Being fairly isolated, Winnipeg’s economy – more so than some peer cities – relies on its small business community, including numerous enterprises run by immigrants providing services to other immigrants. Such businesses are usually a product of the ingeniuity and resilience it takes to adjust to living in a foreign country.
Michell Chimatilo, the office coordinator at Garda World Security, is one of those whose personal experiences have been a catalyst for her future ambitions. This is her story.
With her wealth of business experience from having worked administrative positions across a range of industries, Michell Chimatilo is now poised to open her own business – FAMZI hair salon. Photo: Michell Chimatilo
I came to Canada from Zimbabwe in 2005 – it was December 6 and I was 12 years old. And I actually traveled here by myself! When I think about it, it’s crazy, I really took all those flights by myself. They had flight attendants making sure I was okay getting on the planes, but the majority of the time I was just doing my own thing. And then I found myself here in Winnipeg.
I came here to live with my dad, step-mom and half-brother; and I arrived at the coldest time of the year so I got to actually experience the winter. I had just finished Grade 7 in Africa, so when I came here and it being December I had to repeat the grade, which is fine.
But I still remember my first day of school going to Valley Gardens. At the time my half-brother was going to elementary and the two schools were right beside each other, so after school I was supposed to pick him up and then we would walk home together because he was two years younger than me.
So I walk to his school – and I’m such a shy person – and I’m standing there, looking around and I can’t even see him. And then it’s what, 3:30-3:45pm and everybody is leaving, the school is looking deserted, and I’m thinking: Should I go in? Should I ask the teachers if he’s here? I was so scared, it was literally my first day at school in a foreign country.
I ended up standing outside probably a good hour, hour and a half and I was wearing this big pink jacket but with no mitts. My fingers and ears were frozen. And then, next thing I know, my step-mom and my brother pull up in a car and were wondering what I was doing still at the school! My brother said he couldn’t see me when he was let out of class so he went straight home and I ended up waiting for someone that wasn’t even going to be there. So that was my first day of school.
Growing up I’ve always been so independent without even realizing it; being surrounded with people who were older than me – like, all my friends were older than me. I remember being in Zimbabwe when I was about 9 or 10 years-old and all my friends were like, 18 years-old. *laughs*
But my grandma was my best friend – she was the one who actually raised me. My mom is in London and I actually hadn’t seen her for about 18 years. Yeah, until last November when I went to go visit her. So now whenever I look back I think: my God, when I was nine years old my grandma would give me her card and I’d go to town and buy the groceries, and take the bus there alone and do all those things. I would even go to the movies by myself! Now it’s like, I see a nine year-old kid and I wouldn’t ever let them do that by themselves. So I obviously grew up pretty fast.
So me coming here, I actually started working right away after I arrived, helping my dad and step-mom with their cleaning franchise. Most of my weekends I’d be going house-to-house working with them, cleaning with them – washrooms was my specialty. Now I’m a neat freak when it comes to washrooms, super OCD. But it was pretty hard, you know, because I didn’t get to experience that normal social life with other kids.
And living and working with my parents… as time went by I can’t really say I was ever happy in that environment. Even the first week after I arrived in Winnipeg I emailed my grandma and told her: I don’t feel like this is my home. Because even when I was young, my dad, I would never say a word to him. Like whenever I’d visit him when he’d come back to Zimbabwe, I’d never say a word.
A former British colony located in southern Africa, Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 but experienced decades of corruption, mismanagement, rigged elections and human rights abuses under revolutionary turned dictator Robert Mugabe. His decision to confiscate agricultural land from white farmers in the 2000s triggered hyperinflation and an economic collapse that prompted millions of Zimbabweans to move abroad. Image: Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe/Wikimedia Commons
How it happened was that by the early 2000s Zimbabwe was going through some pretty bad times, so my dad and my mom – who was in England by then – were both trying to fix a visa for me to go abroad. So it was like, whoever gets it first that’s where I was going to go live.
Fortunately, unfortunately, my dad ended up getting the visa first, so that’s why I came to Winnipeg. Did I want to be with him? Not really. But even at that age I knew that I would probably get better schooling, better education and you know, get a good career. That was the main reason for moving to Canada. So I kind of had to keep focused on that bigger picture.
But my experience living with them….I’m glad that I’m out of it now. It just became so much, because I didn’t have a social life as a result of having to work for my dad and step-mom’s cleaning business all the time. I actually found myself skipping school so that I could have the rare chance to hang out with the few friends that I did have.
