Women of Courage

Women of Courage

By Leila Castro


March is the international women month. I am proud to share the stories of three Pinay Winnipeggers who I admire for their wisdom and courage. Rochelle recently opened the Middle Eastern restaurant Les Saj with two co-owners. She is married to a Syrian. Mary Mallari or more popularly known as “Mama M” is social media personality and Papa Dee’s co-host in AYOS Live FB. She is always full of life, what many of you don’t know is just two years ago she lost her husband from cancer. She had to endure hiding pain and suffering just to fulfill her husband’s dying wish. Julie is a WFG advisor who loves sharing about her knowledge in financial literacy. Julie has helped a lot of people in dealing with labor issues. For 9 years, she served as president of a worker’s union in a large company.


Rochelle is married to Baravi, a Syrian. Their love story started in Dubai. Baravi is shy, the quiet type, not aggressive, “torpe”, respectful and family oriented. As described by Rochelle, “He is not flirty.” Rochelle fell for Baravi because of these qualities. Baravi courted Rochelle the Filipino traditional way to the extent that he followed her when she transferred to a different city in UAE. When Rochelle finally gave her “yes”, it was followed by a wedding in Dubai, then in Syria attended by Baravi’s relatives.

When asked what is the feeling of being married to a Syrian, Rochelle said she is very happy with her married life with Baravi, and with how her in laws are treating her. “I converted to Muslim. I was a Catholic. The Emiratis and Saudians, specially the conservative ones, married women wear the abaya (only the eyes are exposed). For the Syrians and Lebanese, what is important is covering the feet. So wearing pants by a married woman is ok as long as her feet are covered.

I am lucky that Baravi did not demand from me to put those kinds of cover. To him he is happy where I am happy, so if I am not comfortable doing something, then I don’t have to do it. My in-laws are so warm to me. When I gave birth to my firstborn, they went to us in Dubai. My mother in law took care of me and the baby. She cooked good food for us. Another thing I am lucky about the family of Baravi is, while Muslim men may have many wives, I did not see that practiced in his family. His dad only has his mom for his wife. His brother also has one wife.”

Rochelle and Baravi have 2 children. They were both born in Dubai. I asked Rochelle what it is like raising half Flipino and half Syrian while living in Canada. She said that at home they speak three languages, Tagalog, Arabic and English. Whatever are the positive values from the mentioned cultures, those are what she imparts to the kids.

Rochelle would like to correct the stereotyping on Muslim people. “In our country (The Philippines), sometimes we associate them with Abu Sayyaf, some Filipinos think that Arabic are mean and full of pride. Ever since I started working in Dubai, I realized that the good and bad about the person has nothing to do with the ethnicity or religious belief. Even with Filipinos, sometimes we encounter those with such attitude. I also have friends who married Filipinos who cheated on them and physically abused them. I never experienced those with my husband.”

I asked Rochelle, how did the idea of putting up Les Saj come up. “When we were new here in Winnipeg, we would go around to look for authentic food that we ate in Dubai. It was limited here which gave us the idea that perhaps having a restaurant will be a good investment. Initially we thought of just to-go place or food truck, until we found this nice big venue at St. James that would be good spot for the restaurant. But we were thinking, how are we gonna do it? Baravi talked to his cousin in UAE, a businessman. He encouraged Baravi, he said that he will help. He shipped to us here in Winnipeg the Les Saj kitchen equipments.”

Rochelle is happy about the feedback she’s been receiving from her customers. “We were able to capture all the tastes (Pinoy, Middle Eastern, Canadian) according to one of our clients. It is our aim for them to enjoy good quality food, to get the value of their money. With our good customer service, we make it a point to go extra mile, as long as it is something within what we can provide. All ingredients are natural and fresh (no cubes), and meat are not pre-frozen.

They are certified halal. Because we want total authentic experience, we had equipments and other tools shipped here from UAE – the oven, the saj (this is where bread is made), molder of falafel (similar to the one used to mold polvoron), and others including restaurant decors. It feels good to be seated in a restaurant feeling that you are in another country.

Others who entered our restaurant said, look it must be authentic because the cook are Syrians. There were Syrian refugees who started with zero English. But now I am so proud of them as they are now level 4 in terms of English. They also enhanced their customer service skill. We teach them how they deal with people. We have one Syrian refugee employee who went to Turkey because everything he had back home are gone, then he came to Winnipeg. He was jobless but then we helped him, and he proved himself. His life is ok now. Les Saj currently employs people from various multicultural groups which include, Syrians, Filipinos, Indigenous and others. We correct the thinking when we sometimes hear comments that our taxes go to refugees, and that they are parasites. They are proving that they came here not to become a liability, that they also know how to work.”

Our menu has many variety to accommodate those who are not so adventurous when it comes to Middle Eastern food.

We also receive comment that our place is very welcoming, the staff are warm. The venue is comfortable, and ambiance is different. And lastly, people say that we at Les Saj are all nice and humble, that is a big factor.”

Rochelle shared to me that for her, there is no such thing as perfect life, perfect place; there is nothing perfect. “You have to learn to embrace what you have, to be contented. Do not look for things that do not belong to you. Be thankful with what you have. Do not be braggy, always remain a humble/low profile person. It feels good to be humble, everyone is comfortable in talking to you.”

Rochelle added, “I told myself, for the Filipino, I will do this to inspire people. This is Women Power. It is about taking courage to take risks. Don’t depend on other people if you want to reach your dreams. If this is your dream, just go for it, do it, don’t be afraid. Until you achieve it. I used to be a Sales Manager of a hotel, I was selling hotel rooms. At that time I said to myself, how I wish I own the hotel. Because I was just making rich people richer.

Our journey is not easy. But we are happy because of the overwhelming support we get from people based on reviews on google and social media. It means that we are doing something good. As what Adam (a Les Saj co-owner) said, we are here not just to make money, we are here to share what we have.”