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Syrian cook’s recipes and life story are made with a little of this and a little of that

In this Following Up feature we visit Kaza Meza Restaurant and co-owner Mohamed Malek whose life was forever changed by the war in his home country of Syria.

In August 2018 GuelphToday introduced our readers to Walaa Allaf and his restaurant Shawarma G owned and staffed by Syrian refugees.

The story documented the resilience of those affected by Syria’s bloody eight-year civil war, and opened the city’s heart to people such as Mohamed Malek co-owner of the new Kaza Meza Restaurant in the Bullfrog Mall on Eramosa Road.

“I don’t like talking about the conflict in Syria,” said Malek. “I like talking about my life in Canada and my new life in Guelph.”

Malek was 22, in 2010 when he arrived in Canada.

“I came here nine years ago as a student,” he said. “I was studying English in Toronto and like every other young kid I wanted to see the other side of the world. At that time there was nothing going on in Syria. It was safe.”

His family in Damascus was sending him money for his schooling.

“I was planning to go to college,” said Malek. “Before the war I was getting support from my family but after they started the war or whatever you want to call it, the support stopped.”

He found work and adjusted to circumstances back home as the tables slowly began to turn.

“I started working in restaurants in 2011 because I had no money coming from Syria,” he said. “The problem was getting worse in Syria - 2012, 2013, 2014 – every year it was getting worse. So, I started supporting them. I was working in the kitchen to support myself and support my family at the same time.”

In 2013 his brother was forced to flee Syria leaving his parents and two sisters in Damascus.

“Most of the guys from my generation left because they don’t want to be forced to join the military or something like that,” said Malek. “If I was there that would have happened to me as well. My brother is now in Germany. He is doing alright. He was doing some delivery and now he is working in an electronic factory.”

Malek stays in touch with his brother as well as his parents and sisters in Damascus

“My parents are doing good,” he said. “I offered to help them come here in 2014. I had work for them but they were scared to leave, you know. Not scared but like old people they don’t want change. They are safe. I think 90 per cent of Damascus is safe, now. I say now because it wasn’t like that a while ago.”

Malek’s cooking jobs started out of necessity but soon developed into a passion.

“I was learning different dishes and how to use different spices,” he said. “I started putting my own twist on things and mixing it up with Mediterranean and Canadian and creating my own dishes.”

He met his future business partner Sami Saadeldin a year after he arrived in Toronto and discovered they had more than cooking in common.

“Basically, he was born in Syria,” said Malek. “He is a Palestinian refugee born in Syria. He came here 20 years ago and we have been friends for eight years.”

They also shared a dream about the future.

“After a few years of working hard I decided it was time to look for my own place,” said Malek. “Sami and I started chatting about looking for a location.”

Their search led them to the Bullfrog Mall in Guelph.

“One day I was visiting friends here and I saw this space for lease,” said Malek. “I knew at that moment that this was the place and I was going to call Guelph my home.”

They opened the doors of Kaza Meza May 13 and have a special grand opening scheduled for July 13 where the first 150 customers will get a free shawarma. The name of the restaurant reflects the eclectic collection of flavours on the menu.

“Kaza Meza means ‘this and that’,” said Malek. “It’s how I mix my stuff. I have some authentic dishes and at the same time Westernized dishes. Here we have burgers. We have poutine and we have shawarma.”

It’s becoming a popular spot for students from nearby John F. Ross CVI.

“They love the food and they bring their parents here,” he said. “They tell their parents we’ve got to have Kaza Meza. They like that we make everything fresh from scratch.”

Malek had planned to return to Syria before the war broke out but plans have changed.

“I came here as a Syrian citizen to see the other side of the world,” he said. “Back then the economy in Syria was number one in the Middle East. We didn’t have contact with the politicians. You just live your own life and you’re good, you know. Now, I’ve lost contact with everyone there.”

His future is here now. He got his Canadian citizenship earlier this year and moved to Guelph four months ago.

“This going to be my home,” he said. “I like it here. I have been here for a third of my life, so far. I am thinking about here. My focus is here.”