Love can be a magical thing. Daniel and Lisa Asfaw came from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. They could be seen as the quintessential high school sweethearts.
Lisa left her home when she was in high school leaving behind everything she knew. Her father was the first to arrive in Canada, and upon seeing the educational opportunities it had to offer, he soon brought the rest of his family to their new home.
“I came to Canada in 2003,” Lisa said. “My parents moved to Canada so I had to follow them.”
Her parents came to Canada because of the opportunities they saw for their daughter and their family. They brought over many things but she had to temporarily leave her future husband back home. Daniel was able to join her three years later in 2006.
“I told him that we could have a better life in Canada,” Lisa said about convincing Daniel to move across the world.
Canada has been a destination for many people looking to create a new life. Many have chosen to immigrate here and bring with them the cultures of their homes.
Statistics Canada surveys suggest that many of those newly arrived take on the monumental task of creating their own businesses, taking it upon themselves to make the most out of the opportunities provided by Canada.
Fariborz Birjandian is the CEO of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, which helps new immigrants take their first steps into Canada.
“Over the years, if you look at it the statistics about immigrants, it shows that running a successful business is higher than the average Canadian,” Birjandian said. “They bring their world experiences, the hard work, and the zest that they have to succeed.”
In a 2010 study on the trajectory of immigrants in the Canadian economy, Statistics Canada found that those who have newly arrived tend to start businesses at a lesser rate compared to their Canadian born counterparts. Despite this, the longer immigrants are in Canada the more active they are in creating businesses.
Ensira Ethiopian Restaurant - #100, 3515 17th Ave. S.E.
In the case of Daniel and Lisa Asfaw, their first jobs were as employees but they dreamed of opening a restaurant.
“I’m always dreaming,” Daniel said. “I never give up to try. If it’s successful or not I’ll always try.”
Daniel took on the task of opening the restaurant with the blessing of his wife. She knew that owning his own restaurant had been his dream since high school. Starting out was hard but anything good usually is.
“It was hard, we had to do everything,” Daniel said. “Designing was tough. I wanted Ethiopian food with a modern design.”
The restaurant is a labour of love. Upon entering the restaurant, people are greeted with relaxing music and Ethiopian art hung all around the walls. The smell of spices coming from the kitchen brings a sense of home to the area.
“These are all homemade,” Daniel said about the food. “Whatever we eat at home is what we serve here.”
The recipes came from Lisa’s grandmother bringing the spices she grew up with to Calgary.
“That was my grandma’s recipe,” Lisa said. “When I was a kid I used to watch her cook and when I got my own house that’s what I cooked. When my family loved it that’s the recipe we would bring to the restaurant.”
The food Ensira serves is something that shows the family aspect that is so important to Daniel and Lisa. A communal dish where friends and families take pieces of injera, the Ethiopian flatbread, which is used to carry the food and dip and share with each other.
The restaurant is located on 17th Avenue S.E. on International Avenue and with the construction in the area slowing business, Daniel and Lisa continue to serve the spices and hospitality that they grew up with.
A tenth of all immigrants to Canada choose to open restaurants when starting their own business according to Statistics Canada.
These people come from all over the world bringing their culture to new shores using food. In 2010, there was 16,080 food service and accommodations owned by immigrants across Canada, making up 11 per cent of all businesses during that span of time.
Masala Bhavan - 33A, 4604 37th St. S.W.
Travelling all around the world Karthikeyan Stalin brought the food of Chennai, India with him, but his passion started early.
“I grew up in a small Indian village and my parents worked for [the] Social Welfare and Nutritious Meal Programme when I was younger,” Stalin said. “They cooked meals for school children and I wanted to follow them.”
So Stalin started attending culinary schools in India to follow in his parents footsteps.
“After school I started working in Taj hotels, [a] big hotel chain in India. They would transfer me all over, I travelled through India and Sri Lanka working in the hotels. I eventually went to the U.K. before coming to Canada.”
On arriving here he was a cook in various hotels and restaurants starting off with the Fairmont Hotel in Calgary.
“When I tried to get my work permit to come to Canada it was hard,” Stalin said. “They would ask me about cooking, what things are called, recipes. In Chennai cooking there really isn’t a name for things, every part of India cooks differently. So that was tough.”
He eventually opened his own place in 2004 which he would call Masala Bhavan, which roughly means “place of spices” in English, and featured his own style of South Indian cooking.
“The cooking I do comes from the village, I would go to villages and notice the cooking,” Stalin said. “They would grind their own spices and make their own masalas. I want to bring that here.”
Stalin’s food is full of the spices that he grew up with and though he is unable to get certain varieties from Chennai he still grinds and roasts what he can obtain the way he learned at home. This is uniquely his and where he comes from as he focuses more on the spice blend.
Fiebre Latina - 1832 36th St. S.E.
When she started her restaurant, Elisa Ching opened one that wouldn’t be out of place in Mexico, even though she emigrated from Hong Kong.
Ching arrived from Hong Kong over 45 years ago and found a place in Calgary to open a Spanish-Mexican restaurant in 2012. She knew she wanted to open a business but wasn’t quite sure where it would have landed.
“What happened was this place was supposed to be a hair salon,” Ching said about starting out. “I didn’t know much about hair so I opened a restaurant instead. I knew how to cook so I knew I would be good at it.”
Walking into her business one could be appear to be transported to another place.
It’s colourful and vibrant with little details showing the flair of spice that she brings to Calgary. Placed between two greying buildings, the inside of her restaurant makes you forget that you’re in Calgary.
Ching used to travel the world going to different places and tasting their recipes. She brought all of these experiences with her when she settled down and opened up Fiebre Latina.
“I like the culture, I like the people, and I like adventure myself,” Ching said.
The clientele is just as diverse as the restaurant itself, including families with kids as well as friends wanting beer and good food. Spanish speaking people are most of her visitors and she converses freely with them talking about her latest creations.
“I have a Chinese background and I create a lot,” Ching said. “I analyze everything, that’s why I know everything a bit.”
She created a restaurant that feels more like a home than a business. She takes orders in Spanish with her Spanish customers and greets everyone with a smile.
The food Ching serves is a homage to what Canada is, a fusion of multiple cultures to create something more, something new.
Her menu includes many recipes she picked up through her travel in Mexico, from moles to tamales. She was able to bring what she liked to Canada, yet she is still willing to bring more ethnic flavours to her customers.
“I make homemade food, special of the days,” Ching said. “[Some days it] is a mixture of Italian, a mixture of Chinese, and a mixture of Mexican.”
Her business has been open for the last five years bringing what she likes to the Forest Lawn area of Calgary. Her customers began as Latin speakers missing a taste of home, but is quickly expanding to outside that community.
Coming from all walks of life, immigrants are driven to better their lives. Statistics Canada found that 41 per cent of immigrants who have started their own business, or work for themselves in some other form, had a high school or less level of education.
“Sometimes this is the only option,” Birjandian said. “They have so much experience and they come here facing challenges in trying to get meaningful employment. So they choose to start their own business.”
- By Miguel Morales