We look for hope-filled stories in the middle of news of wars, oppression, and displacement around the world. The establishment of a dream come true in the form of a chocolate factory in the small Nova Scotian town of Antigonish is one such story. Peace by Chocolate is not only the name of the company, but it is the title of a book and now has been made into a feature-length film.
In real life, Issam Hadhad and his wife Alaa, lost their home, livelihood, and dreams when their well-established 30-year-old chocolate factory in Damascus was bombed in 2012 and their family was forced to flee to Lebanon. Three years later their son Tareq, a medical student, received refugee status from Canada and he found himself in Antigonish. His parents and other family followed in 2016. Tareq applied unsuccessfully to medical schools. Meanwhile Issam, restless to find joy back in what he knew and loved, began making chocolate out of their small kitchen. Over a few months word of the delicious chocolate spread, and a small enterprise took hold. Six years later Peace by Chocolate employs over 55 people in their factory, selling chocolates in their shop, at farmers markets, as well as shipping across Canada and internationally.
Nova Scotian director Jonathan Keijser chose to fictionalize this true story rather than create a documentary. He carefully cast Syrian actors into the roles, with attention to cultural details such as patriarchal family structures, Islamic prayer rhythms, and authentic Damascene accents. Keijser held closely to the facts of the story, including live footage of the Syrian destruction as well as honored recognition offered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the United Nations in 2016. He stays true to the tensions between the son and father as each wants to hold on to his dreams. And the director does not shy away from the sentiments held by some, that newcomers are displacing a workforce and adding to a housing crisis.
I was privileged to attend a viewing of this film with newcomer friends who arrived in Canada in early December. They too fled the bombing of their home in Damascus and watched the hopes of their future in their homeland slip away. The parallels to their own experiences brought pain but also hope as they watched this story of loss and possibility.
Since the Hadhads' arrival, Antigonish has helped to settle 100 Syrian refugees, an incredible welcome for a town of 5,000 people. The film is dedicated to Hatem Ali (Issam). The beloved Syrian director, writer, and actor died of a heart attack in 2020 at the age of 58.
This film is highly recommended for family, church and school viewing. (Not rated; suitable for all ages; Magnetic North Pictures; rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Apple TV. Free on Tubi)