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Syrian refugee brings skills to Antigonish

Ben Theuerkauf (left), Toufic al Zhouri and his son, Majd, with one of the planter boxes in the foreground, that Toufic and Ben built for the Town of Antigonish, on Main Street.
Ben Theuerkauf (left), Toufic al Zhouri and his son, Majd, with one of the planter boxes in the foreground, that Toufic and Ben built for the Town of Antigonish, on Main Street. - Sam Macdonald

With the sweltering summer weather in full swing, people out and about may be noticing there are some new, spiffier planter boxes in the downtown area.

They are the result of the teamwork of Ben Theuerkauf and Toufic al Zhouri.

The boxes can be found all along Main Street in the spring, near the People’s Place Library, the St. James Church and the Moonlight restaurant.

Toufic, a Syrian refugee who escaped the ravages of the ongoing civil war in his home country, is grateful he had the opportunity to contribute to the beautification of the town through his work on the planter boxes.

Speaking through the translation of his son Majd, Toufic said he is happy to be able to do anything to give back to the community for all the help it has given him and his family.

“The community gave such a warm welcome, and helped with everything. He’s looking to give back,” the younger al Zhouri said, translating his father’s words as he spoke. “Building the flower boxes is nothing compared to what (Antigonish) gave us, after losing everything back home.”

“Toufic did most of the labour,” Theuerkauf said. “I was dealing with the front-end, with supplies, making arrangements with Kent and Highland Building Supplies. We work pretty good together.”

Theuerkauf said he let Toufic do the majority of the physical work of assembling the planter boxes, emphasizing how methodical and efficient Toufic’s work was, referring to his style as “like a production line.”

Hearing Theuerkauf’s remarks, Majd pointed out that before they left Syria, his father was the owner of a construction company that employed 32 workers and four engineers in the now war-torn city of Homs, building everything from furniture to houses.

The idea to build a bunch of planter boxes downtown started small and unofficial. According to Theuerkauf, the original planter box Toufic built was for free, last year, at the request of a neighbor who needed one for their plants.

“Toufic built the planter, it was posted to Facebook, and from there it went viral,” Theuerkauf said. “We posted pictures of that one on Facebook, and it became so popular we had people messaging, looking to buy them.”

A multiplicity of orders for more planter boxes came in and since then, Toufic has built more than 50 of them, for people and organizations across Antigonish town and county.

“We sold a bunch of them to a school in Cape Breton, and the R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home took a bunch,” Theuerkauf said. “They’re super-popular, and we did that for a month or so, and we brought some of them to the farmer’s market a couple of times.”

This past spring, Toufic and Theuerkauf heard that the Town of Antigonish put out a request for tenders for work to replace 10 planters in rough shape that were already in the downtown area – both were eager to offer their services.

“Toufic and I partnered together, got awarded that contract,” Theuerkauf said. “We’re from different countries, and we speak different languages – but that doesn’t matter because we can get together and build.”

The work on the planter boxes only took a few weeks, and consisted mostly of after-hours work, since both Theuerkauf and Toufic work during daytime hours.


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