Chat with Muntadhr Naji, the barber at Naji’s Barber Shop on the Bedford Highway, and you’ll understand the benefits newcomers bring to our communities.
Born in Baghdad, Iraq, Naji lived under Saddam Hussein through war with Iran and the American invasion before fleeing to Syria with his mother and four brothers in 2006.
His mother enrolled him in one of Damascus’s top barber schools, followed by an apprenticeship. “I was cleaning the shop for free, just to get more skills,” he says. “School teaches you everything, but it’s not enough. You need practice.”
But before he could get his career underway, Syria shuddered into a multi-sided war and the Najis fled again. They settled in Halifax in 2010. Since then, Muntadhr Naji has helped his wife migrate from the Middle East to Nova Scotia, they’ve had a baby, and he’s started two businesses that employ three people.
And he just turned 24 in November. Geoff Regan, the Liberal MP for the area, supports the federal government plan to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada.
“Muntadhr Naji is an incredible success story,” he says. “Halifax West is the most diverse riding east of Montreal, and I have had the opportunity to meet many successful entrepreneurs who came to Canada to escape
war or famine and seek new opportunities for their families.”
“They have had to overcome financial difficulties, learn a new language and a new culture, and are now creating employment for Nova Scotians and giving back to their community.”
When he first arrived in Halifax, Naji put in long days. He rose early for English school, worked at Oxford Street’s Golden Touch Barber shop until late afternoon, and then toiled at the Fancy Lebanese Bakery until 1 a.m. Inspired by that business, he opened ZamZam Bakery in Spryfield.
Three years ago, he stopped into Bedford’s Papa Mario’s for a slice of pizza and noticed a vacancy next door. He rented it and opened Naji’s Barber Shop. Naji found his Damascus training attracted Bedford’s big market of Middle Eastern men looking for hands skilled at cutting their particular styles and types of hair and facial hair.
“They love their beards,” Naji says, but few barbers know how to give them the look they want. It helps that Naji is fluent in English and Arabic.
Five years into his new life in Bedford, Naji still puts in long days. He rises to see his baby daughter Farah and wife Sabrine briefly before opening ZamZam around 6 a.m. At noon, he heads to Bedford to open the barbershop and works until 8 p.m. Then he returns to the bakery to deliver the day’s food.
He also caters traditional Iraqi food for up to 200 people at the Bedford mosque, which he sometimes attends. Now he’s looking for a new space for the bakery, possibly in Bedford, so he can make it a retail business too, instead of just a wholesaler.
“Canada’s a great country,” he says. “It’s like a dream country. Anything you want to do, you can do it. We are lucky. It’s quiet, better for studying, and good for family. Everything is possible.”
Speaking in late November, as the Syrian refugee crisis dominates headlines, his thoughts turn to people like him trying to escape the mayhem to seek a better life in Canada.
“I think it’s good to come here, because there’s a war there. I was in that war. I was in the Iraq war. War is bad. When you leave and you come here, you say, ‘How lucky are these people.’ A lot of people, we don’t know how lucky we are,” he says.
Naji plans to keep growing his businesses and hire more people. He currently has two employees at the bakery and a part-time barber at the barbershop. He wants to grow the two businesses so he can step back from the day-today operations and become an investor to help start other people’s businesses. He also wants to spend more time with his young family.
“I don’t want to work hard anymore,” he laughs. “I’ve worked hard in my life since I was seven years old.”
This article was published in the January 2016 issue of Bedford Magazine. Bedford Magazine invites reader comments and encourages respectful discussion; we reserve the right to remove spam and libellous or abusive comments.