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Syrian restaurant that served as symbol of refugee integration closes due to 'hate messages'

Last Updated Oct 9, 2019 at 1:32 pm EST

A Syrian restaurant in Toronto that made international headlines as a template for tolerance and refugee integration announced on Tuesday that it will be permanently closing after receiving a flood of “hate messages and death threats.”

In a message posted to its Instagram account, Soufi’s at 676 Queen Street W., said the decision to close was prompted by numerous threats received over the past week.

“Our decision is made with a heavy heart in effort to maintain our family and staff’s safety,” the message states. “We would like to thank our lovely customers and Queen Street neighbours for their wonderful support over the past two years.”

The restaurant had recently earned a national profile after a member of the owner’s family reportedly attended a protest against an event in Hamilton featuring People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier.

Several media reports say a now-deleted Facebook post indicated the owner’s son had attended last month’s demonstration, and that he regrets not stepping aside or intervening when an elderly woman was blocked from entering the event and verbally harassed.

The restaurant was run by Husam and Shahnaz Al-Soufi, who immigrated to Canada in October 2015 with their three children, Alaa, Jala and Ayham.

Soufi’s opened in 2017, and was profiled in the New York Times as an example of successful integration of Syrian refugees.

“We were inspired to open up Soufi’s by our love for our Syrian culture, music, and delicious home-made food,” the family wrote on its website.

The Soufi family released a second statement on Tuesday, saying: “We know this hate does not reflect the people of Toronto. The people of Toronto are loving, welcoming people. We have heard from countless community members and organizations who have restored our faith in the city.”

The statement also included some of the hateful messages they were receiving. (WARNING SOME OF THE COMMENTS CONTAIN PROFANE LANGUAGE AND THREATS OF VIOLENCE)

Soufis family statement by CityNewsToronto on Scribd

CityNews profiled the restaurant in January, 2018. At the time, general manager Jala Al-Soufi, said the restaurant gave Syrian refugees in Toronto a comforting taste of home, not to mention job opportunities.

“A lot of Syrian refugees have immigrated here in the past few years so we wanted to be able to offer them a piece of home,” she said.

“My father insisted on employing mostly Syrian newcomers to be able to create job opportunities for them and also we understand how difficult it is to move here with limitations in language and experience.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau weighed in on the closure late Tuesday night tweeting: “Hatred and threats of violence have no place in Canada. We are always stronger together than when we’re divided.”

Toronto police say a member of the restaurant’s staff had previously reached out about filing a criminal complaint, but no such report was ever completed.

Toronto police Const. Rob Reid said the force received a call from a member of the family on Oct. 2, and the person indicated he wished to file a formal report about hate speech and threats.

Reid said no one was at the restaurant when officers attended the scene, and they have not been able to reconnect since.

“We’d really like him to call back so we can … make this report,” Reid said. “When these things live in the dark, we can’t shine any light on them.”

Const. Victor Kwong said Wednesday that investigators were meeting with the family to gather details and likely launch a probe into the situation.

With files from The Canadian Press