By Fasil and Ayni Asfaw
When we were forced to leave our corporate careers in Toronto behind in a slew of layoffs, we didn’t know where to turn. We knew we had a heart for people, and loved making even the smallest difference in someone’s life.
Who’d have thought a breakfast outing with our children would turn into a signed franchise agreement and an exciting new career? Today, we’re Sunset Grill co-franchisees based in Kitchener, Ont.
Growing up in a war-torn Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, wasn’t easy, but it could have been much worse. My parents did not have any formal education, but they encouraged me to spend as much time in school as I could.
I attended Hawassa University, where I studied animal science and technology. I was still figuring things out and never had any career motives or academic aspirations for my degree, but I did recognize a personal drive to take charge and lead by example.
After I finished school at the age of 21 in 1983, the government assigned me to do work for the ministry of agriculture. I travelled 750 kilometres to a rural area of the country, leaving my family, the comforts of my home and friends behind to go to work. Having never lived by myself, done my own laundry or even cooked, I found this transition difficult. I knew I couldn’t do it forever.
At this time, Eritria was still part of Ethiopia and guerilla soldiers were fighting for its independence. The Ethiopian military conscripted young men my age for two years of service, with perks to be rewarded afterwards. Anyone who went to war ended up injured or dying. So, I had to choose: go to war or flee the country. I took the latter option and fled to our neighbouring country, Sudan. I walked to cross the border. I spent more than three months in the desert with the guerilla fighters before turning myself over to the Sudanese authorities. I had gone from a middle-class Ethiopian lifestyle, having many things and helping other people who came to my house seeking refuge, to being a beggar, living on the streets and finding any work available.
It was a difficult start to a new life. However, after a few months in Sudan, things did get better. I found myself working for a German family living there as a domestic servant. Here, I met my wife who had also fled on foot from Ethiopia.
After graduating from high school in Addis Ababa, I wanted to be a nurse. I loved helping people, but couldn’t pursue my career yet because of the civil war. I decided to put my education on hold and flee to Khartoum, Sudan, to find work.
Fasil and I had a mutual friend who introduced us and we soon fell in love. The first few years we were married were very hard, as Fasil moved to Canada first and we were apart. Once he was able to sponsor me, I moved there, too.
I spent a couple years at home, then I started applying to jobs because it was difficult to pay our bills when Fasil went back to school. I worked in factories and drug stores as a cashier while I attended English as a second language (ESL) classes and started taking accounting courses at Sheridan College in Brampton, Ont. My plan was to finally study nursing after Fasil finished school and got a job, but I had waited too long to go back to school after having our two boys, Joseph and Jonathan, so instead I finished my accounting program and began looking for work in that field.