Big culture on the prairie

When first Middle East families immigrated to province, mosques were unheard of and even yogurt was exotic


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While events in the Middle East have made headlines here for the last 60 years, people from that part of the world have quietly been making this province their home.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/05/2012 (3840 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

While events in the Middle East have made headlines here for the last 60 years, people from that part of the world have quietly been making this province their home.

Long before there was a mosque in Manitoba, and long before grocery stores even sold something as exotic as yogurt, folks from the Middle East came to this province for school, for freedom and for a fresh start.

They set down roots, wove their way into the culture of friendly Manitoba, and then made things better for those who followed.

Three in the vanguard who devoted themselves to their community — a young mother from Syria, a refugee from Palestine and a farm boy from Lebanon — tell the story:


Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press ‘Albert’ El Tassi with granddaughters Aiche Tassi, and Hiba Souid at the Muslim school he helped create. When El Tassi arrived in Winnipeg, there were just 10 Muslim families in Winnipeg. Today, there are 15,000 Muslims in Manitoba.

Laila Chebib

“WE came in 1958,” said Laila Chebib. She and her husband, Farouk Chebib, from Syria were among the province’s earliest settlers from the Middle East.

They knew of only one other Muslim family living in Manitoba, she said.

There was no such thing as an ethnic food section in the grocery store. Back then, food choices were limited.

“They did not have any yogurt, which was a staple for me.”

She stayed at home with their infant son while Farouk worked on his master’s degree in agriculture at the University of Manitoba. They were strangers in a strange land but rather than feeling isolated, their new community welcomed them, she said.

“We lived on the third floor of a family home,” said Laila. “People were very friendly.”

Winnipeg, at the time, seemed like “a small village,” said the woman who grew up in Damascus and Paris. There were hardly any buildings on Pembina Highway south of Jubilee Street, she recalled.

They stayed for 11 months until Farouk finished his degree, then returned to Syria. By then, the Chebibs had seen the best and worst of Winnipeg weather. Still, they were drawn to the place.

“We returned in 1965 when my husband got a scholarship to study for his PhD,” said Laila. “I was pregnant with No. 2. I’m the one who chose to come back.”

There were many places her husband could have studied for his doctorate, but she was smitten with Prairie people.

“I chose Winnipeg,” she said. “I found the Canadian people in Winnipeg extremely friendly and very helpful.”

When they returned to Winnipeg in 1965, she brought a small container of yogurt as a starter kit to make her own. It would be another year or so before yogurt appeared in grocery stores.

Laila went to night school to improve her English and found out where she could find familiar foods.

“I learned very quickly that there was a farmers market where I could find eggplant and zucchini not available in the grocery stores.”

They ate a lot of produce in Syria, and in Winnipeg when it was available and affordable. They were living on a graduate student’s budget, after all.

“You manage, adapt and invent.” They ate a lot of chicken at 10 cents a pound. It wasn’t halal — the Arabic word for the Muslim equivalent of kosher — but that was OK.

“Our religion is not strict — you are allowed to when you can’t find what you need.”

In the late 1960s in Winnipeg, she didn’t know any Muslim women who wore a hijab, or head covering.

“Most of the people there were just like us, practising, but nobody covered their heads,” said Laila, who went back to school in 1968 and got a master’s degree in French.

“We were quite liberal,” said Laila, who now teaches French to federal court judges in Winnipeg.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS When Laila and Farouk Chebib came to Winnipeg, the Islamic community was so small, prayers were held in the Unitarian Church. 'Slowly the city grew and the community grew, and we figured we needed a place of our own.'

The Manitoba Islamic Association was formed in 1967. They held prayers at the Unitarian Church and later at the International Centre.

“Slowly the city grew and the community grew, and we figured we needed a place of our own,” said Laila.

“We built the mosque in St. Vital and set up Arabic classes in the basement, as soon as it was built, for our children.”

Laila and other volunteers ran summer camps for boys and girls.

Today, those kids are parents with teens, said Laila.

There’s a big difference between coming to Winnipeg 55 years ago and coming now, she said. Today, there are more than a dozen families from Syria and “they stick together, unfortunately.”

The Chebibs were on their own and had to make friends and connect with the larger community, she said.

Laila hasn’t been back to Syria since 1986. She hopes the Arab Spring takes root across the Middle East and people gain a sense of security.

“I wish all those dictators would get out and people would get together and form a proper government. We have many, many smart people who love their country,” she said. “Everyone thinks they’re doing what’s best for the country, and it’s not helping.”


FAMILY PHOTO Laila and Farouk Chebib with son Louay in Winnipeg in 1958, when grocery stores offered few exotic choices. ‘They did not have any yogurt, which was a staple for me.’

‘Moe’ Wajih Zeid

‘Moe’ Zeid made a name for himself in Winnipeg in more ways than one.

The Foodfare store owner was a refugee from Palestine with a Grade 9 education when he arrived in Winnipeg in 1967. He couldn’t speak English but he knew how to cut meat, speak German and deliver a right jab.

Moe is short for Muhammad — as in Muhammad Ali. Zeid earned the monicker when he decked a loudmouthed, bigoted co-worker who wouldn’t stop bullying him.

“He wouldn’t leave me alone,” Zeid recalled in his office overlooking the Corydon and Lilac grocery store. “He was a tough guy, but I gave it to him.”

Zeid got called into the manager’s office. “He said ‘From now on, we’re going to call you Muhammad Ali,’ ” recalled Moe.

His boss fired the bully. “He was bugging other people, too.”

Moe Zeid continued to fight for himself. He worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week at Manitoba Sausage and a Chicken Delight outlet until he bought his first grocery store. Nearly 50 years later, he’s built his own grocery empire with four Foodfare stores and a Chicken Delight.

