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

Uganda’s loss is Canada’s gain

Good reminder of a good program, one that has benefited both the refugees and Canada:

On Aug. 5, 1972, within two years of overthrowing the elected Ugandan government of Milton Obote, General Idi Amin Dada made the following decree: “All British Asians numbering about 80,000 will have to be repatriated to Britain—they must leave within 90 days. Non-citizens of other nationalities (other than Uganda) must also leave within three months.”

Although Amin’s decree supposedly targeted only British and other non-Ugandan South Asians, the reality was that it affected all South Asians; citizens as well as non-citizens. Random incidents of harassment, robbery, arbitrary imprisonment, and intimidation targeted the entire South Asian community—regardless of their status or citizenship. In effect, South Asians in Uganda—who were long-settled and included Hindus, Muslims, Sikh, and Christians—became stateless. While many of the Asians carried British passports, and therefore were the responsibility of Britain, others needed to find countries to accept them.

Canada responded. On Aug. 24, 1972, then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau announced Canada’s intervention and the expeditious dispatch of a Canadian mission to Kampala with the following statement: “For our part, we are prepared to offer an honourable place in Canadian life to those Uganda Asians who come to Canada under this program. Asian immigrants have already added to the cultural richness and variety of our country and, I am sure that those from Uganda will, by their abilities and industry, make an equally important contribution to Canadian society.”

A Canadian team was quickly assembled and sent to Kampala under the leadership of Roger St. Vincent, whose instructions stated: “Your Mission is to proceed to Kampala and by whatever means undertake to process without numerical limitations those Asians who meet the immigration selection criteria bearing in mind their particular plight and facilitate their departure for Canada. Your mission must be accomplished by November 8.”

From Sept. 6 to Nov. 7, 1972, Canadian officials worked non-stop to process, interview, carry out medical exams, arrange transport, and grant visas to more than 6,000 South Asians.

Those families who were unable to gain acceptance by any state were assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and transported from Uganda into refugee camps in Europe including Austria, Sweden, Italy, and Malta. Subsequently, more than 2,000 of these refugees were accepted by Canada.

On Aug. 24, 1972, then-prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau announced Canada’s intervention and dispatched a mission to Uganda that granted visas to more than 6,000 South Asians by the end of the year. 

In the end, between 1972 and 1974, Canada accepted more than 8,000 South Asian Ugandans, many of whom were Ismaili Muslims and Goans, as they were mostly Ugandan passport holders. Fearing what happened in Uganda, many South Asians from Kenya, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo subsequently immigrated to Canada.

Beyond the obvious humanitarian relief it provided, Canada’s response in the Ugandan South Asian exodus holds important political and historical significance. Although Canada had responded to many refugee movements in the past, this was the first time that it responded to a large-scale non-European refugee crisis, and it came on the heels of the adoption of Canada’s Multiculturalism Policy in 1971.

The successful integration of the Ugandan South Asian community over the last 50 years has been a testament of this policy, which supports linguistic, ethno-cultural, and ethno-racial pluralism.

Today, the Ugandan South Asians, most who fled their homeland with virtually the clothes on their backs, are well represented in all walks of Canadian life due to their pursuit of education, tradition of self-reliance, business acumen, and strong work ethic. After five decades, the community’s social and cultural integration may be explained, in part, by an ongoing reference and dedication to the values of the country which gave it asylum and a permanent home.

In the corridors of Parliament, Senator Mobina Jaffer was the first South Asian woman appointed to the Upper House in 2001, and Liberal Arif Virani has served as Member of Parliament for Parkdale–High Park, Ont., since 2015 and is currently the parliamentary secretary to the minister of international trade. In Alberta, the Honourable Salma Lakhani was installed as Alberta’s 19th lieutenant governor in August 2020, and in the Canadian foreign service, Arif Lalani has served as Canada’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

In the world of news media, Omar Sachedina, whose parents fled Uganda, is a well-known national affairs correspondent and also serves as a fill-in anchor on CTV National News. After working on Parliament Hill for a number of years, Farah Mohamed went on to be a founder of G(irls)20, and previously served as the CEO of the Malala Fund.

One of the world’s largest transportation engineering software companies is co-founded and led by Milton Carrasco. Dax Dasilva, whose parents also fled Uganda, founded Lightspeed Commerce, which is one of Canada largest publicly traded technology companies in Canada.

In business-philanthropy, Pyarali and Gulshan Nanji and their children have exemplified giving back to Canada, including significant donations to many hospitals. Recently, to mark the 50th anniversary of the South Asian exodus from Uganda, the Nanji Family Foundation announced that it would be providing university scholarships to 50 young refugees across the world with a $1-million family donation to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

In opening its doors to the Ugandan Asians in 1972, Canada gained a community, which has since become renowned for both entrepreneurial enterprise and community service. The process of their settlement and integration has left an indelible mark upon the conscious of the community, including civic responsibility, pride in culture and community, ethically compassionate, and pursuing the public good. Uganda’s loss was Canada’s gain.

Michael Molloy was a member of the team that travelled to Kampala and arranged for 6,000 Ugandan Asians to come to Canada in 1972. He was subsequently involved in redesigning Canada’s refugee-resettlement system and was senior co-ordinator of the program that brought 60,000 Indochinese refugees to Canada in 1979-80. Salim Fakirani is a senior lawyer with the Department of Justice. Fakirani’s family fled Uganda when he was two years old. His family immigrated to Canada after spending almost a year in a refugee camp administered by the UNHCR in Italy.

Source: Uganda’s loss is Canada’s gain

The Aga Khan: the singular appeal of a pluralist – The Globe and Mail

Good piece by Janice Stein on the Aga Khan:

Not only Quebec struggles with the contours of pluralism. Canada is redefining the meaning of citizenship in an age when many are citizens of more than one state. What obligations, some Canadians ask, do we have to those who spend most of their time abroad? When at risk abroad, should they be rescued? And what responsibilities fall to those who come to Canada seeking refuge and opportunity? What should “they” learn and be required to do?

Such concerns are new to the debate on pluralism – and come at a time when we, too, are aging and need new faces, new cultures and new talents if we are to flourish.

We may need new immigrants badly, but our approach to pluralism cannot be purely pragmatic. We must, as the Aga Khan has said in the past, recognize that “the other is both present and different, and appreciate this presence – and this difference – as gifts that can enrich our lives.”

The Aga Khan: the singular appeal of a pluralist – The Globe and Mail.