Until this one time – you know in high school how they send those automated phone messages home when you miss a class? There was this one time that my dad found out I had skipped school and he was so mad at me. When he came home I got my typical African beating, whatever, and then he shaved my head as punishment. And this is at a point in high school that I had established myself as a hair person; people would always see me with a different hair colour every other week and then suddenly I come to school and I’m wearing a toque. People started asking me: What’s wrong? What happened? I didn’t want to say anything then.
But then it was time for gym class and I had to remove my toque and I just started crying, because I was sitting there thinking I was about to get made fun of. But that’s one beautiful thing I love about this city: yes, in some places people get bullied, but it’s not everywhere. So in my situation of course, I had these friends come up to me and I don’t even know how I came up with this cover story, but I said that I had another friend that has cancer, so I shaved my head to make her feel better. I don’t even know how I came up with that!
But one of my teachers could tell something wasn’t right. The way I was crying – there was more to the story. So what she did is take me to one of the guidance counsellors and I was super honest in telling her what was going on with my home situation. I wasn’t happy at all. At my age, I shouldn’t have been going through what I was going through.
When I came here I knew I was going to be here for the long run. When I sent my grandma that email saying that living with my dad and step-mom didn’t feel like home, at the same time I still knew that being in Winnipeg, this is it. I understood the scope of it all. So what I really wanted was to just turn 18 so that I could get out of that house and then really go find myself.
Then, weird turn of events, around the time when I turned 18 my dad and step-mom started going having nights out to themselves, to dinner or the club or whatever. So there was one night when I snuck out right after they left to go to the club myself. I told my little brother to call me if anything happened or when they told him they were coming home – I had a secret cell phone, cause I wasn’t allowed to have that either!
So half an hour after I’m in the club with friends he calls and says: They’re back. And in that second I had to wrap my head around what I was going to do. I thought: Ok, if I go back, I’m going to get killed or my head is going to get shaved again. So I just never went back.
From that night I went to the house of this guy I was seeing at the time and about two weeks later I arranged with my step-brother to get my clothes and whatever. I finally had my freedom. But then two months later the guy I was staying with came home at 2:00am, drunk, and kicked me out of the house.
It was winter time and I didn’t even have a jacket or anything. I was at the bus stop – not even a heated one – and I was there for about 2 hours. I had no idea who I was going to call or where I was going to go. I mean, I was out there and could have died that night. But this is when my life really changed.
Frosted glass inside a Winnipeg bus shelter. With winter temperatures in the city plunging below -40 degrees Celsius at times, life on the street during Winnipeg’s coldest months can be fatal. Image: Ben Rogers/Flickr
It just so happens that I randomly called this former co-worker of mine from when I was working at McDonald’s – I was going through my phone frantically trying to figure out who I was going to call. So I called him and he was literally about to fall asleep but my call snapped him awake and said he was coming to get me. However, I couldn’t stay with him because he was living with his dad and wasn’t keen on bringing a girl home at 4:00am, so then I called one of my friends from high school, Sarah, a girl I connected with right away on the first day of school. She’s since become my best friend, my sister.
I told Sarah what was going on and she said instantly: Come to my house, just get dropped off. Her dad is a cop, so the next day, she said this is how it was going to go: we were going to go back to my dad’s house and get my stuff, but then when we got back to Sarah’s house I was supposed to hide about half of it, so her cop dad wouldn’t think this was permanent. *laughs*
But ever since day one when I was staying there, her parents fell in love with me – accepted me – and I ended up living with them for four years. They have become my family. They are more family to me than my biological family. My life definitely changed – they set me free.
During Christmases I would get introduced to the extended family, they would get me gifts, and really I was just able to be myself with them. I was able to show my full self with no judgement. Sarah’s mom became my mom; I could share anything with her and she would just be there to listen.
And then, on top of that, when I was with my dad I had to pay rent in addition to all the unpaid work I was doing for his cleaning company, and so when I started working at McDonald’s he immediately demanded that I pay $500 a month in rent – and this was before I was even 18. Any money I was making was just going directly to him and my step-mom.
But living with Sarah’s family, they didn’t even ask for anything; I started offering to pay them what I could, even $100 or whatever and they appreciated it so much. They never asked me for anything. The first tattoo I got symbolizes how they set me free.
When I was 21 I got my first place on my own in Osborne – and I’m still living there! When I first got the place I was working for a temp agency and was getting shuttled around from place to place but it was so valuable, because I literally got to experience every kind of job in all kinds of environments: a chiropractor office, an engineering firm.
