The Star-crossed Spice Man

They were both working for a local pharmaceutical distributor when they met. He was a salesman. She was working in the administrative office. Both were chemical engineers by training.

A selection of Iraqi spices. See A Taste for Sour. 

A selection of Iraqi spices. See A Taste for Sour

Their love grew. They got engaged. But this is where things get complicated since our story takes place in war-torn Baghdad. Our heroes also happen to be Christian, a minority group who, then as now, must face ever growing persecution in Iraq. “As Christians, we are all persecuted at a certain level,” Tahreer says. “I was in the top three in my university and I didn’t have a chance to get a job there because of my religious orientation and my political views.”

Leaving Baghdad was therefore the only chance they had for a better, safer life. Yet, when immigrating, the world is not always your oyster. You go where you can. Four years ago, Tahreer wound up in Ottawa. Jennifer, for her part, was sponsored by her sister in Chicago.

Within the first three months, Tahreer got a job at Ottawa’s Mid-East Food Centre. He started behind the olive and cheese counter. He is now in charge of all things spices, a particularly bustling section of the store. (See A Taste For Sour : An Iraqi Spice Primer) “They treat me very well. It’s not my dream job but I’m able to support my family. That’s the most important thing. I got them here.” His family, to be more precise, includes his two sisters and his mother. They had fled to Jordan shortly after Tahreer had left Iraq.

“They had to leave,” Tahreer explains. “In Iraq, three women would be really risky to be alone there. Women can’t do anything in Iraq. They need a man to do a job. There’s sexual harassment. There’s physical abuse. There’s all kinds of mistreatment against women. They are the most persecuted section of society.”

The Mid-East Food Centre has a mind-boggling variety of food from around the world. Spices are only the tip of the iceberg!

The Mid-East Food Centre has a mind-boggling variety of food from around the world. Spices are only the tip of the iceberg!

Tahreer’s family has now been in Canada for the past four months. Yet shaking off the fear they have lived under is not an easy feat. Speaking of his sister, Tahreer says “Here, I told her, you come to a free country! Do whatever you want! Respect people, people will respect you. That’s it. It’s been four years. I didn’t even hear one racist word.”

His sister’s fear isn’t unjustified. In Iraq, Tahreer himself had survived two car bombings. It took him years to get over his fear of parked cars. For most North Americans, a parking lot doesn’t spell potential death.

In Canada, well into his thirties, Tahreer has had to rebuild a life with only the kindness of a few Canadians to rely on. For most North Americans, building a life in the regular order of things is hard enough.

All throughout, Tahreer has had to support and protect his family from across the world. For most North Americans, there is no constant fear for the safety of loved ones.

Tahreer Putrus, the star-crossed spice man.

Tahreer Putrus, the star-crossed spice man.

Yet despite all of his achievements, despite deserving better luck, the matters of the heart remain in limbo. There is still a border between him and Jennifer. Obviously, having nothing but an Iraqi passport, that border has recently become more than a border. It’s an impasse. His and Jennifer’s stars have crossed and seem to be shooting off in opposing directions.

“You know what she told me? She told me ‘Maybe God just don’t want us to be together.’ I was like, don’t put God in this. We’ve been through alot. We’re trying to overcome this problem. But one after one after one after one... It’s endless. Eventually these kind of barriers will disappear because we’ll get our citizenships. I’ll get my Canadian passport. But it’s going to take time. For me it’s been hard. I feel sad just to think it. But that’s life. Life isn’t fair.”