Port Colborne, Ont.
It’s a Friday morning in early September, and The Smokin’ Buddha is still mostly empty when the owner, Kevin Echlin, brings a smiling young man out from the kitchen and introduces us-or rather, re-introduces us. The young man, Bilal Musa Agha, and I have met before, on an unseasonably warm day in early January shortly after he arrived in Canada.
Echlin ushers Agha and me out onto the sunny patio, and I marvel at how much healthier he looks.
Back in January, he, his wife, Hiba El Khoury, and their children, Jana and Fares, had just arrived from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where they had been living since fleeing the civil war in Syria in 2013. Tripoli had been a refuge, but not a comfortable one: Bilal had worked 13 hours a day for about $400 a month.
But now, sitting in the sunshine on the patio of The Smokin’ Buddha-a restaurant serving Southeast Asian cuisine in the city’s Canal District-where he has been cooking since early summer, he seems relaxed, happy.
“My favourite new restaurant,” he says, smiling widely.
It all began back in April, when Echlin was approached by Canon Robert Hurkmans, the rector at St. James and St. Brendan Anglican Church, to see if he had any potential work for a couple of Syrian refugees-Agha and his brother, Abdul, who had come to Port Colborne shortly after Agha settled in.
Hurkmans’ church had sponsored Agha, El Khoury and their children, and was hoping to find them work in the community. Agha had worked as a cook in Lebanon, and Hurkmans, who has been friends with Echlin for years, thought it might be a good fit.
Echlin was eager to help. Years before, he had moved to Japan without knowing the language, and could sympathize with the challenges Agha was facing.
“Knowing that he had a background in culinary [arts], I thought, you know, let’s give it a shot, and even with the language barrier, there’s ways we can work through it,” he said.
While Abdul moved to St. Catharines, Ont., in June, where he now works as a barber, Agha stayed on.
Echlin acknowledges that in a fast-paced kitchen, the language barrier can create problems-Agha spent the winter and spring attending English as a Second Language classes, but has found it more difficult than his wife and children-but says it just takes a bit of flexibility.
“The crew here has been very accepting,” he says. “It’s nice to have him in, and everyone here is interested. It’s a challenge, and everyone’s up for the challenge.”
It doesn’t hurt that Agha is a fast learner when it comes to cooking. “He’s been absolutely fantastic-you show him one thing, one time, and he’s on it.”
Echlin isn’t the only person who has been willing to help the young Syrian family, though. Shortly after Echlin is called back to the kitchen, Barbara Yakobowski arrives at the restaurant with El Khoury, Jana and Fares.
They have just come from the park, which El Khoury says is their favourite place in town.
When I ask how her family has been received by the community at St. Brendan and St. James, she is enthusiastic.
“All these people are a part of our family, and they visit me and we visit them,” she says. “We have everything and life is good. We don’t have needs at the moment.”
Indeed, the affection between them is palpable. When I ask Yakobowski, who got involved with the family after meeting them at church immediately following their arrival, how they have developed such an organic friendship, she says it “just sort of happened.
“I don’t know that we had a plan,” Yakobowski says. “I think we are very lucky. The relationship we have with our two families is special or different, because they are just so open to being that way.”
El Khoury recalls that at the very beginning, she encouraged Yakobowski not to just come by when the family needed something.
“I told them, I don’t want you to come just to help me, or just to feel, ‘Oh, I should help this family’-no, just come to visit!”
Now, Yakobowski doesn’t even bother to call before visiting-she simply drops by.
Yakobowski jokes that the family have become celebrities in Port Colborne, a town of a little more than 18,000. This is not only because El Khoury, who wears a colourful Syrian headscarf, stands out in ethnically homogenous small-town Ontario; the town is also sympathetic to their story.
“I would say that when we are out and about, people identify that this is ‘our family’ from Syria,” El Khoury says, noting that many shopkeepers refused to charge them during their first days in town.
But when I ask El Khoury if the cultural differences were ever a barrier for her, she laughs at me.
“We are not that different. When Barb comes to visit me, we are women, and we are human…I love her, what she is, not what she wears or what her culture [is]…I love what she is here, inside,” she says, placing a hand over her heart.
It is an attitude her daughter seems to have as well. Jana, who is days away from starting Grade 4, says she has already made friends at school, and has started playing basketball. And if her father is still struggling to learn English, Jana, sounds like she has been speaking it her whole life.
But while Port Colborne has been a supportive community, the family still needs to travel farther afield to meet some of its needs. They go to St. Catharines quite frequently, to shop for halal food, attend the mosque or visit Agha’s brother and his family. However, when I asked why they had decided to stay in Port Colborne rather than moving to St. Catharines with Abdul, the answer is immediate, and comes from Jana:
“Because we like Barb!”