Syrian Family Expands Middle Eastern Grocery And Clothing Business In Moncton And Saint John

Feras Al-Motaweh inside the Rabih grocery store in Moncton. Image: Inda Intiar/Huddle

MONCTON – When Feras Al-Motaweh arrived in Moncton as a refugee from Syria in January 2016 with his wife and five children, they found that the options for Middle Eastern food and clothing in New Brunswick were limited. So they opened the Rabih Store to fill that gap.

Now, the family runs multiple shops – a grocery store and a clothing store in Moncton, and another grocery store in Saint John, which opened just a week ago. All three stores are operating out of rented spaces.

“When I came to Canada here in Moncton, I and all people – Syrian coming to Canada or [Middle Easterns were] looking for this stuff,” Al-Motaweh said.

Back in the day, they’d have to go to Halifax, Montreal or Toronto to buy food or items that remind them of home. The distance and cost of going every so often weren’t light to handle.

“This [was] hard for families,” he said.

The Syrian community figured out a way to do that more efficiently by having one or more people go to larger cities to shop for five or more families at once and bring the items back to Moncton. Al-Motaweh thought this is something he could do at a larger scale.

“If I bring stuff here, open store here, this is good for [the community]. I can work for this job and I can bring what you need…I go Toronto, I go Montreal [for] shopping, and come here,” he said.

He opened the first store at 390 St. George Street in Moncton about two and a half years ago. There, the Al-Motaweh family sells various Middle-Eastern snacks, sweets, cheese, halal meats and other food items. The Saint John location, on 70 Crown Street, has similar offerings and Al-Motaweh plans to add vegetables to the table.

When they opened the Moncton location, Rabih Store also offered some clothing and accessories that weren’t sold anywhere else in town – long dresses and hijabs for Muslim women and some religious items for Muslims like prayer rugs and prayer beads, as well as clothing for men, women, and children of other backgrounds.

“Anybody who wanted this stuff [had to] go so far to Montreal or Toronto. I brought this [stuff here] because I looked everywhere in New Brunswick and [I couldn’t find them],” he said.

He recently decided to separate the clothing and groceries by opening a second store for practical reasons. The clothing and accessories store is located a few blocks away on 110 St. George Street.

“Sometimes customers coming here have children. He eats chocolate, he plays, and he touches clothing. This is not good for the customer and for the clothes,” Al-Motaweh said. “So I moved the clothing in this store to another store.”

Al-Motaweh said opening the first location was difficult because he didn’t have as many resources and as much knowledge about suppliers. He relied on people within his community who knew where to find the food and clothing items they wanted to bring to Moncton.

Over the years, Al-Motaweh said he’s built good relationships with suppliers in larger cities. So, although he still goes to Montreal or Toronto once a while, he can also make orders to his suppliers from Moncton and get the items sent here.

“Right now I call the companies from Montreal or Toronto to bring me some stuff, bring me orders and send me receipts . . . What I sell, I can pay,” he said.

The Al-Motaweh family runs the business as a team. Rahaf, the daughter that’s old enough to help, runs the clothing store. Wife Fatima Al-Jibawi is in charge of the Moncton grocery store with Al-Motaweh’s help, as he spends a few days back and forth managing the Saint John store with the help of a part-time employee.

Rabih, the four-year-old boy who is the namesake of the business, was playing in the store as his parents tended to customers when Huddle visited.

Al-Motaweh said the store has been doing quite well and his customers come from various cultural backgrounds.

“I have customers who are Syrian, Egyptian, Moroccan, Tunisian, Canadian. Some see the stuff for first time and I can talk to anybody who is coming here how to cook this and that,” he said. “If this is new stuff for you, you can ask me…I can help everybody.”