“Just give me the freedom to be somebody, to work,” said Zeid, who grew up in a refugee camp near Ramallah and left home at 16.

“I thought, ‘What kind of a life would I have here if I’m not an educated person?’ ” He knew people in Germany and moved there for five years, learning the language and how to cut meat.

He’d never thought about coming to Canada until he met two Canadian soldiers at a coffee shop in Germany.

“I said ‘What is Canada? Where is Canada? Who lives there?’ “

They told him people from all over the world, including Germans, live in Canada. Zeid was sold. If Germans are moving there, “Canada must be better than Germany.” He applied to come to Canada and was issued a visa.

When he arrived in Winnipeg in February, a cabbie took him to a cheap but clean hotel.

His mom found him a wife back home, and Zeid sponsored her and his three brothers and three sisters to come to Canada. Now, with his seven kids, 35 grandkids and other relatives, he figures there are more than 240 Zeids in Winnipeg.

“They’re all working.”

When newcomers arrive from the Middle East now, they get the red-carpet treatment from the Zeids, he said.

“There will be three or four cars and maybe 10 people ready to receive them.”

Zeid warns them not to expect material things to come to them right away. “You have to work your way up to have that.”

With just 33 million people in such a large country, Zeid said there’s plenty of room in Canada for more newcomers. He just hopes they’re smart and hard-working.

“There’s lots of opportunities, but you have to get up, yourself, to get them.”

He has no plans to retire.

“It’s fun to see my business succeed,” he said. “What would I do all day? Fight with my wife and watch TV?”

He and fellow businessman Albert El Tassi funded Al Hijra Islamic School, which, for its first several years, was in a rented space. Now the school has its own building, goes up to Grade 9 and has more than a dozen teachers.

They also started the city’s first mosque, on Hazelwood Avenue in St. Vital.

With places to learn and pray established, they reached out to the broader community, raising money for hospital foundations such as Children’s, Grace and Victoria.

“We are in the community,” Zeid said. “You have to help your community.”

Service organizations, such as the Rotary Club, are important, he said.

“When you come to a country, you have to belong to a group, to know who you are, and you will be protected,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the community and the opportunities it gave me.”


BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Grocery store owner ‘Moe’ Zeid earned his nickname after he decked a bigoted co-worker who wouldn’t stop bullying him. ‘He was a tough guy, but I gave it to him.’

‘Albert’ Abdo El Tassi

‘Albert’ El Tassi grew up on a farm in Lebanon — a long way from the garment factory in Winnipeg where he toiled, and from Rideau Hall in Ottawa, where in 2003 he received Canada’s highest honour.

He was educated in Beirut and Cairo and returned to Lebanon’s fertile Beqaa Valley as an elementary school teacher and principal. In Canada, he had two sisters and a brother who convinced him to join them in Manitoba.

“They kept saying ‘Canada is the land of opportunity,'” said El Tassi.

He arrived in 1970 and his siblings told him they’d bankroll him to go back to school to have a profession.

“I didn’t want them to pay for me,” he said. “I figured I’d work for a year and go back to school.”

His brother, who worked at Peerless Garments, got him a job at the Winnipeg garment factory.

In six months, he’d worked his way up from bundle boy on the factory floor to a job in the shipping room. His worst experience in Canada, he now recalls, was his first winter working on the loading dock without proper gloves.

“It was a difficult life, the cold environment. The weather was horrible,” he said before shrugging.

“You get through it, step by step.”

Now the CEO of Peerless, he has sponsored 50 people to come to Canada and supported countless others who’ve benefited from his philanthropy.

“None of those people I sponsored were ever dependent on welfare,” he said.

Just getting and holding a decent job isn’t enough, he said.

“When you immigrate, you come to better your life… You’re satisfied when you escalate.”

That was his approach to the community, too. When he arrived, there were just 10 Muslim families in Winnipeg.

Today, there are 15,000 Muslims in Manitoba and four mosques, three in Winnipeg and one in Thompson, which El Tassi helped build. In 1996, he helped create Manitoba’s first Muslim school — Al Hijra Islamic School, where the former principal from Lebanon is now chairman.

El Tassi helped lay the foundation for the Muslim faithful. After 9/11, it was tested. An anti-Muslim backlash didn’t affect him or his family, but it did affect those who came later — especially those from war-torn countries, he said.

“There were problems for the parents and the kids.”

On top of the fear and suspicion of Muslims generated by the media, refugees were coping with culture shock and post-traumatic stress from the places they’d fled. Kids were learning English more quickly than their parents, and the parents struggled, said El Tassi.

“It’s a hard life,” he said. But the community and the Islamic school helped the families get through it.

He helped establish the Islamic Social Services Association to assist an influx of refugees from countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Everybody has different problems,” said El Tassi, who set up a sewing class above his office at Peerless for newcomers to learn a skill and improve their English.

“We try to do the best we can. We’re trying to build bridges.”

He sits on the boards of several foundations, including two hospitals, the University of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Foundation. On Thursday, he was honoured as the Red Cross Humanitarian of the Year for 2012.

His proudest achievement is being appointed to the Order of Canada in 2003 for his philanthropy and “for promoting understanding, tolerance and respect in the community.”

He has no plans to retire. He wants to set up an endowment foundation for the Islamic school to make sure it keeps going after he’s gone.

“I have no other hobby.” He’s hosting a charity golf tournament for the Concordia hospital foundation this summer, but he doesn’t play golf.

“I’ll go for the supper.”

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press Students at Al Hijra Islamic School, which was founded by 'Moe' Zeid and 'Albert' El Tassi. The two businessmen also support various hospital foundations. 'We're trying to build bridges.'
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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