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The Canadian dream: Syrian refugee opens barber shop

At 14 and a refugee in Lebanon, Bilal dared to dream about a career he would love; now he owns his own barber shop in Simcoe County

Five years after arriving in Canada, at just 23 years old, Bilal Diyab is following his dreams and recently opened his own barber shop in Collingwood.

Diyab and his family had fled to Lebanon from their home in Syria years earlier and were finally offered the opportunity to come settle in Canada in 2017. They arrived in the middle of a snowstorm, with no money to their name and no English in their vocabulary. 

Through the Collingwood Syrian Sponsorship Committee, Diyab and his family were given a home and a monthly stipend for their first year in Collingwood to help them get settled, but Diyab had bigger plans. 

“I don’t want to take the money, I want to work,” he said. 

Growing up in Lebanon, Diyab stopped going to school after Grade 3 and started working with his father, who did tiling, when he was about 11 years old. Diyab hated tiling, but he did it to help his family. “Life was hard, you had to work to help your family with rent and food,” he said. 

When he was 14, a barbershop opened next door to his home, so his father encouraged him to offer his help. Diyab walked into the shop the next day and asked the owner if he could work for him. He was too young to cut hair, but he wanted to learn. He started working in the shop, sweeping floors and cleaning, watching the barber, and picking up any knowledge he could. After a year or two, Diyab started offering free haircuts to homeless people in Lebanon so he could practice. 

“Nobody trusts you with their head if you’re a little boy,” he laughed. “They were thankful, and I got to take advantage of learning.”

Diyab’s family moved to a different town in Lebanon and he started apprenticing in another barbershop full-time. When they finally got the call to come to Canada a few years later, they had 15 days to prepare. Diyab was the only one working in his family at the time, so he worked long hours to pay off all his family’s debts and purchase everything they needed for their move. He asked his best friend to borrow the last $200 they needed to get to the airport, promising he would pay him back as soon as he could. 

“We came to Canada with no money, we had nothing in our pockets,” he said. “Our sponsor was waiting for us at the airport and brought us right from the airport to our house in Collingwood.”

When Diyab arrived, his first priority was to learn English and complete his high school diploma, and he took a part-time job as a housekeeper at Blue Mountain Resort.

Diyab got a co-op placement at the Collingwood Barbershop in his second year of high school. Given his lack of English, he wasn’t allowed to cut hair, so he completed odd jobs around the shop and continued to learn everything he could. After the school year ended, the owner of the barber shop hired him full-time.

“I was enjoying it, people were so nice and they liked my haircuts,” he said. “But I wanted to talk, it was awkward silence.” 

When COVID hit, he went back to his job at Blue Mountain, and once things started opening up again he took a job as a valet so he could practice his English. His family moved to Waterloo last year, but he preferred Collingwood so Diyab moved back last year. 

“It was my first town in Canada, it’s like I grew up here,” he said. “It’s my hometown.”

One day, he was walking along Cameron Street and saw a ‘For Rent’ sign on a former salon, so he picked up the phone and made a deal.

“It all happened so fast,” he said. “Am I doing this? This is so risky. I was so scared.”

He fixed up the shop with the help of his friends and just months after getting his Canadian citizenship, Diyab officially became the owner of Bilal the Barber, where he offers haircuts and hot shaves for customers coming from as far as Barrie, Wasaga Beach, Stayner, Thornbury, Blue Mountain and Collingwood. 

“It’s crazy,” he said. “I’ve been fully booked every day for the last month.”

Diyab works seven days a week, from 9:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m., and he loves every minute of it. 

“The only reason I am open for these long hours is because I don’t feel like it’s a job for me,” he said. “I love talking to my customers. I feel like I am chilling at home.”


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Maddie Johnson

About the Author: Maddie Johnson

Maddie Johnson is an early career journalist working in financial, small business, adventure and lifestyle reporting. She studied Journalism at the University of King's College, and worked in Halifax, Malta and Costa Rica before settling in Collingwood
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