Toronto celebrates 50 years of Ismaili Muslim community in the city

One of the more successful communities in Canada, integrated while preserving their culture and identity:

She has been a lawyer, a manager of philanthropic foundations and a diplomat in Afghanistan, but Sheherazade Hirji has not forgotten that late afternoon nearly 50 years ago when she was a teenager with her family, making their way through menacing military checkpoints.

“There were lots of checkpoints and people were robbed and they would look into people’s bodies, women’s bodies under their saris, they would look everywhere,” she recalled.

Ms. Hirji and her family were heading for the airport in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. They were among the last to leave, part of the 80,000 residents of South Asian descent in the African country who were suddenly expelled in 1972 by the dictator Idi Amin.

More than 6,000 of them, members of the Ismaili Shia Muslim community, were able to resettle quickly in Canada, after their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, called on his friend, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, to provide them with a haven.

Half a century later, standing by the landscaped lawn of Toronto’s Ismaili Centre, Ms. Hirji could contemplate the journey that led her community to become one of Canada’s great refugee success stories.

In the early days, she said, having few possessions and no place to practise their faith, newly arrived Ismailis in Canada would gather in basements, bringing sheets, so they could pray together. Later, they were able to rent school halls.

And now, on Sunday, prominent members of the community had been invited to a bright, spacious atrium at the Ismaili Centre, to hear Mayor John Tory announce that he had bestowed a Key to the City to the Aga Khan and renamed the street outside after the Ismaili imam.

The Ismailis, the mayor said, were part of a lineage of newcomers who had successfully built a new life in Canada, such as the Vietnamese, the Tamils and more recently Ukrainian refugees.

The honours for the Ismaili imam was “the least we could do,” Mr. Tory told the gathering, citing the extensive charities, schools and other philanthropic endeavours supported by the Aga Khan. He said he had been travelling in Pakistan in the wake of the 2013 earthquake and found that the Aga Khan’s humanitarian organizations were helping in the most remote villages.

The appreciation for the Aga Khan mirrored the goodwill accrued by the diligent, hard-working way the Ismailis had integrated into Canadian society. In 1972, the message from the imam to his faithfuls was to “make Canada your home and enrich Canada for the benefit of all Canadians,” Karim Thomas, vice-president of the Ismaili Council for Canada, said in an interview.

“We’ve been received by Canada and by Canadians with extraordinary warmth and with openness. … We’re very grateful for the opportunities that Canada has given us.

Behind the success story of the Ismaili refugees lay also the pain of their sudden expropriation and expulsion in Uganda, said Mahmoud Eboo, the Aga Khan Development Network representative to Canada.

“What people don’t appreciate is the shock and trauma that one undergoes when you suddenly hear overnight that all your possessions are gone. The businesses that you may have worked all your life for your family and your children are taken, your home that you’ve lived in is gone. … You have absolutely no idea what tomorrow will bring for you.”

South Asians had settled in Uganda and other British colonies in Africa since the 19th century. Ms. Hirji’s grandparents had moved from India, so she and her parents were born in Uganda. “I was the second generation born in Africa and so for us Uganda had always been home. It was the only home I ever knew.”

But the community’s prosperity also made it a scapegoat after Idi Amin took power in a coup d’état and ordered their expulsion.

Bringing only what they could carry in a suitcase, Ms. Hirji’s family landed first in Britain. They moved to social housing in Newcastle and her mother took a job in a factory manufacturing silverware.

She and her husband eventually settled in Canada, appreciating the country’s attitude toward diversity.

Canada’s diversity remains a crucial quality in the current circumstances, said Prince Amyn Aga Khan, the Ismaili’s leader’s younger brother, who represented the imam at the ceremony.

“His highness has looked at Canada as a model of pluralism,” he said, “one that is ever more critically, more urgently needed in our increasingly divisive and fragmented world.”

Source: Toronto celebrates 50 years of Ismaili Muslim community in the city

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: