CIUSSS team helps brothers who live with hearing disability to open ice cream parlour
Twins Anas Alhelaly and Moustafa Alhilali arrived in Canada from Syria with a dream. Struggling to rebuild their lives from the ashes of war, the brothers imagined opening an ice cream shop like the one they’d left behind in their homeland.
It took perseverance, hard work—and a refusal to let a severe hearing impairment stand in their way—to turn their dream into reality. And they accomplished it with the support and expertise of our CIUSSS’s team at the Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay Rehabilitation Centre.
Today, Sweemory—a combination of sweet and memory—serves up 24 flavours of homemade ice cream and a lesson that disability is no barrier to fulfilling your ambitions.
“We focus on people’s abilities, not their disabilities,” says Hélène Letellier, Work Adaptation Counsellor for Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay, who supported the brothers’ project. “We don’t look at what they don’t have, but what skills they do have. Their project had a lot of potential, and we had to find the key to reaching it.”
The twins’ remarkable journey from refugees to entrepreneurs began in their hometown of Aleppo. They ran a shop called Cookies that churned out ice cream and other confections for Syrians desperate for a treat during the violence of civil war. The brothers endured power outages, water shortages, nearby rocket fire and even a bombing that shattered the shop’s front window—until, one day, they decided they had to flee.
They arrived in Canada as sponsored refugees in 2018 and set out to remake their lives in a new land. Because the 40-year-old brothers have had severe hearing loss since birth, they turned for speech-language therapy and other services to the MAB site of Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay. When, one day, Anas confided that he hoped to open an ice cream shop like the one he’d run in Syria, the centre’s Employment Service stepped up to help.
“We focus on people’s abilities, not their disabilities.”Hélène Letellier, Work Adaptation Counsellor
Ms. Letellier put them in touch with SPHERE, a non-profit organization that facilitates access to employment for people who experience disability. The non-profit provided a major boost through their business start-up program and the Fondation des Sourds du Québec came forward with a subsidy.
Then the brothers found a space to rent on De Salaberry Street in Montreal’s north-end Cartierville district.
To prepare for the opening, Audiologist Liliane Brunetti, Specialized Educator Paul Evers and Ms. Letellier visited the site and drew up a list of recommendations to adapt it to the brothers’ disability. For example, they recommended that Anas wear a pager that vibrates when someone comes through the door or if the fire alarm goes off.
The brothers fixed up the shop from scratch, installing ice cream-making equipment, painting the walls in bright candy colours and implementing the rehabilitation team’s recommendations. Last August, Sweemory welcomed its first customers.
“They’re remarkable individuals,” says Mr. Evers. “Opening a business for an average person is a great feat. For an individual with a disability, the challenges multiply. The fact that they overcame those challenges is inspiring.”
“They’ve created something they can be proud of.”Paul Evers, Specialized Educator
Thanks to the SPHERE grant, the brothers were able to hire part-time employee Daniela Ordonez, who deals with suppliers over the phone and responds to customers in the shop. Anas, who wears a cochlear implant and a hearing aid for his profound hearing loss, relies on voice-to-text technology that allows him to read a person’s words on a screen.
“Anas is a go-getter, and he doesn’t let his hearing loss be a barrier,” says Ms. Brunetti, who has been Anas’s audiologist for four years. “The word ‘cannot’ doesn’t exist for him. It’s amazing.”
The brothers say they’re immensely grateful to the team at Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay and to the country that gave them a chance to start over. “I used to read about Canada, and I already loved this country,” Anas says. “I still love it—the way different cultures live side by side with respect and kindness, and the way the government helps people.”
They say staff at Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay gave them the support and strength to pursue their goals. Now, they want to distribute their ice cream to other establishments and to introduce touch-screen ordering menus in the shop to facilitate communication with customers.
“This place was our dream,” Anas said at Sweemory recently. “It couldn’t have happened without the support from Hélène and others. They believed in us.”
Sweemory is at 5944 De Salaberry Street.