September 21, 2015


My grandmother, when feeling emotionally strong enough, will sometimes tell me the story of the day she lost her son, my father. The details of the story have faded as she has grown older, but the horror of those days, the days of the Zanzibar Revolution, remain vivid in her mind.

My father was just eight years old when the Revolution took place; his brother, my uncle, was two years his junior. My grandmother was a young mother at that time, pursuing a profession as an English teacher and helping my grandfather run a successful bakery on the island. They were part of a community of Indo-Arab Africans who had made Zanzibar (my grandparents were born on the Zanzibari island of Pemba) their home and who loved their country and the people within it.

My father was away on mainland Tanzania in the weeks before the Revolution, and was making his way back to the island when the military coup erupted. My grandmother, grandfather, and uncle sought safety at the local community center, while outside the center, all around them, hundreds (some say, thousands) of Zanzibari residents of Arab and South Asian decent were massacred. The family business was vandalized and then taken over by the revolutionaries; my grandparents and the family were left to spend time in the community center until they could be whisked away to safety on the mainland.

In the meantime, my father was arriving on the island as the violence broke out. Unable to reach him when he arrived because of the violence, my grandmother spent days worrying about him, calling in favors from friends across the island, attempting to learn what fate had befallen her son.

Tears inevitably come to my grandmother’s eyes when she tells me of this time, even on the strongest of her days. For days, she had no way to be in contact with her son, no way to know if he was safe as the revolutionaries targeted and killed people of Arab and South Asian decent, people who were her friends and family. She minces no words when she tells me that it was the most harrowing and painful time of her life.

Usually, the story ends there. The recall of this horrible time in her life is too much for my grandmother, and she finds it difficult to continue. On the rare occasion, however, she will wipe her eyes and catch her breath and tell me about the good samaritan, a complete stranger, who took in my father as soon as he arrived on the island and kept him safe until the violence had subsided. She will tell me how, over a week later, she would learn that her son was safe, and that they all reunited as they fled from Zanzibar and headed to the mainland with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

She will tell me how they were welcomed in Dar es Salaam as refugees and were given shelter and food, and more importantly, given kindness and opportunity. She will tell me that even though they built a good life for themselves in Dar es Salaam—my father married my mother there, and I was born there not long after—there was always a sense of unease, a sense of unrest within her. All across the continent, uprisings were creating a class of stateless refugees. My grandmother and her family had been forced out of Zanzibar, and some of her friends and family had to flee Uganda just years before that; while not outwardly acknowledged, there was an underlying uncertainty on who would be forced to run next.

We immigrated to New York City when I was a baby, carrying very little and living in a small apartment with a few other immigrant families. By that point, we were no longer classified as refugees, but it was clear that we were running. Even though we didn’t explicitly say it, we were running away from fear and uncertainty and towards stability and opportunity. We may not have been forced out of Tanzania, but we felt, deep inside, that we had to escape.

My grandmother never wanted to experience the fear and anguish that came from losing her son, even if just for a few days, ever again.

The people of Dar es Salaam welcomed my grandmother and her family when they had to escape, and the people of the United States and Canada welcomed us, years later, when we escaped yet again. It is because of that welcome that I am who I am today, and it is because of that welcome that I wake up every morning looking to make this country a better place for everyone who lives here, and for everyone who will eventually arrive here when they have to escape, too.

During the Ugandan refugee crisis, Canada opened up its doors and welcomed thousands of refugees—many of them friends of my family—who had to escape violence and terror. Those refugees are now part of the wonderful tapestry of diversity that makes Canada so special. They contribute, economically, culturally, and politically, to the country’s heritage and richness.

This is the Canada I know, a country that welcomes those who have to flee, a country that not only gives them shelter from the harm, but gives them opportunity to build a life full of richness and meaning. The Canada I know is the kind of Canada that says to those in need, we will nurture you, we will share with you, and you will share with us and help us make our country even greater.”

The Syrian refugee crisis has given us an opportunity, during an election cycle, to show the world the Canada that I know. It is an opportunity for us to assert ourselves as a country that helps those who need help, as a country that understands that for some people, leaving everything they know and coming here is the only way to escape the horrors of their current reality.

This crisis allows us to have more than a discussion of how many refugees we will accept, or how much aid money we will send; it allows us to think about what kind of country we are, and to decide what kind of country we want to be.

The Canada that I know is a refuge for those that have had to escape, and a place for all kinds of people, from wherever they may come, to find a home free of terror and fear.

This is the Canada that welcomed me. This is the Canada where my grandmother can wake up, every morning, never again having to worry about the threat of losing her son to political unrest.

This is my Canada, this is our Canada. This is the Canada I can not bear to lose.