Refugees boost Altona economy

Families have been putting down roots in the rural community


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ALTONA — While nurturing newcomers from faraway places, one Manitoba town is reaping the benefits as they stimulate the local economy — and their palate.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/11/2017 (1917 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

ALTONA — While nurturing newcomers from faraway places, one Manitoba town is reaping the benefits as they stimulate the local economy — and their palate.

Venezuelans are opening a gelato factory and Syrians have started a catering company in Altona, a place that welcomed them and their dreams and where they’ve set down roots and plan to stay.

“It’s the people and the opportunities for our business,” said entrepreneur Suner Gascon. She and her engineer husband, Pedro Lopez, brought their four children and the recipe for a successful gelato business to Canada from Venezuela five years ago. Now, the couple are preparing to open a gelato factory in January.

CAROL SANDERS/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Mustafa Alsaid Hammoud and his wife Mona Al Khatib (not pictured) started their catering company Damascus Foods after arriving in Altona two years ago with their three kids. Mustafa, who was a chef in Damascus, prepares shawarmas for a group of journalism students and staff from Princeton University Wednesday at Altona’s Bergthaler Mennonite Church.

“The town is helping,” Gascon said of Altona, a community of more than 4,100 people, located roughly 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.

The couple is working on a deal to set up their gelato operation in a building on a rent-to-own basis, she said. Gascon and Lopez both work at Friesens Corporation printers in Altona.

They started making 600-litre batches of their Tropi-brand sweet frozen treat in test kitchens at the University of Manitoba, Gascon said.

They’ve been selling it for $2.50 a cup at Co-op Gas Bars in Altona and Morris, where it’s available in three flavours: raspberry, chocolate and a vanilla-chocolate swirl. The gelato is made without preservatives or artificial colours, emulsifiers or homogenizers or modified dairy products, the product literature says, and qualifies as a “reduced-fat ice cream.”

With the help of their new hometown, Gascon and Lopez plan to increase the operation to market their gelato across Canada and the United States.

“This is our dream,” Gascon said.

When they lived in El Tigre, Venezuela, their gelato business employed 10 people. When they get the plant up and running in 2018, Gascon expects they will start with five employees and create more jobs as approvals to distribute to the U.S. come in.

The couple first settled in Winnipeg but were drawn to Altona by Friesens Corp., Gascon said. The employer took the family under its wing and helped them and their four sons — two of whom are now studying engineering at university — get established, she said, adding they feel rooted in Altona.

A Syrian chef who arrived in Altona two years ago with his wife, three children and an entrepreneurial spirit says he feels the same way.

Mustafa Alsaid Hammoud found work cooking at a restaurant in Winnipeg, but he and his wife, Mona Al Khatib, say they couldn’t bring themselves to move away from the town that sponsored them as refugees and treated them like family.

“The people are very kind and I like to live here, in a small town,” Al Khatib said. “Our children (ages eight, six and five) are safe.”

Her husband quit the hour-plus drive each way to work, and recently started a catering company: Damascus Foods, named after their former home town. His specialties — falafel, fattoush salad, shawarma and hearty lentil soup — have caught on in the southern Manitoba town, said family friend Bonita Bage.

Bage belongs to Bergthaler Mennonite Church, an organization that’s taken the family under its wing through the Build a Village refugee sponsorship group, started by local businessman Ray Loewen. Since 2015, it has welcomed five Syrian families and has helped the prairie town’s population to grow.

“I think the community has accepted them very well,” Loewen said. “I think that all of the families are doing extremely well.”

The children are progressing in school and the older students are working part-time, he said. However, the parents are still in English classes, he said. “It’s a little harder for them to learn the language.”

(No one in the Syrian families spoke a word of English when they arrived in the town, but were soon immersed in the language, thanks to the efforts of volunteers and service providers, Al Khatib said.)

The church has provided kitchen space for the fledgling catering business, Bage said, whose husband is the pastor. They’re encouraging him to hold pop-up restaurants and look beyond Altona for catering jobs.

“I’m very proud of how far they’ve come.”

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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