If I had to list every single place I’ve worked on my resume it would be like six pages. But every place I was at, no matter how long, I learned so many different things and was able to really find my comfort zone with the type of work I’m good at and that I enjoy. I went to Robertson College too, taking legal assistant training. And I did work for a law firm for a bit, but it wasn’t really my comfort zone. I love administrative work, but when it comes to the legal industry…too much stuff going on! Way too much stuff going on. *laughs*
A promotional image on the Robertson College website. With university tuition becoming increasingly unaffordable and in ways incompatible with the modern job market, many students are opting instead for training and certification through professional colleges and online programs. Image: Robertson College
That’s actually how I started off working here at my current job – within one week of me being a temp worker here they wanted to hire me on. But of course with the contract with the placement agency I had to work a certain amount of hours to fulfill the conditions of the contract before I could actually be brought on as full-time employee. I started off in reception and after two months I moved up to administrative work. And I now recently got promoted again in August to my current position.
At the same time I had also been doing part-time community respite services on the side. Even when I was going to Robertson College – it was school full-time, working full-time, then also respite services part-time. That was my whole day, but I had to! I’ve only got myself to rely on.
Even with Sarah’s family I wouldn’t ask them for money. At the end of the day I only have myself to support myself, so I knew I had to put in that work to survive. Which I did. Sometimes I look back and think how I did all of that, but I did it.
The thing with me is that I just like working. Even when I’m not working my brain is always thinking: what is my next step? What’s my next goal? I always want to move up in life, and that’s how I came on to this idea of opening up a salon. Hair has always been my thing, but I’m not a hair dresser; I don’t even like touching hair, but I do like getting my hair done.
It’s crazy because when I was really young I made this goal chart and having a salon was one of the things on there. And I think it would actually just be so cool if I could find a salon space – I have two hair dressers that do my hair but they do it from home – and recreate that comfortable in-home experience. Especially with black women’s hair, because it takes so long, right?
In Manitoba we don’t have an actual place with that kind of environment both for women that want their hair extensions done or whatever to go to, and for the hairdressers that do that kind of work to work out of. And that’s why this type of hairstyling is done in someone’s home. Most places you go to get a haircut you’re there for 10 minutes, but for some girls’ hair it can take five hours.
Branding for Michelle Chimatilo’s soon-to-be-opened small business, FAMZI hair studio – a salon dedicated to providing a comfortable space for women of all backgrounds to connect. Image: Michell Chimatilo
So what I want is to be able to open a place that gives these girls that kind of comfortable salon environment to be in and work from – that means renting our chairs to hair stylists too. Just something different. Also, for some women, because of certain cultural norms they can’t really get their hair done in public, so I’d also want to have a kind of private room where these women can still have the experience of going out to get their hair done and socializing but without breaking any of those norms.
At the same time part of the intention of the salon is to offer a space for different cultures to come together. In terms of salons, there isn’t anything like that in the city. I hope it’s really going to succeed the way I picture it.
It comes back to how I’ve recognized in myself that when I care, I over care.
One of my best experiences in Winnipeg actually happened on my 24th birthday. What I did was go to Walmart and buy a whole bunch of stuff to make 150 goodie bags; each one had a couple sandwiches, bottled water, a granola bar, orange. I drove around the city giving them out to people living on the street. It was actually one of my best birthdays – each and every person that got one were so thankful. There’s so many people in this city that have basically nothing. I know we have a lot of shelters in the city, but I wish there were more. I mean, looking back, I’m complaining that I had to work to have a roof over my head, right? But these people have nothing.
Winnipeg itself – I feel it’s a place that immigrants come to primarily because they want to work. But once you’re here it’s really a place that allows you to find yourself.
And racism is always there. It’s always been there, going back to the beginning of time. I wish it would stop, but I don’t think it ever will. And sometimes it’s not even something that occurs between different races but between people of the same race.
At the same time, a lot of it is fueled by feelings that don’t even have anything to do with race, but rather jealousy or other emotions that develop as a result of people of all races just generally not supporting each other. I’ve seen how it all works and I don’t really let it get to me, because I’ll still have to deal with it again in the future at some point. That’s just the way it is.
But at the end of the day, for immigrants it’s just about how you deal with the problems that are the result of trying to adjust to living in a new city and new culture, and doing that mostly by yourself without the kind of support network you may have if you had never left your own community. But it’s also through dealing with the problems that come as a result of the immigration process – problems that you never would encountered otherwise – that ultimately help you find out who you really are.
How I look at life is that it’s all just a game. You’ve got to accept that and just stay focused on beating the game. No matter how hard things may get, don’t let anything or anyone bring you down.
Although, and this is random, if there’s one thing you should do in life as an immigrant – or anyone, really – it’s learn about how to be responsible with credit. When you get a credit card, don’t get excited and start buying everything and end up in debt! *laughs*
KNOW AN EXPAT LIVING IN WINNIPEG THAT YOU THINK SHOULD BE PROFILED? EMAIL PEGCITYEXPATS@GMAIL.COM