From the moment Geoff Boyle and Wisam Abou Assali started talking, it was clear they had a connection that transcended their different backgrounds.
The Grove Orchard and U-Pick is an apple and berry farm in Warren Grove, PEI. It is owned and operated by Geoff. His son Matt is an investor who works there when he can. In March 2016, Geoff was looking for an employee through the Employ PEI program.
Wisam Abou Assali, his wife Dima Mreesh and their two sons arrived on PEI in January 2016 as refugees from Syria. They were sponsored by Saints Peter & Paul Orthodox Church in Charlottetown. Wisam and Geoff were introduced by Amy MacLean and Lisa Chaisson, who are members of the Employment Assistance Services team at the PEI Association for Newcomers to Canada.
Within days, Geoff invited Wisam (pronounced WisAHM) to join him in Nova Scotia on a training course on grafting and orchard skills.
“I had a feeling that Wisam was the person I was looking for,” says Geoff. “I brought him with me to take the training, but I was really trying to see if we could work together. It isn’t a big farm and I only need one employee. But we would have to spend every day working together. After two days of courses, eating meals, playing pool, and talking, I knew Wisam was the right guy.”
In April, Wisam began working at the Grove Orchard. Together the two men spent April and May preparing 5,000 apple tree grafts for planting, and then working in the fields on a diverse number of crops. Geoff is new to farming and Wisam is new to Canada, and so the two men are learning as they go.
The farm cultivates a variety of berries such as strawberry, raspberry, high bush blueberry, and elderberry. The orchard has at least nine varieties of apples, two varieties of Asian pears, five varieties of plums, seedless grapes, plumcots (plum-apricots), and chums (cherry-plums).
The men work eight hours a day or more, depending on weather and crop needs. Geoff says, “I am not a do-this, do-that kind of boss. I try to work as hard as or harder than Wisam. We work together.”
“Before the war in Syria, I worked in real estate and had another business,” says Wisam. “I also owned two farms. Both had olives, figs, and grapes. The one near the mountains had olive trees with big olives good for eating. At the other farm we used the olives for oil.
Between the trees we planted beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers. The beans were very good, very delicious,” Wisam raises his hand to his lips in the universal gesture meaning tasty.
“In Syria we had a very beautiful home. Now, everything is gone. I have left behind everything, including my parents and my brothers.
“I stay on PEI because of my wife, her family, and my children, Ibrahim and Andreh, and now, because of Geoff. Geoff… he is so good.” He hesitates, his eyes gone liquid with these simple but powerful words, and what this Canadian man means to him.
Geoff jumps in and fills the silence. He talks about the respect his family has for Wisam’s family and the courage it took for them to leave everything behind in Syria to come here. Geoff goes on to say how important family is to both men. “That makes us the same,” he says with emphasis.
Submitted by co-authors Yvette Doucette and Tori Vail, PEI Association for Newcomers to Canada
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