Coming from a war-torn country, Shaqir Duraj has always been appreciative of the help that Canadians gave him and his family when first arriving in Canada. Now, in the face of a global pandemic, Duraj hopes to give back as much as he can through his business.
Growing up in Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, Duraj and his five brothers lived above their family’s bakery with their parents. They made a name for themselves from their sweet pastries and famous burek – which is a meat-filled pastry - that Duraj says, was known throughout the Balkans.
In 1999, the Duraj family was among over one million refugees to flee the country during the Kosovo war.
“Serb forces were doing damage down on the ground, killing people and much more. Me, my wife and my oldest daughter, we ran to Macedonia where we stayed for a couple months in a UN camp,” says Duraj.
Shaqir Duraj and his second eldest daughter Gona preparing bread, inside their current bakery located on 17th Avenue. Photo courtesy of Shaqir Duraj
From the United Nations camp, Duraj and his family made the decision to immigrate as refugees to Canada.
“Not too long after arriving at the camp, my family’s name came up. I remember like it was yesterday. I saw my name on the board telling us that we will fly to Canada in a week. I remember on May 13, 1999, we flew to Canada.”
Upon arriving in Canada, the Duraj family stayed at a military base in Gagetown, NB. At the base, Duraj was able to take ESL classes and learn about potential Canadian cities to live in.
Two-and-a-half months after arriving, Duraj and his wife decided to move to Calgary, where they were met with generosity.
“I wanted to build it from zero. I wanted to do whatever I wanted to, not what contractors and landlords were telling me to do."
“We arrived in Calgary where we were greeted by some sponsors. They picked me up from the airport and they found me an apartment. They furnished it, they put food in the fridge, they were amazing.” Duraj says. “They were there for everything that we needed. Getting to an appointment with Canada immigration or going to see a doctor, they were just a phone call away and they came.”
After adjusting to life in Calgary, Duraj was able to get a job at Sunterra Market, where he continued his family’s trade as a baker. By 2002, Duraj had purchased his first house and began to look for his own space for a bakery to continue his family’s legacy.
“I wanted to build it from zero. I wanted to do whatever I wanted to, not what contractors and landlords were telling me to do. In November 2005, I was walking on 17th Avenue and I saw papers over windows where my bakery is now.”
Duraj signed the lease in December and opened the European Bakery and Deli on Mar. 15th, 2006. In the beginning, Duraj and his wife were the only two operating the bakery, back to front, with occasional help from one or two other people.
“It was me and my wife and then maybe one person working the counter. There wasn't a lot in the beginning because I didn't have the big ovens that I have now. I started with such a small oven, you have no idea.”
The bakery has grown since it first opened and now operates as a deli and small grocery. On top of developing their space, the Duraj’s now provide bread to major brands in Calgary, such as the Palliser Hotel and Spolumbo's deli, as well as a number of chain hotels.
Shaqir Duraj at the European Bakery and Deli with the finished product. Loaves of bread like these are being delivered around the city to those in need. Photo courtesy of Shaqir Duraj
Side by side with these companies, the bakery has been hit hard by the recent pandemic of COVID-19 and the resulting business closures and quarantines.
“I do serve two of the airport hotels, which are both shut down now. The Fairmont Palliser is down. Spolumbo’s are running at thirty percent. The only thing I am turning my delivery vehicle on for right now is Spolumbo’s.”
Even with mass closures and very slow business, Duraj is looking for ways to help communities and people out by delivering free bread to those in need.
“Me and my kids about three weeks ago started talking about how we can help people, keep busy and keep the business alive.”
Duraj realized that seniors were very vulnerable and needed help more than most through this tough time.
“We launched helping the seniors around the city by delivering two free loaves of bread for those who can’t leave their homes.”
Duraj stresses that it is in times like these that communities need to rally together and support one another.
“Help us find those in need, those who don't have anybody that can offer help. I'm willing to bring them a loaf of bread or a bag of groceries, whatever it takes.”
- By Thomas Patterson