New Syrian style restaurant opens downtown Port Arthur, offering new cuisine to the city, as well as new beginnings for the Toubaji family.
By Savanah Tillberg
On Monday, January 23rd Thunder Bay’s newest restaurant, Damascus Donair, opened its doors to a line up of locals buzzing with anticipation. The new business is owned by Zaher Toubaji, a Syrian refugee who moved to Thunder Bay last February. Toubaji and his family immigrated to Canada through a private sponsorship by Redwood Park Church.
In an interview with The Argus, translated by his relative Hazma Hatoum, Toubaji expressed his deep sense of gratitude for the Redwood Park Church community. According to Hatoum,
Toubaji recognizes Redwood’s contribution to their lives everyday, leaving Toubaji feeling very thankful: “None of this would be possible without them.” He explained that he wanted to establish the restaurant before his one year of sponsorship ended, and hopes that one day he’ll be able to repay Redwood for their kindness and assistance during his family’s transition to Thunder Bay.
The Toubaji family faced a fair amount of difficulty while adjusting to living in Canada. When asked about some of the main challenges they faced when moving to Canada, Toubaji said, “[The] number one [challenge was] language. The language is very hard to learn, especially if you’re older”. Neither Zaher nor his wife Nisreen spoke any English, so the whole family took English classes upon arriving in hopes of easing communications with those around them. Toubaji also commented on the cold temperatures and obscene amounts of snow, compared to the desert-like climate in Syria.
The Toubajis had relatives already living in Thunder Bay, ready to help them start their lives in Canada. Toubaji said that his cousin Mo Hatoum, owner of Kabab Village (a Lebanese restaurant in the city’s south core) and his family were a huge help in establishing his restaurant. Mo’s son, Hazma Hatoum shared, “He [Toubaji] wanted to be able to support his family after his sponsorship ended without government assistance. So he approached my dad with the idea of opening up a restaurant, and my dad helped him set this up, and that’s how they were able to do this.”
Toubaji recognized that there was many ways that he could introduce Syrian culture to Thunder Bay, but ultimately decided a restaurant was best way to do so. Toubaji and Hatoum explained that food plays an emphasized role in Syrian and Lebanese culture, and that “food is one of the main sources of culture”. Hatoum described the food as being exceptionally flavourful and as a result, it serves as a representation of the colourful culture as well.
It can certainly be said that his endeavour is a success, as on opening day a line up stretched out the door in the cold January weather, full of people anxious to try the delicacy that is the donair: a traditional Syrian wrap made with shaved beef, lamb or a combination of the two. It also includes a combination of Syrian spices as well as a special secret Syrian ingredient that Toubaji prefers to keep a mystery, just as the best do. Toubaji named his restaurant after the city of Damascus, where he was born and after the traditional Syrian dish.
The city is very lucky to have families like the Toubajis and Hatoums who, despite all challenges, bring cultural diversity to our community through something so universal such as food and cuisine. The Toubajis are viewed by many as an inspiration, and an example of what hard work and perseverance can accomplish. If you haven’t had a chance thus far, head on down to St. Paul Street to welcome the family to the neighborhood. While you’re there, try a donair for yourself.