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Refugees to entrepreneurs: Qarquoz family invites you to Damascus Cafe and Bakery

Syrian baker finds a home for his family and his food in downtown Sudbury

My mouth started watering before I even got through Damascus Cafe and Bakery’s door.

I had timed my visit well: Hussein and Sawsan Qarquoz, the husband and wife team behind Sudbury’s new Syrian restaurant, were just pulling a batch of their signature spinach pastries out of the oven.

The warm smell of yeasted dough, pungent onions and tangy zaatar spice wafted out into the crisp spring air on Beech Street. They weren’t even officially open yet, but if all of this is making you hungry, the good news is they will be fully operational as of April 17.

After a quick tour of their setup — which includes a deep fryer, a shawarma spit and a dough mixer big enough to break my arm — the Qarquozs sat me down with a cup of hot tea and a few pastries to snack on while they shared their story.

See, Hussein may be new to Sudbury (the family was the first family of Syrian refugees to arrive in the Nickel City, touching down at the airport in late December 2015), but he’s not new to baking.

He was born into a large family in rural Syria, surrounded by scenic countryside. His mother was an accomplished cook who passed her skills along to her children. Baking came naturally to him early on.

“I like flour,” Qarquoz said. “In my family, we had a farm, and there I always liked the wheat, the flour and the dough.”

He started to bake professionally at 16, making pitas, which he continued to do for a couple years after high school before going on to work in Lebanon for 10 years as a baker. Eventually he started a family, but they lived back in Syria, where he could only visit every few months. After a few years of back-and-forth, he moved home to open his own bakery and build a house to be closer to his children. 

Owning and operating his own bakery was a dream come true for Hussein, but unfortunately it wasn’t to last. In 2011, the Syrian civil war broke out after months of rising unrest under President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Hussein and Sawsan stayed to the point of serving their food for free to people who needed it. After months of trying to make it work, losing friends and family in the war, and Hussein spending time in prison himself, they made the choice to leave Syria in 2012, heading to Lebanon as refugees.

On December 31, 2015, Hussein, Sawsan and their three sons — Mohamed, Osama, and Nabil — flew into Sudbury three years after fleeing their home in Syria, supported by the Canadian government and sponsored by St. Andrew’s United Church.

Hussein found employment quickly. Members of the church introduced Hussein to the owner of Golden Grain Bakery, where he was able to join the team.

He helped bake Golden Grain’s famous bread, and he got to introduce some of his own baking to customers, too. He picked up shifts at Costco to supplement his income. He’d work from 2 a.m. until 10 a.m. at the bakery some mornings, then work an afternoon shift at Costco.

Over time, St. Andrew’s sponsorship of Hussein wrapped up, and as he and his family felt more settled in Sudbury, he started thinking about opening his own business. 

“Some people told me, ‘Go to Toronto to open your business, go to Ottawa to open your business’, ” said Hussein. “But first I need to try in Sudbury because we love it here.”

He had to save up enough money, and once he did, he was ready to pick a location. He soon found the Beech Street storefront, which formerly housed an Egyptian restaurant called Cairo, before the owner decided to return to university.

“I like my job and being the owner of a business,” Qarquoz said. “I want to teach my family and kids my job.”

His family has grown since arriving, too. He and Sawsan welcomed baby Omar in 2016, and Hussein’s father, sister-in-law and her children have all moved to Sudbury in the past few months.

The couple’s sons are already familiarizing themselves with the business: when I was there, Nabil puttered about and translated while Omar napped in the corner of the cozy, but a brightly lit cafe.

He and his parents are excited to share their food and culture with Sudbury.

Nabil said he’s particularly fond of shawarma (with garlic mayo, extra chili, and fries) and Hussein loves sweets — like the melt-in-your-mouth, pistachio-topped cookies Sawsan plied me with during our chat — but he limits his intake for health reasons.

Their menu spans meaty shawarma to mini-pizzas to vegetarian-friendly options like falafel and hummus. They’ve made an effort to offer a few vegan items too, free of any dairy or eggs.

The Qarquozs had hoped to open Damascus Cafe and Bakery as early as March, but complications with their dishwasher held them up. Fortunately, they got the go-ahead last Thursday to open on April 17 for lunch.

Qarquoz said he hopes to operate from Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the summer, with slightly shorter hours in the winter. He’d work all week if he could and might open for limited hours on Sundays.

If you’d like to try the Qarquoz’s delectable dishes for yourself, you can find them at 106 Beech Street in downtown Sudbury. But be warned: once you try one of their pastries, you’ll probably have to sample them all. 

Ella Jane Myers is a freelance writer in Greater Sudbury.