Despite its rather dingy ambiance, the Shawarma Byte restaurant found on the corner of King Edward Street has a certain liveliness about it.
A few minutes inside and the reason becomes apparent – employee Hassan Hannoon rushes busily back and forth behind the counter, serving hungry students from neighbouring OttawaU fresh shawarmas, a traditional Arabic sandwich.
“And what can I get you, amigo?” he asks a customer, holding his hands out over a sumptuous looking array of pickles, tomatoes, garlic sauce and the like, while a massive mountain of meat roasts merrily on a spit behind him.
The better part of 29 years of age, Hannoon moved to Ottawa eight years ago from his hometown of Nablus, on the West Bank in Palestine.
“I came here to get myself educated and start a new life,” he says. Hannoon got a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Carleton University before going on to get himself a master’s in biomedical engineering, graduating earlier this year.
Currently he works as a software tester at Optimal Payments, a money transfer services firm, and also works part-time at Shawarma Byte.
Hannoon says that it’s all about presentation when it comes to making shawarmas.
“We have a saying in Arabic that goes like, ‘It is the eyes that are going to eat before the mouth,’” he says with a broad smile.
“If the food looks good then really, it doesn’t matter how tasty it’s going to be. But if it looks bad from the start, then even if it tastes good no one is going to like it!”
As is the case with many immigrants like himself, moving to Canada was a big decision for Hannoon. He came here alone, without his family, but with hopes of getting educated, finding work, and settling down.
“What I love about Canada is that you can write your own future here,” Hannoon says.
“You know what’s out there so you can plan a future for yourself and work towards it. Sometimes even if you don’t get 100% there, you get close,” he adds.
He attributes the common phenomenon of ‘culture shock’ as the biggest hurdle in settling down to his new life in Canada.
“For me the hardest part about getting used to life here was adapting to the culture,” Hannoon says, glancing outside at the direction of a nearby bar where the sounds of a promising party seem to be brewing
“For example back home in Palestine drinking alcohol is not a very common thing to do. But over here it is almost like a norm. Everybody is doing it and it is all around you.”
He says language too was an obstacle.
“Learning the language was tough as well. When I came here I knew only a little bit of English and it took some time to learn it fully. Although I still have a pretty strong accent!” Hannoon says, his rich Arab accent more obvious than ever.
The burly Palestinian admits he is still momma’s boy, saying that his mother is what he misses most about home.
“Cooking and food and all of that you can get by. But your mother, you know, you can never forget - that’s what I miss the most,” Hannoon says, his voice faltering ever so slightly.
Hannoon dreams of moving back to Nablus one day, but for now, he feels he is not yet ready.
“I want to make sure I have something to go back to,” he says.
“I’m planning on getting a house there and things like that so when I go back, I have something ready there for myself.”
Are there any plans for a Mrs. Hannoon in his life any time soon, and maybe a few junior Hannoons?
He laughs softly, saying, “Soon inshallah (Arabic for ‘God willing’).”
“Hopefully in the next year or two I plan on getting married and starting a family.”
As Hannoon returns to the counter to serve another customer, a rugged looking youth with extra baggy jeans, he smiles genuinely and asks, “Good evening sir, mutton or chicken?”