Syrian cafe Soufi’s harassed out of business


For the two years it was open, Soufi’s was a heartwarming local success story, the kind of restaurant Toronto prided itself on hosting; a shiny jewel in the centre of our multicultural culinary mosaic.

The cafe – a sunny, modern space decorated with pieces of traditional artwork – was opened by the Al-Soufi family, recent immigrants from Syria, in the heart of an increasingly corporate Queen West. It served inexpensive, tasty snacks, from the traditional (mana’eesh flatbreads and Turkish coffee) to the novel (a mix of knaffeh and banoffee pie).

When they opened the restaurant, the Al-Soufis said they hoped it would serve as a local hub for Syrians as well as an introduction to the country’s culture for other Canadians. The family devoted their resources to resettlement efforts in Canada. The restaurant was even spotlighted in the New York Times – along with Newcomer Kitchen, a catering company run by Syrian refugees  – as proof that the city was welcoming its new residents with open arms.

Torontonians loved Soufi’s for what it was. But they also loved what it represented: The notion that people could come here from around the world, bring their culture with them, and seamlessly integrate while finding safety, success and adoration; the rosy ideal of a universally tolerant, welcoming Canada.

Yesterday, after a week that saw the restaurant’s owners facing a barrage of death threats and harassment, Soufi’s announced that it would be closing permanently.

“Our decision was made with a heavy heart in an effort to maintain our family and staff’s safety,” the owners wrote in a farewell post.

The wave of abuse, fomented in part by massively popular right-wing Twitter trolls, was seemingly retaliation for one family member’s involvement in a protest outside a fundraiser for Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada in Hamilton on September 29.

In a video that went viral in the right-wing Twittersphere last week, an elderly woman using a walker and another senior are seen attempting to enter a building at Mohawk College where Bernier was slated to speak.

A small group of protestors, chanting slogans, physically stand in their way. One of them briefly shouts at the man accompanying the elderly woman to not touch them. Another, in an orange shirt, stands just off to the side, hands in his pockets, seemingly saying little.

Despite the mask covering his face, the orange-shirted person was later identified by his tattoos as the son of the couple who own Soufi’s. His name, the name of the restaurant, and the restaurant’s address were soon plastered all over Twitter, amplified by the likes of Ann Coulter. 

As harassment mounted, the owners posted an apology online saying their son “regrets that he did not step aside and/stand up against the act of verbal abuse that occurred … and would love the opportunity to personally extend his apologies to her.” 

“That said, we affirm that he did not in any way visibly or physically assault the elderly woman or any other person.”

The statement goes on to say that “our family and business do not condone acts of hate, violence or harassment in any shape or form, and advocate for peace, equality, and free speech for all human beings.”

Instead of easing the barrage, that statement was taken as tantamount to an admission of guilt. Soon, local reporters began receiving comments and messages urging them to “expose” the restaurant’s connections to “the terrorist group Antifa”.

Antifa isn’t actually a terrorist group, though right-wing politicians and commentators have led a fight to label them as such. The term is applied to a movement of disconnected anti-fascist protestors who have become an increasing presence at far-right rallies.

The goal, as Steven Zhou and Evan Balgord wrote for NOW in 2017, is to physically disrupt rallies and events using a variety of tactics: “simply taking up space, to linking arms in front of ‘alt-right’ protesters, to physically removing the opposition (de-platforming).” 

In some more extreme cases, these protests have escalated to property damage and violence. Antifa tactics have been criticized by some civil rights groups, who have expressed that they see these confrontational, potentially inflammatory strategies as counterproductive.

Indeed, it would be difficult to look at the video of protestors loudly blocking the path of a small, elderly woman and not immediately see an image tailor-made to rile up a right-wing audience that prioritizes white tears and toothless notions of “civility” over the insidious dangers posed by racism and xenophobia.

The Post Millennial referred to the incident as “granny-bullying.” “Do seniors get a discount or will [you] just push them down a flight of stairs?” one comment on the store’s Instagram read.

The woman, meanwhile, was hailed as a free-speech-loving David before a brutish, masked Goliath – including by Bernier himself, who tweeted, “Thank you so much Madam for standing up for free speech! We need courageous people like you if we are to keep our country STRONG and FREE.”

It’s debatable whether zeroing in on one lone attendee with limited mobility was a wise or useful choice on the part of this particular group of protesters. But as Soufi’s reminded its followers, and as the video seems to clearly illustrate, the woman was only briefly stalled by the protesters. The CBC reports that police later escorted her into the building to watch the rally.

It’s also hard not to find the “helpless granny” rhetoric infantilizing of a person who knew enough about Bernier’s anti-immigrant platform – and approved of enough of its contents – to give his party $50 to see him speak.

“She thinks Bernier cares about the country and offers new ideas compared to the other party leaders,” CBC Hamilton reported. “She also has questions about who should be able to come to Canada (and that) ‘maybe we shouldn’t open the floodgates.'”

“I look at the Middle East and it frightens me, because there’s no democracy … and the fighting in Syria and the values are different than ours,” the woman is quoted as saying.

This kind of racist-lite immigration skepticism is as common, and as Canadian, as a stale, mushy Dutchie at the bottom of a Timbit box; many of us will probably hear more of the same around our Thanksgiving tables this weekend.

It’s the kind of rhetoric that many Canadian conservatives – particularly Bernier, who is campaigning on a promise to drastically reduce the number of immigrants to Canada – have mirrored eagerly during this election race.

Meanwhile, perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the online attacks against the young Al-Soufi and his family are threaded with racist and xenophobic sentiment. As the disproportionate scope of the backlash proves, a Syrian man (who, apparently shockingly to some, joined a protest against an anti-immigrant politician) and his family trying to carve out a place for themselves in Canada made far too appealing a target for the mob to ignore.

The local outpouring of sadness at the closure of Soufi’s has been swift and loud. Mixed in with those expressions of sorrow, over and over, is the refrain: “This isn’t Canada”.

Sure it is. Look again.

UPDATE: Soufi’s has announced it will reopen for business, with the owners saying they “do not wish to set a tragic example for future immigrant and refugee businesses [as] a business that gave in to hate.” Read the full story here.