. In celebration of the film — and because it is the season of giving — we’d like to share the story of Tareq’s first Christmas in Canada, excerpted from Peace by Chocolate

On Christmas Eve, Tareq went to bed early and woke before the sun rose. After his morning prayers to Allah, he joined the Sers family downstairs. He stopped at the living room threshold and took in the scene. He had seen Christmas morning so many times in movies that he felt like he was walking onto a familiar set. Against the dark window, the Christmas tree sparkled with lights, tinsel, and glittering decorations. The strong scent of pine filled the room with an earthy warmth. The lower limbs of the tree reached protectively over a pile of presents. Santa Claus had come for everyone, including Tareq. Sipping steaming coffee, the family began to hand out the gifts.

Later that morning, when the presents were opened and everyone was fully awake, someone suggested a game of Catch Phrase, in which players are given a phrase and must get their team to guess it without saying it. Realizing Tareq was speaking a second language and in an alien culture, they cut him some slack — until he started beating them and sibling rivalry kicked in. Moira’s son sat at the piano and started to play. Her daughter sang. Moira watched Tareq slip his phone out of his pocket, touch a few buttons, whisper, and then point it at the gathering. She realized he was livestreaming to his family in Lebanon, showing them the celebration, telling them to listen to the singing. He was showing them that he was safe and with good people.

Several times that day, Tareq slipped away, oriented himself to Mecca, and prayed. It was an extraordinary ordinary Canadian Christmas.

Later that night, Shahnaz asked Tareq to send her some pictures of Antigonish. She, too, had expected the family would settle in Toronto and was quickly catching up on Canadian geography. You could drive across Syria in a single day. It would take two weeks to cross Canada. Tareq looked at the photo Robert had taken of him shovelling snow and remembered his family’s horrified reaction at the thought of moving to a cold country. His mother had once been able to reach out her bedroom window to pick an apricot off the tree. He searched Google for pictures of Antigonish in the summer and sent his mother a collection of bright sunny days, with green fields bursting into colourful flowers and everyone wearing summer clothing.

“Oh, it’s a beautiful town. Very green,” Shahnaz said approvingly.

He figured he’d tell her about winter later.

On Boxing Day, Tareq was invited to play street hockey. He casually scored a hat trick, to everyone’s delight. He bought his first Canadian phone and inserted the SIM card. An hour later, before he’d given the number to anyone, his phone rang. When he answered, a woman with a strong accent addressed him as Catherine.

“Sorry, ma’am,” Tareq said. “I couldn’t really understand what you are saying. It’s a pretty heavy accent for me.”

“Who is this?” the woman asked. She was trying to reach her daughter, who had previously had that phone number. Tareq explained that he’d just acquired the number, and they ended up chatting. The woman was from Newfoundland, which accounted for her accent, but had recently moved to Nova Scotia. Her daughter had just left Nova Scotia to return to Newfoundland. Tareq told her that he was a Syrian newcomer living in Antigonish.

“I’m in the Annapolis Valley! How’s the weather up there?” she asked.

They talked for thirty minutes. Tareq learned the etiquette of an East Coast phone call: you spend fifteen minutes saying hello, one minute on the purpose of the call, and fifteen minutes saying goodbye. Even if it’s a wrong number.

The woman from Newfoundland called him again the next week. This time her husband joined the call. They called Tareq again the next week, and the week after that. The number that had once belonged to her daughter was now the number of her new Syrian friend, and she checked in on him until he was settled. This country certainly has something very sweet to offer the world, he thought. What sweetness can I offer in return?

Excerpted from Peace by Chocolate: The Hadhad Family’s Remarkable Journey from Syria to Canada copyright © 2020 by Jon Tattrie

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