Core of Community: Omar Rajab, Pakenham

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In this series of articles, titled ‘Core of Community’, Millstone columnist Arnie Francis profiles citizens of Mississippi Mills who embody the spirit of community building.

Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon, is an ancient hub for trade and commerce dating back 5,000 years. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the city was often referred to as the ‘Paris of the Mediterranean’ – a playground for Europe’s finest.  Its once magnificent architecture and unique neighbourhoods were left over from the millennia of conquering emperors and more recent French colonization. The long sea wall along which tourists and locals regularly strolled, was a vantage point to the clear blue skies and the turquoise sea so emblematic of the Mediterranean.  This was the city of Omar Rajab’s birth.

In 1975, the first of several phases of the calamitous Lebanese Civil War broke out, engulfing the Muslim west and the Christian east in hostilities imported from other regions. As a consequence, in the early 1980’s at the age of 14, Omar’s formal schooling ended.  In 1984, as the war raged on, the Rajab family – father, mother and 10 children – moved away from Beirut and returned to their ancestral homeland in the luscious Bekaa Valley, a fertile farmland in the east of Lebanon, bordering Syria. A large and close-knit family, the five Rajab brothers and five sisters worked in the vineyards, olive groves and farms along the valley to help the family subsist. Times were hard. Yet this relentlessly tough period of his youth was a building block for the distinct work and service ethic that Omar displays to this day.

Let me introduce you to Omar Rajab, the long-time owner of the legendary Centennial Restaurant, “a classic diner on Pakenham’s main street” as Laura Byrne Paquet of the Ottawa Citizen once mused. On a mild winter’s day in early February 2017, I sat down to interview Omar in a booth in his restaurant.

As we talked, his two daughters (one a 2nd year medical student and the other a Grade 10 high school student) tended table. Omar’s dark eyes sparkle with pride in his children. But being a man who values balance and fairness, he also speaks engagingly about his eldest, the 21-year-old son who – like so many 21 year old’s today –  is in search of a purposeful life. Omar would love it if his son would someday take over the business but for now is pleased and proud that the lad is willing to work in the kitchen under his father’s tutelage. A devoted family man, Omar defines happiness as a hard day’s work capped off by time at home with his wife and their three children.

Family is an enduring theme with Omar.  Shortly after immigrating to Canada in 1992, he returned to Lebanon to marry Mariam. Soon after that, in 1994, he and his older brother Hassan bought the Centennial Restaurant. His uncle, who operated a restaurant in Finch, Ontario, coached him and gave him a much-needed start. Having no language other than Arabic, Omar struggled to learn English. His aunt arranged a language teacher for him so that he could learn faster.  Industrious and business-minded, the Rajabs are an entrepreneurial family: brother Hassan owns the commercial property across the street in Pakenham.  His other brothers Shadi and Fadi are successful Ottawa renovators.

Today, the Centennial Restaurant is a featured business that anchors Pakenham’s main street, provides employment opportunities, offers good value meals and spawns many a conversation among friends in its booths!  The early years, though, involved heavy debt and endless hours of work. For five years the brothers Rajab and their wives lived upstairs and switched off shifts in the restaurant downstairs.  Omar’s reputation as a kind and generous man has spread throughout Pakenham. Each year for the past 22 years, he and his family have hosted a Christmas Eve breakfast buffet for a free-will donation. For 2016 he encouraged his guests to donate towards the Syrian refugees’ effort. Along with clothing, food and household items, a sizeable donation was given to the Syrian Refugee Committee of Mississippi Mills. Indeed Omar has often helped to raise funds for his community, be it for the local church, the winter festival, the service club or for special projects. As fellow Pakenham resident and businessman Vic Bode testifies, “…the Rajabs, long-standing members of our community, have continually and quietly contributed, from the heart, to the quality of life that we are so lucky to enjoy.”

An avid warm-weather fisherman, Omar enjoys to be out on the water on his immaculately maintained 17-foot Crestline fishing boat, with a few close friends and a cigar! Omar practices a pragmatic faith, marked by a deep connection to God that is manifest in the ways of mutual respect. Omar puts it thus: “You treat every person the way you want to be treated. When you give you get and when you get you give more!”  Interestingly “Rajab” in Arabic denotes the seventh month of the Islamic calendar and derives the lexical definition “to respect”. Omar Rajab is both a giver of respect and a man who has earned the deepest respect for engendering a wholly positive spirit of community.

The next time you’re in Pakenham, stop off at the Centennial Restaurant and say “hi” to Omar. You will be glad you did.