EDITOR’S NOTE: Manitoulin is being transformed with the influx of new residents and business owners who bring with them fresh ideas, experiences and perspectives that are enriching the area. Some individuals and families are still unpacking boxes, having only moved in the past month or two, while others made the over the last few years and are now comfortably established in their new communities. Here are some of their stories.
by Heather Marshall
Finding the right words that capture the spirit of Mena Guirguis and Nardin Ghbrial is challenging, but “industrious” and “enterprising” come close. Within two years of graduating as newly minted pharmacists, they became co-owners of three Guardian pharmacies in Mindemoya, Manitowaning and Little Current when the previous owners, the Bondi family, sold their long-time Manitoulin business. Although just barely in their late 20s, the dynamic duo is proving to be the quintessential immigrant success story, demonstrating that a commitment to higher education, coupled with a willingness to work extremely hard, make the Canadian dream not only possible but inevitable.
Canadian-born Mena, a first-generation Egyptian Canadian, was raised in Brampton in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). He had numerous career options after high school, including a scholarship to pursue engineering and chemical sciences at the University of Ottawa. However, a scholarship to study in England, where he could earn combined B. Sc. in Pharmaceutical Sciences and Master of Sciences in Pharmacy degrees, won out and Mena set out on a globetrotting adventure that eventually brought him to the Island.
His Egyptian-born wife, Nardin, would follow in his academic footsteps, although neither knew each other prior to arriving at the same university to do the same program in England. A year younger, Nardin won the same scholarship to become a pharmacist after an extremely tough first year in Canada finishing her final year of high school. Her path to Manitoulin saw her move from Egypt to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where she was raised by her physician mother and pharmacist father, before the family uprooted to Canada to provide teenagers Nardin and her brother greater schooling and career possibilities.
Both Mena and Nardin are extremely grateful for the sacrifices their parents made as newcomers to Canada to make these achievements possible. “They gave up lucrative and rewarding careers in the UAE to give us a better life,” says Nardin. “It was incredibly difficult for our family as we learned to adjust to a new country, culture and school system, but they did it to make sure my brother and I would have better education and career opportunities here.”
Modest and down to earth, the couple takes nothing for granted. Mena attributes their early success to “a 50-50 mix of luck and hard work.” They studied and worked very long hours, taking on part-time jobs while still in school and working simultaneously in multiple pharmacies once they passed their board exams and were licenced to join the workforce, putting in 12- to 16-hour days on a regular basis.
Ending up on Manitoulin was not by chance. Mena had studied the job market extensively and concluded that the GTA was saturated, so he developed 30 different business plans to open pharmacies in underserved markets in Northern Ontario, where the need for pharmacists is great. While Nardin was completing her last year at university, he worked in pharmacies in Elliott Lake, Chelmsford and Sudbury for several months each before the chance to make the Island the couple’s new home came up. Two pharmacist business partners in Toronto with whom he had worked the year before called and outlined the tremendous opportunity that had just surfaced on Manitoulin and gave him the day to decide whether to leap at it.
Leap he did! Within two weeks, Mena was commuting from Azilda, where he was then living, to Mindemoya until he could find a place to stay. Sam Bondi offered him an apartment to rent in town, which he shared with a rotating roster of young pharmacist friends who came up from the GTA to help him get the businesses up and running.
The Christian couple would not live together before their marriage, which took place in August 2018, but within months they purchased and moved into their first waterfront home in Manitowaning, where Nardin now runs the local pharmacy.
“I was still learning to cook and take care of a house at the same time I was learning to run our business,” chuckles Nardin. “I’ll admit, I didn’t know what we were getting into and what our lifestyle would be like. I had never even heard of Manitoulin before and I really didn’t want to leave my family in the city as we are so close. However, I have absolutely no regrets now that we’ve settled in and started to be accepted by local people, who had to get used to us after so many years being served by the Bondi family. More and more, it feels like home and I find it harder and harder to go back to the city.”
Life continues to be extremely busy, as the couple and two other pharmacists/co-owners–Chris Gauthier and Rudy Malak–cover off all the shifts involved with operating three stores in three far-flung communities. “I’ve discovered that being an entrepreneur means you don’t get much time for yourself,” observes Mena. “Writing business plans is certainly a lot different from the 24/7 reality!”
Getting time off together is rare for the pair, who savour those special times by taking hikes in Wiikwemkoong or on the Cup and Saucer trail as well exploring local villages such as Providence Bay, a favourite destination. Just sitting at home watching the water or reading books under cozy blankets is a frequent wintertime treat.
Even then, downtime is hard to come by, especially for Mena who is currently studying part-time to earn a Doctorate of Pharmacy degree from the University of Toronto. “I just want to be a better pharmacist so I can better serve our patients,” he explains. “It’s our love of people and our desire to help them receive good health care that brought us here in the first place.”
Heather Marshall and her husband worked as journalists and communications consultants in the National Capital Region for more decades than they care to admit before making their Sandfield summer cottage their permanent home. A lifelong learner, Heather loves discovering new things and people and relishes the opportunity to write about newcomers to the Manitoulin. If you would like to share your story or know of recent arrivals we should meet, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.