By Almas Meherally for The Province
Almas works as Social Media and Digital Editor with The Province and Vancouver Sun. Almas worked as a journalist in India and moved to Canada in 2010. She has been a part of the Canadian media since.
When I first moved to Vancouver about seven years ago, I didn’t know anyone except my husband and his family. Them too, not very well, although I’d known them distantly all my life.
Like most people, change doesn’t come easy to me. Starting a new life in a new city, with a new family and no friends, scared me. I had to deal with a lot of firsts, all at the same time.
But before I launch into my story, let me give you some details about who I am. I am a Shia Ismaili Muslim. I’m a journalist. I was born in India and am a proud new Canadian. My identity has many facets, just like the pluralistic country I live in.
Ismaili volunteers work not just to improve the quality of life of our community but society as a whole.
My husband’s family is quite religious. Me, not so much. They go to the jamatkhana (Ismaili mosque) for congregational prayers at least every Friday, and more often when possible. When I was working as a journalist in India, my long hours did not leave much of a choice in going to khane (jamatkhana). But here, I’d accompany my husband every Friday.
Since I didn’t know anyone except his family, and was a little awkward to approach strangers (I know, you think journalists talk a lot and are never shy, but I am a little), I wouldn’t hang around for long. We’d pray and leave. This suited my husband, an introvert, just fine.
One day, a lady sitting next to me for prayers complimented me on my nails and introduced herself as Salma. Feeling proud, as I’d done the nail art myself, Salma and I got talking. I learned that she was a school principal and also taught English to seniors in the community.
When Salma found out I was a journalist, she invited me to attend one of her classes and share some of my ideas with them. I was thrilled.
The following week, I was a guest in her class and shared a few concepts like the pyramid and inverted pyramid styles of writing and three-part composition of stories. The seniors were delighted.
A few months later, she told me that she was using the writing styles we discussed in her class as the base for the seniors to write the stories of their lives. Some of those seniors had migrated to Canada after Ugandan dictator Idi Amin ordered them out in 1972.
do unto others as you would have them do unto you
They were building scrap books or writing journals, using family photographs, and some even had momentous photos of the time when His Highness the Aga Khan visited them. It would be a souvenir for their families.
A little compliment and an invitation to be a part of something bigger got me hooked. This was the beginning, and I do what I can, from time to time.
So if you are wondering why this is relevant to all Canadians and not just Ismailis, it’s because the Ismaili volunteers work not just to improve the quality of life of our community but society as a whole.
Over the years, I have seen Ismaili volunteers working tirelessly to make a difference, be it raising funds for charities at events like the annual World Partnership Walk or a food drive for the Surrey Food Bank. From caring for seniors to mentoring the younger generation to build their skills, they do it all.
When I first arrived in Canada, I was told that Canadians value volunteer services. When I recently became a Canadian citizen, I learned that helping others in the community was a responsibility of every citizen. But as an Ismaili, volunteering is a fundamental ethic of our faith.
In a 2014 speech, Aga Khan said, “One of the energizing forces that makes a quality civil society possible is the readiness of its citizens to contribute their talents and energies to the social good. What is required is a profound spirit of voluntary service, a principle cherished in Shia Ismaili culture.”
Currently, hundreds of volunteers, including me, are preparing to welcome Aga Khan, whom we lovingly call Mawlana Hazar Imam, to Vancouver as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations that mark 60 years of his spiritual leadership. He will meet with his 20,000 followers in B.C. from May 5 to May 7.
Marking the Diamond Jubilee and Canada’s 150th, the Ismaili community pledged one million voluntary service hours to our country. That pledge was completed in a little over six months since the initiative began last September. Ismaili volunteers provided a total of 193,711 service hours in the Lower Mainland alone.
So whether I’m helping a seniors’ English class or welcoming a new immigrant, what matters is making a positive difference in someone’s life, however small. As the saying goes, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.