Newish to Manitoulin: Theresa and Jade Phiri

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 move over the last few years and are now comfortably established in their new communities. Here are some of their stories.

by Heather Marshall

Theresa Phiri’s inspiring story is a tale of triumph over trials that few Canadians could begin to imagine. Born to Zimbabwean parents before their country reclaimed its independence from colonial-era Rhodesia, when she was just a young child Theresa’s family emigrated to Botswana to escape economic and political instability during the tumultuous period. She was in her late teens when she left Botswana to attend university in Namibia, where she earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree with a specialty in Industrial Psychology.

Theresa’s facility with languages (she speaks five, including English) made it easy to transition into a variety of interesting professions following graduation.  She first worked as a journalist when she returned to Botswana. That was followed by a stint in sales before opening her own landscaping business, a successful venture that saw her gain multiple contracts with the Botswana government.

While to outward appearances Theresa’s life was flourishing, she faced formidable challenges at home where she was the victim of family violence by an abusive spouse. For her safety and that of her three-year-old daughter, Jade, she fled the country and left the toddler with her parents while she sought ways to make a living so she could care for Jade herself. It would take three years before she saved enough money to move to North America to get a fresh start. 

“When I think about it now, I don’t know how I even survived,” she says. “Yet, with the optimism of youth and determination to build a better life for my daughter and me, I headed to the airport with $500 in my pocket and left Africa behind.”

A friend working in the US had encouraged her to get a 10-year Visa to enter the country. All that was missing was a personal letter from an American inviting Theresa to visit. “At the time, I was into visualization and affirmations to attract what you really desire,” she says. In no time she met a US citizen who wrote the necessary invitation, enabling here to fly to New York in 2008.

“Arriving in America was a huge culture shock! I couldn’t believe all the people and the constant noise of cars and sirens. It was overwhelming.” Recognizing that she wasn’t cut out for big city life in the Big Apple, Theresa contacted a friend living in Calgary to inquire about possibilities in Canada. In turn, she connected her to another friend in Toronto who encouraged Theresa to consider moving north as there would be better immigration supports and a less crazy pace of life.

While she had no idea where she was going, on a cold December day in 2008 she boarded a bus to Toronto, which she soon discovered wasn’t exactly peaceful or quiet either. However, with assistance from Canadian immigration officials Theresa adapted to yet another culture shock and staked her claim to a better life in a country she now loves.

“When I told them my story, the immigration people assigned a social worker to help me find a place to stay and provided training options for possible careers, including personal support worker (PSW). I completed the PSW training and became certified but decided to explore other options.”

Theresa was itching to start another business of her own and took a course to become a licenced aesthetician so she could open a spa. Good fortune favoured her once more, as the $10,000 course she wanted to take at a prestigious school was beyond her modest salary.  However, when the school’s owner, Michelle Presse, met her and heard her story, she told her she could work to pay her way. “She took a chance on me and gave me an opportunity that I will never forget.” When Theresa graduated a year later, she had paid off the entire tuition. After completing the course, she set up her own aesthetics shop.

Theresa was equally fortunate in finding an affordable apartment nearby in a small family-owned, low-rise building where neighbours looked out for and helped each other out. With all the necessary pieces in place, after two previous failed attempts, Theresa’s dream of bringing her daughter to Canada came true when she welcomed six-year-old Jade to her new home. 

Before long, Theresa realized that being a busy single mom and running her own business didn’t mix so she closed the business, worked for Dove Spas as an aesthetician and then again switched into health insurance sales after studying for her insurance licence. Things turned challenging, however, when the 2017-18 global economic crisis struck. She lost her job and almost lost her apartment and car when she could no longer make payments. That’s when she learned about an agency looking for PSWs in Northern Ontario and she set out on yet another path.

Once again, she had no idea where she was headed when she was hired at the Manitoulin Lodge Long-Term Care home in Gore Bay. “I’d never heard of the Island and had never seen so much snow in my life when I drove up, but I quickly fell in love with the place. I loved what I was doing at the nursing home and the people in the local community I met through the United Church. People helped me find a place to live and even donated furniture to get us set up. This was such a perfect fit.”

While at Manitoulin Lodge, Theresa would give free treatments to her patients. As word got out, she was approached by local business owner, Judith Martin, about potentially opening a spa so more people could benefit from her services, a welcome offer she couldn’t refuse.

Theresa’s Timeless Beauty Spa on Gore Bay’s main street is a run-away success, so much so that she’s recently hired a young woman from town as her administrative assistant. That has freed up a tiny bit of spare time in her busy days to run her Life Online Radio Station, a hobby carried over from her African journalism days.

Theresa is gratified and proud with how well Jade has adjusted to her new life, both in Canada and on Manitoulin. Jade is entering second year university with plans to become a lawyer. She is helping to pay her way to achieving that goal by working summer jobs at the Split Rail Brewery in town. With a dynamic role model like her mother, there’s little doubt she will succeed.

Heather Marshall and her husband worked as journalists and consultants in the National Capital Region for more decades than they care to admit before making their Sandfield 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 hmarshall@videotron.ca