Syrian refugee family makes new life--and opens new business--in Mississauga


It's been about four years since three generations of the Al Sabbagh family landed in Canada after their home in Damascus, Syria was destroyed during the country's brutal—and seemingly endless—civil war. 

Four years later, the family isn't just surviving in Canada's sixth-largest city—they're thriving with the arrival of two new children and the launch of a brand new upholstery and furniture repair business. 

For Anwar and Alaa Al Sabbagh, the journey hasn't been an easy one. In 2013, the young couple was forced to flee the only home they had ever known with Anwar's ageing parents and their two young sons after their home and family business were both destroyed in bombings. 

But although the upheaval was no doubt terrifying and traumatic for the family, it led to a reunion with other family members and a wealth of new opportunities for the couple, their parents and their children. 

Back in 2015, the war changed the lives of both the Al Sabbagh and Trabulsi family when Syrian-born Canadian and Mississauga resident Mike Trabulsi was reunited with his sister, Ikram, after 45 years apart. 

Now, three generations of the Al Sabbagh family (Ikram and her husband Mouhamad, their son, Anwar, his wife, Alaa, and their four children, Nour El Din, 11, Ezz El Din, 10, Jad, 2 and Karam, 1) are living in Mississauga and enjoying their new life in Canada. 

"I'm better now and than before," says Anwar, who looks content and at ease in the comfortable family home he shares with his parents, wife and four children. 

In the four years since the Al Sabbagh's arrived in Canada, their two eldest children have learned how to speak flawless English and Anwar has started his own business, AA Upholstery and Furniture Restoration (which is currently located inside of Habitual Fitness at 3611 Mavis Road). 

The family has also grown. 

"The family has settled very well, and are all very happy living a wonderful life in peace and contentment," says Trabulsi, adding that Anwar and Alaa have welcomed two new baby boys—Jad and Karam—to the family since arriving in Mississauga. 

Left to right: Ezz El Din, Alaa, Nour El Din, Anwar, Jad, Mouhamad and Ikram

Four years ago, the family members—who had just arrived from Lebanon—spoke little English and leaned on the Tribulsi family for support. While Mike and his wife, Linda, still do their best to ensure the family is thriving—Mike and Linda's son, Adam, also provides Anwar with the space to run his business—the Al Sabbagh's have managed to learn the language and see Mississauga (and Canada overall) as home. 

"I see all of my family behind me and they've helped me a lot," says Anwar, adding that both he and Alaa have gone to school to learn English since first arriving in Canada in December 2015. 

Over the past four years, Anwar has worked hard to support his family, first taking on restaurant jobs and spending some time working at Paramount Fine Foods in Mississauga. 

After that, he worked at Habitual Fitness doing maintenance work and cleaning. Not one to settle for just one job, he started doing odd jobs as a handyman and eventually started a furniture repair business. 

The move to furniture repair and upholstery made sense, as the Al Sabbagh family owned a successful furniture manufacturing company in Damascus called Al Sabbagh Furniture. The factory, which employed 60 people, was bombed over the course of the war.

The destruction of the business, along with the family's home, prompted the Al Sabbagh's to leave Syria for good. The family lived as refugees in Lebanon for three years before being sponsored by the Canadian government. 

Although the war was tremendously difficult to endure—the family lost their home, livelihood, friends and neighbours—the Al Sabbagh's are in good spirits and are working hard to pick up, in a way, where they left off. 

Over a year ago, Anwar started his furniture repair business in his garage after purchasing four sewing machines and furniture fabrics and supplies from a retired couple. When winter hit and it became too cold to work in the garage, Mike helped him secure the space at Habitual in one of the commercial units. Mike also helped to design a logo and business cards for his business.

A City of Mississauga book gifted to the family by Mayor Bonnie Crombie in 2015

While things are going well—and the two older boys are thriving and making friends—Anwar and Alaa say that there have been some challenges, with the language barrier being the most difficult obstacle to traverse. 

"When I started to work before I had learned English, that was one of the scariest things," says Anwar, who has learned quite a bit of English and says he continues to learn new words and phrases every day. 

Anwar said it was intimidating to have to buy something or ask for help when he was just learning the language and says that he didn't get to practice too much when he was working in the foodservice industry, as most other employees spoke Arabic. 

"It’s hard to learn English and it's very important to learn the language, so I worked and went to school. Now I've started my own business."

While the move has been positive overall, Anwar admits it was more difficult for his parents to adjust.

"At the beginning, when they left my sisters and my brothers [in Lebanon], they were very sad. Now they're talking to them every day on the phone and they're happy here." 

Alaa is currently at home looking after the children, but says she hopes to find a job in the not-too-distant future. 

She also says it's been difficult to adapt to life without her mother and siblings. 

"When she was pregnant with the first two boys, her family and sisters were close to her. When she got pregnant here, she found it difficult," says Anwar. 

