On a farm near Calgary, newcomers from Syria give back to their new home


Farmers Nahima Mohamed and Mohamed Eldaher stand in their field near Calgary with their five children: Munzer, 2, Abir, 5, Aisha, 8, Rabih, 7, and Hayel, 1.

Photograph by Leah Hennel / The Globe and Mail

Nahima Mohamed pulls green onions from a garden in the corner of a canola field in northeast Calgary. Mohamed Eldaher, her husband, is a few rows of vegetables, discussing with a stranger the virtues of the soil.

Their five squirrel children around, alternating between helping with the harvest and playing in the rusty trailer the family uses transport products. Their hands are stained with burgundy when pulling beets, covered with dirt from work and play.

Ms. Mohamed and Mr. Eldaher were market gardeners in Syria and are determined to be market gardeners in Canada.

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They arrived in Calgary about four years ago and, three days after starting their life in Canada, began to experience growth in their new backyard.

Now they are six acres in size, have expansion aspirations, and produce enough vegetables to make regular donations to the Calgary Food Bank.

The family relied on community organizations when they arrived in Canada, before their unnamed vegetable business took off. « Now I am ready to help, ”says Eldaher.

Ms. Mohamed and Mr. Eldaher delivered 317 kilograms of beets and green onions to the food bank after they were picked in mid-September.

Over the past four years, the family has donated 952 kilograms of fresh produce, according to Shawna Ogston, spokesperson for the charity.

“We don’t get a lot of fresh donations,” she says, even though fruits and vegetables make up 40 percent of every hurdle the organization puts together. The food bank usually purchases fresh food, which makes family gifts particularly valuable.

The Calgary Food Bank distributed 6,300 baskets in March, up 6% from the same month in 2019, when economic activity slowed due to the coronavirus. Distributions stabilized at around 4,000 to 5,000 baskets per month during the summer. The food bank handed out 5,300 baskets in September 2019 and Ms Ogston suspects this year’s tally will be higher.

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Vegetables grown on the farm include beans – with the crop harvested from the top – as well as beets, zucchini and clumps of parsley like the one Mr Edlaher is lifting.

Mr Eldaher began posting photos to social media of their vegetable-packed backyard about three or four months after the family arrived in Canada. The images spread online and eventually local media picked up on the Syrian Green Thumbs story.

A Canadian born landowner with ties to Lebanon and Syria then contacted the man translating for the family during interviews, offering them a corner of the field on condition that they give part of their harvest to those who need it.

The family had to work the land to make it suitable for vegetables rather than grains. Ms. Mohamed and Mr. Eldaher experimented with different plants, adapting to the tastes of their new customers and a different climate. This land, says Mr. Eldaher, is so rich, in part because the growing season is only about four months, compared to eight in their home country. Prairie summers also mean more hours of daylight. In Syria, they picked zucchini every three days. In Alberta, zucchini grow so fast that they have to harvest them every day, Eldaher says.

“It’s better here,” he says.

The family started small in Canada, with around two acres, and grew each year. Customers come to them in the field. They bring their children, who play with the children of the farmers – Aisha, Rabih, Abir, Munzer and Hayel – while the adult shop. Visitors can pick their own beans or have the family collect the wares. Ms. Mohamed and Mr. Eldaher keep it simple: most products cost $ 5 per kilogram. Parsley costs $ 2 a bunch. Beets cost 50 cents.

“This year was wonderful,” says Eldaher, estimating that they grew between 6,800 and 9,100 kilograms of food. Farmers received a greenhouse permit last year and hope to upgrade to seven. “It means a big business.”

Children on the farm – like Munzer, holding an eggplant in the greenhouse, and Aisha and Abir, jumping on a trampoline during harvest – sometimes play with the children of customers who come to visit.

Sam Nammoura is the co-founder of the Calgary Immigrant Support Society, formerly known as the Syrian Refugee Support Group, and the translator who put the family in touch with the landowner. Members of their immigrant community doubted Ms. Mohamed and Mr. Eldaher as they focused on starting their business, Mr. Nammoura said. They did not take Mr. Eldaher seriously, for he was delighted with the potential of the soil. They believed he was wasting his time in the field when he should have honed his English skills in the classroom. The family has progressed.

“Mohamed loves agriculture. It’s his passion, ”says Mr. Nammoura. “He’s living the dream.”

And while Mr. Eldaher is the public face of the business to English speakers, Mr. Nammoura says Ms. Mohamed deserves the same credit, calling her a driving force behind the project and praising her strong business skills.

“This woman is the number one reason this project is a success,” he says. “She’s the one who really put everything together.”

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