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Toronto restaurant closes after death threats arise from relative's involvement in Bernier protest

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2019-10-08 Adam Carter

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(video by CityNews)

A Syrian family says it is shutting down its Toronto restaurant after receiving death threats, a week after a relative was involved in a protest at a Maxime Bernier speaking event in Hamilton where a senior was blocked from entering.

The Al-Soufi family, owners of Soufi's located on Queen Street West near Tecumseth Street, said Tuesday they are "heartbroken" about the decision.

"However, we could not put our family members, staff, and patrons in danger," they said in a statement. "The magnitude of hate we are facing is overwhelming."

The family also released some of the racist and violent messages they have received.

"Your going back in a box," read part of one message.

a car parked on a city street: A Toronto Syrian restaurant called Soufi's closed after getting death threats stemming from a relative who was involved in a protest of People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier in Hamilton last month. © Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation A Toronto Syrian restaurant called Soufi's closed after getting death threats stemming from a relative who was involved in a protest of People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier in Hamilton last month. "Keep it up and your family, and those who defend your family's terrorist actions will suffer immensely," reads another.

Other messages and posts provided by the family advocate extreme acts of violence against them. 

Also watch: Demonstrators clash outside Bernier event at Hamilton college (Provided by The Canadian Press)

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Toronto police confirmed Tuesday that Soufi's owners notified them about threats made against the business on Oct. 2.

The restaurant ended up embroiled in controversy after the owner's son, the family says, was involved in the protest outside an appearance by Bernier, the leader of the People's Party of Canada, on Sept. 29.

Some protesters attempted to prevent people from entering the building and one video, which was widely shared among Bernier supporters, shows several protesters blocking the path of 81-year-old Dorothy Martson and her husband.

"They were in a lineup … and treating me like I'm a criminal," she said, during an earlier interview.

The family said in its statement that their son, Alaa, regrets what happened.

"That said, he did not in any way verbally or physically assault the elderly woman and has nonetheless offered to apologize personally for not doing more," the statement said. 

"Alaa has been an activist and humanitarian for the past 9 years, fighting for the rights of oppressed communities in Canada and worldwide. We support and love our son for standing up against oppression."

The family also said their son was doxed — meaning his personal information was released online with malicious intent — and physically assaulted.

"Our family and business do not condone acts of hate, violence or harassment in any shape or form," the statement said. "We want to restate that we are not affiliated with any political group or organization or either side of the political spectrum. We simply believe in kindness, peace and understanding between all people."

A large crowd of protesters decrying the appearance by Bernier at Mohawk College stood outside with signs advocating for immigrant rights and yelling chants denouncing those entering, comparing them to Nazis and neo-Nazis. Supporters of the People's Party — some wearing "Make America Great Again" hats — stood behind police and verbally engaged with some of the protesters for about an hour.

A scuffle occurred in the crowd of around 100 about half an hour before the event was scheduled to start. Two men from opposing sides were led away in handcuffs by police.

The restaurant's website outlines how the owners, Husam and Shahnaz Al-Soufi, immigrated to Canada in 2015 and opened what they described as "downtown Toronto's first Syrian restaurant and cafe."

The two have three children — Alaa, Jala and Ayham — according to the website.

In their statement, the family said they know the hatred they have seen "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."

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: A showdown between a senior and protesters at the event was captured in pictures and video that have been widely shared on social media. © Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation A showdown between a senior and protesters at the event was captured in pictures and video that have been widely shared on social media.

Customers expressed shock at the closure.

Taea Magnuson, a Toronto resident, said she ate at the restaurant about once a week and it was always busy. She said it was one of her favourite spots to go with friends. 

"They were so welcoming and such a friendly family. It's so hard to believe that this could happen to them. It's really unfair," Magnuson said.

Bill Balfe, another Toronto resident, said he found the closure hard to believe.

"It's not something you hear about in Toronto. It's terrible when somebody has to go out of business because they feel threatened," he said.

Three women who live above the restaurant said the family was kind and helpful and their restaurant was successful.

"They were such nice people and they did not deserve any of that," Savannah Zita, one of the women, told CBC Toronto.

adam.carter@cbc.ca

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