Syrian family closes restaurant, confirms son was target of death threats after political protest

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Eleven days ago, Alaa Alsoufi attended a political protest in Hamilton wearing a face mask. Less than 24 hours later, a Twitter user in Ottawa identified the young man as a Syrian “terrorist” who reportedly harassed an elderly woman as she approached Mohawk College to hear the People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier speak at a fundraiser.

Social media users across North America and Europe ran with the narrative, launching death threats against the Toronto man, his parents and their business.

And so a downtown Toronto restaurant founded by Alsoufi’s family, which had been widely lauded as a success story of Canada’s refugee resettlement program, abruptly closed on Tuesday in the wake of escalating online attacks.

“We could not put our family members, staff and patrons in danger,” the Alsoufis said in a public statement on Tuesday night that defended their son as a humanitarian and the victim of a vicious, politically motivated smear campaign by alt-right crusaders.

A statement posted on Soufi's website on Tuesday announced that the restaurant on Queen St. W. is closing permanently due to alleged threats.

The family of Dorothy Marston, 81, the woman at the centre of the viral video, came to the Alsoufis’ defence and condemned the vigilantism by “social justice warriors on both sides.” The video shows Marston using her walker on Sept. 29 when she is confronted by a wall of masked protesters blocking her way, some calling her “Nazi scum.”

Notices posted in the window of Soufi's restaurant on Queen Street West tell patrons the cafe is closing permanently after the owners received death threats and hate messages.

David Turkoski, Marston’s son, said he was heartbroken and disgusted by the attacks on the Alsoufi family.

“I’m absolutely ashamed of anybody who called and threatened them. That’s how polarized Canada is becoming. We have lost our ability to see reason,” Turkoski said on behalf of his mother. “We don’t like war and persecution of anybody.”

The Alsoufis, who opened Soufi’s on Queen Street West in 2017, said Alaa “did not in any way verbally or physically assault the elderly woman” and “offered to apologize personally for not doing more” to stop other protesters from harassing Marston.

They said Alaa was physically assaulted on Friday, several days after the event, and doxed, an Internet-based practice in which social media users unite to expose a person’s private records and launch threats.

While the family expressed “deep gratitude” toward the “loving, welcoming people” of Toronto, they said “the magnitude of hate we are facing is overwhelming.”

In addition to physical violence, a torrent of death threats prompted their decision to close the popular restaurant.

Messages on Facebook and Twitter illustrated the attacks on the Alsoufis over the course of a week.

On Oct. 1, a Facebook user in Philadelphia, who describes himself as a former U.S. Navy Submarine Service employee, posted photos of Alaa to his personal page with a message inviting his friends to “Meet Alaa Soufi Dalua (sic), one of the antifa scumbags that harassed an elderly couple while they tried to cross a street. … We have everything on him. Everything!”

A user in New York commented on the post, writing: “Pay his parents a visit, make an example of them!”

From British Columbia: “Your (sic) going back in a box or not your going back.”

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From Belgrade, Serbia: “Hey little muslim b—-h. You know you’re gonna get f—–d right.”

In an email to the Alsoufis’ restaurant, an anonymous sender writes: “Keep it up and your family, and those who defend your family’s terrorist actions will suffer immensely.”

Hamilton police told the Toronto Star its investigation of the Sept. 29 protest “remains ongoing” and stated in an email: “There is no information to support that the conduct of the protesters was in violation of Section 318 (1) of the Criminal Code of Canada — Hate Propaganda.”

Toronto police would not confirm whether they were investigating or if the Alsoufis had notified them of the death threats.

Videos posted online show Alaa attending a variety of rallies in support of LGBTQ rights and protesting racism against migrants.

He was described in his family’s statement as “standing up for the rights of oppressed communities in Canada and worldwide.”

Husam and Shahnaz Alsoufi came to Canada after they and their three children were sponsored by a community group in 2015. The family opened the restaurant two years later, touting its Middle Eastern food as a culinary offering “from Syria with love.”

Soufi’s was among the restaurants profiled in a New York Times story last year showcasing the budding Syrian culinary scene in Greater Toronto. It has also been featured in Toronto Life, Now Magazine and the Star.

On Tuesday, staff at Soufi’s blocked the restaurant’s storefront window with printouts of the closing notice and the company’s signature yellow T-shirt while they were cleaning and clearing the premises as reporters gathered outside trying unsuccessfully to talk to the owners.

Members of the Queen West business community said they were shocked by the abrupt closing of the restaurant.

“Soufi’s has become a local staple. As a young business, it’s been growing and has a consistent following. It’s a success story,” said Zane Aburaneh, who runs a fashion and accessory boutique across the street and has hired the restaurant for catering. “It’s so unfortunate that someone has to close down their business because of threats.”

Julie Skirving, who operates Logan & Finley, a nearby eco-conscious general store, said she was a regular of the restaurant.

“They (the Alsoufis) are lovely people and must be devastated,” said Skirving. “It’s such a loss to the community.”

“This is horrifying and appalling. This is not Canada. There are rules of law. There are procedures to deal with situations like this,” added Jon Spencer, a patron of the restaurant, after leaving a heart-shaped note of support for the family that said “I’m so sorry to hear the awful news.”

Nicholas Keung
Diana Zlomislic is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @dzlo