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Working for a Better Life

If you’ve visited the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, you’ve probably caught a hint of the tantalizing smell of samosas wafting from Unique Asian Catering’s small yellow food cart. The business, owned by Ruhul and Khalada Amin, has been at the market so long it’s practically taken for granted, but it shouldn’t be, because that tiny cart has a big story.

The tale behind Unique Asian Catering has more to do with building a life than building a business. It starts in 1990, when Ruhul Amin was working as a cook in Bangladesh. Political turmoil forced Amin and his family to relocate multiple times, and although Bangladesh was home, he hoped to eventually find a place where his family could thrive.

Amin cooked for the Bangladesh Planning Commission for about two years. His boss was Frank Schwartz, who now works as advisor-in-residence for the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs. At the end of the two years, Schwartz and his wife offered to help Amin and his family immigrate to Canada.

“I remember precisely the moment I raised it with him,” says Schwartz. “He answered within a nanosecond. I asked him, ‘Amin, would you be interested if we could arrange for you to come to Canada?’ and he said, immediately, ‘Yes!’”

Amin acquired his work visa and moved to Canada to live with Schwartz and his family, but he couldn’t officially immigrate until he’d been in the country for at least three years. His own family had to stay in Bangladesh until Amin met the immigration requirements and earned enough money to support them in Canada.

“When I arrived at the Halifax airport, I only had $5,” says Amin.

By the time Amin got back to Schwartz’s Dartmouth home, where he would live for the next three years, he had even less. Schwartz stopped at Tim Hortons on the way to get Timbits for his children, and Amin, who knew Schwartz’s children well, asked if he could pay.

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“And he said yes, so I did,” says Amin. “Then all I had left was $2. So I said to myself, ‘Now that my life is starting in Canada with $2, what can I do?’”

It didn’t take him long to find a job. He worked as a cook from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., earning $5.25 an hour.

“I had to pay room and board. I had a wife and two children, and I needed to feed them. They needed housing, and food, and clothes, and school,” says Amin. “I had a really hard beginning here in Halifax. I didn’t know what I could do, and I didn’t know anything. I needed a second job, but I only had a permit for one.”

After five or six months, he decided to fill his time by taking an English-as-a-second-language course. That’s where he met human resources professional Karn Nichols: she was his ESL teacher.

“We had a really cool group, probably 15 or 20,” says Nichols. “From the beginning, I was really inspired by Amin’s drive and determination. Every week he came in, and was diligent about improving his grammar and pronunciation and all that. Our friendship grew from there.”

Nichols held potlucks at her home, to give the students a chance to get to know each other better. “I made a lot of new friends there,” says Amin.

Making friends in Halifax helped, but he missed his family. So Nichols connected Amin with Immigration Services, and they granted him immigrant status. Not long after that, Amin got a new job at the Delta Barrington, which necessitated another big step, finding his own apartment in Halifax.

“When I got to my new apartment, I didn’t have anything,” says Amin. “That first day, I had to drink water out of my hands, because I had no glasses. No plates. No anything. It was really hard. I slept on the floor for a couple of days.”

Before long, a friend checked in on him. When she arrived, she was concerned with what she saw, or more accurately, what she didn’t see: a mattress, a pillow, cutlery, or dishes.

“I told her, ‘I have to be patient, because my ambition is to be a Canadian, and to bring my family to Canada.’” says Amin. “I couldn’t complain, because I believe in ambition, patience, honesty, and hard work. These four items have given me success in my life.”

She went back home and brought him anything she though might help.

“I still have a plate from her,” says Amin. “It’s special. I keep it as a memory.” He continued to work, now earning eight dollars an hour at the Delta Barrington. He was working every day and, after awhile, decided to go to the immigration office to ask if he
was earning enough to bring over his family. Unfortunately, his income was still short.

So he went back to his employer, and offered to double his shift. He started working from 7:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. daily.

“Every night when I went home, I was really tired,” says Amin. “I’d set the alarm clock, go to bed, get up again, shower, go back to work. When I went to work, I’d relax because I knew I had to work until 11:00 p.m.”

After about a year of this, in 1995, Amin finally earned enough to move his family.

“That was a very exciting moment,” he says. “I knew that within 28 days, my family members would be landed immigrants in Canada.”

Even though Amin had achieved his goal, life was still hard. He still had trouble making ends meet, and he didn’t want to worry Khalada. But despite his silence, she understood the problem, so she took a job making samosas for a small restaurant.

After about a month, Khalada, who Schwartz describes as “shy on the outside and strong on the inside,” had an idea. She told Amin that she’d like to start a samosa business. He agreed that it was worth a try, and Unique Asian Catering was born.

“I was a little bit worried at first because he’d had a couple of good jobs,” says Schwartz. “It was like the joke about Tim Hortons. How is anyone going to make a living at 90 cents a cup? It was the same thing with Amin. How was he ever going to make a living selling samosas for $2? Well, I guess if you sell enough of them… and that’s what he did.”

Amin and Khalada sent samples to about 25 stores, and the next day, orders started pouring in. They were thrilled, but they were also in a tough spot. They didn’t have the ingredients they needed to fill all the orders, a car for deliveries and grocery trips, or even the money they needed to buy the ingredients in the first place. So they asked for a couple of days to figure everything out.

Amin wound up having to fill grocery carts with ingredients, take the carts home, drop the groceries off, and then return the carts to the store. He did this multiple times.

“I remember being in his apartment and seeing them mass produce samosas. Their little kitchen was like their head office. They had this big freezer in their apartment and tons of samosas,” says Nichols. “I was raising my kids as well, and they would invite us over for some of their celebrations. We shared a lot of meals together in those early years.”

Amin continued to work his regular job alongside the samosa business. As sales continued to rise, Amin and Khalada purchased an established business from a family who sold Indian food at the Brewery Market. There they built a strong customer base, and eventually they moved to the Seaport Market.

Over the years, the business evolved and grew, and they added more products.

“Soon we were able to buy a new car, a house, private school for the kids,” says Amin.  “And all our money came from the business. From our samosas.”

Now, the menu features three kinds of samosas, a variety of combos that include butter chicken, chickpea curry, rice, meatballs, and naan. And business continues to boom.

“Every year since 1995, we’ve gone to Bangladesh for a one-month vacation,” says Amin. “When we get back, our samosa orders are raining on us. Every morning, we have a pile of orders. We get up early, around 3:30 a.m. or 4:00 a.m., and making dough. Then we bake.”

Twenty-five years after arriving in Halifax, Amin is proud to say that he’s a successful Nova Scotia businessman. And more importantly to him, he’s achieved his goal of creating a stable life for his family. His children are grown, and they’re living successful lives in Toronto and Edmonton respectively. And now it’s their turn to take care of Amin and Khalada.

“Last summer I went to visit my daughter in Toronto, and my son came from Edmonton,” says Amin. “I was there for five days, and when I leaving, I gave them each a cheque for $1,000. My son and daughter looked at each other and tore up the cheques. They said, ‘You’ve given us enough cheques. Now, it’s time to take.’ I’m very happy with my children.”

About Sarah Sawler

Sarah Sawler
Sarah is a Halifax journalist and web writer. Her work has appeared in a variety of Canadian magazines, including Atlantic Business, East Coast Living, and Quill & Quire.

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One comment

  1. Christina Fuller (Missy)

    Excellent story, I am honored to have him and his family as my friends. He endured many hard times, but came out on top in the long run, both him and his wife are very hard working people and they had to sacrifice alot to get to where they are today.

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