When Mona Al Rajeh and Hia Alrajel met, they had an idea they would one day open a café in their new home.
The two women, who arrived from Syria three years ago, accomplished that dream Monday with the opening of the Middle East Café in the foyer of the Saint John YMCA.
“The [feeling] is amazing because we started here for learning English first and now we working here now. The feeling is amazing. Amazing,” Al Rajeh said.
The pair responded to a Request For Proposals from the YMCA looking for someone to take over the vacant spot. YMCA Saint John CEO Shilo Boucher said it was an immediate fit.
“We heard from these two lovely ladies, Mona and Hia, that they were already out cooking in the community and were really interested in starting their own business and it matches with the Y’s mission and vision to really support people in our community and support diversity so it was a perfect fit for us,” she said.
Drawing on Al Rajeh’s experience as a chef in Syria and Lebanon, the café serves Syrian food, along with Arabic and Canadian coffee and tea.
WATCH: YMCA continuing to assist Syrian refugees in Saint John, four more families to arrive this week
The two were greeted by many familiar faces, having spent a lot of time at the YMCA for language classes.
“They’re thankful to have the opportunity to start a business in a place they already feel comfortable, which would be the regional Y because they come here every day for class,” Boucher said.
“We are just so thankful that we can give them this opportunity and see them grow and flourish and see them connect with their community in a brand new way.”
The YMCA helped buy equipment for the café in order to get them started.
“Because we were expecting an established business to come and work for us, we were able to purchase the equipment that they needed and we’re letting them use the equipment and obviously trying to make things as easy as possible for them,” Boucher said.
“Really we just want a great café and to support some of the newest members of our community.”
It didn’t take long to begin cultivating a following. Customer Emery Richard says he is happy to support a business started by those in the community, rather than a chain.
“We love it, I love these sandwiches. These are very good. Very good,” he said.
“We need this instead of going to Timmy’s. It’s more convenient for us. We just finish working out and just come and sit down and enjoy a tea or a coffee.”
Both Al Rajeh and Alrajel say they are beyond thankful for the chance to start the business in their new home.
“Thank you Canada and thank you for all people who helped us, for everything,” Al Rajeh said.