There couldn’t be a more proud Canadian than Bachar Haddad.
The owner of the Petro-Canada gas station on Mississauga Street came to Canada from Syria in 2002, settled in Ottawa, where he had family, and moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake to take over the franchise of the former Sunoco station four years later.
He knew nothing of the small town that would be his new home. He saw the move merely as a business oppor- tunity, and thought he might stay for a year or two until something better came along.
“I loved Ottawa. I loved the outdoors. I even loved the winter. I skied, and I skated on the Rideau Canal every chance I got. How could I leave there? I knew I would be back.”
It didn’t take long for him to change his mind.
Although he knew nobody when he arrived, NOTL quickly became his home. He’d been here only a short time when he said to himself, “I won’t be going anywhere else.”
He did go home to Syria in 2008, and married the neighbourhood girl he had known growing up.
Haddad came to Canada from Aleppo, a large Syrian city which in recent years has seen destruction from civil war.
Niagara-on-the-Lake, he said, reminds him of the small, tightly-knit neighbourhood he came from. It has a similar sense of community, where everyone knows everyone else and looks after each other.
“We had a good life in Syria,” he said, “but we chose to come here to have a better life, a future. Here we have safety, we have peace of mind. And if you work hard, you feel you can achieve something.” The same opportunities are only available in Syria if they are inherited from previous generations, he added. “Here you are rewarded for hard work. It doesn’t come easily, but it’s possible.”
Haddad is expansive, and unrestrained with praise for his new country. In Syria he was a professional basketball coach and a business owner, but his life here, he said, “is 10 million times better.”
Hala, his wife, is quiet, a little more reserved.
“When I first came here, I liked it, but I started finding it too quiet,” she said. ‘I was used to going out a lot at home. We worked during the day but we would go out with friends after work. We had a nightlife.”
Eventually, she became homesick in NOTL, wanting family around her. The answer for her was to keep busy. She took classes to learn English, art classes at the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre, and she joined the choir at St. Vincent de Paul Church. She earned her Grade 12 English equivalent from Niagara College, and then took the tourism and hospitality program, receiving her diploma.
Four years ago, she had a son, Shebl, who now attends Niagara Nursery School, while she works full-time at Leon’s Furniture Store.To Hala, Canada is a good place to raise children, but as busy as she is, she still misses having family around her.
“We keep telling our family to move to Niagara-on-the-Lake,” she said. She and Bachar try to convince their relatives in Montreal and Ottawa how much more they would like the winters in Niagara, but so far with no luck.
“Life changes when you have children,” she said. “You really want your family around you. Life here would be perfect with family.”
Since enrolling Shebl in nursery school she has met other young parents, and she is too busy with work and looking after an active toddler to miss a nightlife.
One bonus of living in such a beautiful town is friends and family from Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa come to visit in the summer, said Bachar. They always seem to have visitors on Canada Day. They have been to Simcoe Park for the activities there, and they love taking their friends to Fort George. They haven’t missed a Canada Day at the fort since Shebl was born.
Bachar likes the music, the food, and watching Shebl play on the grass until it’s time for fireworks, he said. He also likes to share stories of his new home. “I’m so proud to talk about the history of Niagara-on-the-Lake and of Canada. I like to talk about how important Niagara-on-the-Lake was as the capital of Upper Canada, and tell my friends and family the stories of the battles here.”
“He should be a tour guide,” chimes in Halla.
He wants to be a good ambassador for his new home, and sometimes feels he is one at the gas station, he said.
It’s been closed for a few weeks for the installation of updated tanks and more space for diesel fuel, but he hopes to have the work completed and the station open for Friday, to serve the Canada Day long weekend crowd.
“I talk to a lot of people who stop and ask what there is to do. They come here but they don’t know what to expect. I say, ‘what would you like to do?’ I tell them about the theatre, the fort, the wineries, and the great restaurants. We go to them often. We like to try everything that’s new.”
Bachar and Hala are both Canadian citizens now. Wearing a T-shirt that has a map of his home country on it, and of Canada, he said he tells Shebl, “We’re from Syria. Not you. You’re from Canada.”
“We’re so proud to be Canadian. Everywhere we go, we love saying we are from Canada.”
“We’re still proud to be from Syria too,” adds Hala quietly.
Bachar says he likes to describe it this way: “Canada is the mother of everybody. We’ve taken the best we can from Syria and brought it to share with Canadians. When you come to Canada, you’re seen as a human, regardless of your background, your origin, race or religion. That’s why people want to come here.”
“It’s warm, welcoming and very safe,” adds Hala.
“We thank God every time we pray that we came to Canada,” says Bachar.
He mentions the outspoken patriotism of Americans, and the humility for which Canadians are known.
“I love that Canadians are humble, but we can still be proud. We can show pride in a humble way,” he says.
“Coming to Canada was the best decision I’ve made in my life.”