"I don't have anybody to help me and you need help. [When I got pregnant again] I was thinking 'I don't have anybody, my mother and my sister are in Syria.'"

Alaa says her mother and sisters are currently in Damascus and that she has one sister and three nephews in Germany.  

"I'm sometimes lonely and I miss my family, but they wanted to stay in Syria because they have a home and own a business there. I talk to my mother every day on Facebook Messenger."

By starting a furniture business, the family has reclaimed a sense of normalcy. 

Anwar says that in Syria, his family manufactured furniture from scratch. 

"We did everything. All of my family, my father and my two brothers, were working in the same place. We can make any kind of furniture.  Dining room, living room, bedroom, everything. We can do everything." 

Anwar says starting the furniture company was relatively easy because not everyone can do what he does—and his company started when a friend told him she wanted to spruce up an old dining set. 

"My friend wanted a new dining set, so I told her I could fix her set. She asked me to change the fabric, so I went to Fabricland and bought some fabric and changed it and put in some foam and brought them back to her and she was very happy. She told her friend and people talked to other people and I got busy quickly," he says.  

"I do everything custom-made to fit the room and I can make a set of furniture in a week. It takes me about five to six days." 

Although losing the furniture business (and so many other things) was a terrible blow, Anwar said he and his family were excited to learn that they would be eventually moving to Canada. 

"We were very happy and very excited about Canada because we heard about Canadian people and how they are very nice. We heard there isn't really any discrimination and that it's multi-cultural and accepts people," Anwar said.

When asked about how the reality has compared to the fantasy of a more idyllic Canada, Anwar says he hasn't really been disappointed. 

"No, I haven't felt any racism or discrimination for me," he says.

When asked about school, Nour El Din and Ezz El Din say their classmates have been welcoming. Both boys said they made friends quickly, and that people were interested to hear their story when they were first introduced as refugees from Syria. 

"When I started school, everyone was very welcoming and everyone wanted to talk to me. I didn’t really know English but this girl that sat beside me spoke Arabic and if anyone else wanted to play with me, she translated," says Nour El Din. 

Both Nour El Din and Ezz El Din said the transition to Canadian life was easier because many of their classmates spoke Arabic. 

Mike also says the school was ready to welcome the boys. 

"I went with them to register them [for school] and translate for them and we were told they were expecting a lot of immigrants, so they had an Arabic translator," he says. 

Ezz El Din said that when he first started school, his teacher got down on the ground and hugged him and that that's something he will always remember. 

When asked about the toughest thing the family has had to endure over the past four years, Anwar says the weather has been a challenge. 

"I don't see anything as really difficult for me because everything, I feel, is very nice. The wintertime is a little bit tough," he says. 

The family has also been able to enjoy different parts of Ontario, and the boys say Niagara Falls has quickly become of their favourite destinations. 

Over the last four years, the family has visited The Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory in Niagara-on-the-Lake, visited the Ripley's Aquarium in Toronto, gone kayaking and watched an elephant paint at African Lion Safari. 

"They loved it," says Mike. "The animals were not caged or anything." 

Anwar says living in Mississauga has made the transition easier, as the city is incredibly diverse. 

"At first, I thought maybe everybody would only speak English, but when I came here, I found a lot of friends who speak Arabic. I've met French Canadians and people from India and from Pakistan," he says. 

Nour El Din was also comforted by the diversity—and the ease in which he and his brother have learned English. 

"When we found out we were moving to Canada, my dad put on an English TV show and I was like 'I can't talk like that,'" says Nour El Din. "I said I can't write like that or talk like that, and now I can." 

Ezz El Din says knowing two languages has helped him make more friends. 

"I can play with anyone I want because I can speak two languages. I’m also learning  French a little bit," he says. 

Mike also says the family was able to find medical and dental professionals who speak Arabic, which made starting a new life in Mississauga a little easier. 

"Just around the corner there’s a Middle Eastern store and their family doctor speaks Arabic. Their dentist also speaks Arabic," Mike says. 

When the family first arrived in Mississauga, Mayor Bonnie Crombie invited the Al Sabbagh's to City Hall to see the city's most important building and meet Rose Vespa, the director of the library. 

Left to right: Linda Trabulsi, Alaa, Anwar, Bonnie Crombie, Mouhamad, Adam Trabulsi, Mike Trabulsi, Ikram, Nour El Din, Ezz El Din in 2015

Once there, they received some city-themed swag in the form of shirts and loot bags for the children as well as library cards.

They also received yellow notebooks that they still use to this day.

In fact, Anwar uses his notebook to sketch out plans for the furniture he's designing. 

While the family is happy with the opportunities Canada has provided them with already, Anwar and Alaa say they're hopeful that their sons will have a brighter future in the country. 

"We hope they will graduate and work somewhere good. Everything’s good in Canada. We don’t need anything else."

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