Photos and story by Richard Harding – Lawyer–Mediator, Calgary, Alberta.
Whether he meets students in a Tim Hortons coffee house outlet in north-west Calgary, Canada, or refugee kids in a derelict parking lot in a poorer suburb of the city, or even late into the night following lecturing in Dubai, Mumbai, Damascus, Vancouver or Florida, no child is too insignificant for Ameer M. Keshavjee’s freely offered help and attention. Over the last 32 years he has helped more than 40,000 youths in Canada and around the world access institutions of higher learning throughout North America, Europe, and the developing world. In addition to a steady flow of Canadian youth, through the internet, he has been able to help students in places as diverse as Peru, Dominican Republic, Eritrea, Rwanda Malawi, South Africa and Tajikistan.
After experiencing the ravages of apartheid South Africa, racial prejudice in Kenya, the financial burdens preventing his own higher education, as well as the challenges his children faced in accessing and funding their education, Keshavjee has dedicated his life to helping students, one on one, achieve their dreams of higher education. To meet students, he has gone to churches, school halls, gurdwaras, temples, mosques, jamatkhanas, reserves, and donut shops the most famous of which, Tim Hortons in NW Calgary, Alberta has become his unofficial consulting room, with his picture posted on the wall.
Students are able to access him at any time, and he assists all who turn to him every step of their way, providing guidance and support throughout the application process and search for funding, without asking for anything in return. He provides a compassionate service, underpinned by professionalism.
I have personally experienced this, having watched him, one on one, inspire, guide and assist a half dozen students from Malawi, one of the poorest nations on the face of the earth, that I referred to him through connections I made doing relief work in that country. With email, Keshavjee is accessible to all, and responds to the needs of youth everywhere. Even a tour bus operator from Kwale in Kenya, referred to him by a friend while we were on Safari together, received a timely email response.
Keshavjee will endeavor relentlessly to ensure that those who turn to him get into a post-secondary institution of their choice and do not become disheartened. Critically important, he gives them a voice and allows them to express their innermost wishes which would lead to their self-fulfillment.
“I carry out a reality test,” he says, “and if someone is not Ivy League material, I try and steer them to professions and institutions that will cater to what they are capable of doing”.
There are, of course, some really bright kids who are very much focused but lack the resources to go further. Here, regardless of their current circumstances, Keshavjee counsels them by asking if money were not a problem where would they like to study. If they say “Harvard” for example, he responds “you’re going there.” “But how?” they ask. He responds, “If you are really bright, and you gain admission to one of the top universities, the money will undoubtedly follow.”
He then stresses “There are 93 billion dollars in scholarship funds in North America awaiting applications from bright students like you” and he will guide them to access those funds using his extensive databank of scholarships. He explains what type of students the Ivy League schools are looking for, guides the students through their application process and suggests the type of submissions they may want to write. He helps students get all their papers in order, assisting them to draft their applications and to meet their application deadlines. He counsels them on their Mission Statement, always guiding them and boosting their morale. He has an essay bank which he shares freely with them for guidance and inspiration. For each individual student he encounters, he designs a customized plan of action to obtain the admission and funding they seek, and encourages them to follow it assiduously.
Often it is only a small break that students need that will tide them to the next stage. At times he refers to some philanthropic friends who are willing to help out with small sums to see a student move on. Although he is a daring idealist, his vision is underpinned by practical action. He looks for creative solutions.
“Perhaps it was not meant for them, at least, others may not have to go through the same ordeal.”
Ameer Keshavjee is married to Sherbanu (née Sarif), a highly experienced oncology nurse, who often accompanies him on his trips lecturing and working with students abroad. Prior to gaining his current mastery of the educational system, his two children had completed their post-secondary education, largely on students loans which they then struggled to pay back. In trying to meet the needs of his own children, Keshavjee saw in microcosm the labyrinthine processes a young person has to grapple with to be accepted into a good university and fund their education. He saw many interconnected reasons for this that often work to the detriment of a student.
The challenges that frustrated his own higher education, followed by the challenges his children faced, contributed to Keshavjee’s desire to help other students and to research and understand how to obtain access to the education system. Speaking of his own children, he says philosophically “Perhaps it was not meant for them, at least, others may not have to go through the same ordeal.”
Keshavjee observes how ill-equipped children often are to get into good universities and into the professions. He came to realize that there are funds lying dormant, but students did not know how to apply for those funds because they did not know how to gain access to good universities. There are many challenges facing prospective students today. Unfortunately, many young people realise too late how they should have prepared themselves for university admission.
“Most only come to me at the last minute – a night or two before they have to submit their Mission Statement or Statement of Purpose that is in the form of an essay,” he says. “Some do not even know what essay to write – either they are poor writers or do not have enough subject content”. “Students these days do not read as much as they did in the past”, he laments. “There is a plethora of information available to them through the internet but they lack the ability to process such information as many do not have the ability to do critical thinking.”
Some children of professionals lack the core skills required to go into the professions their parents may wish for them, and often it transpires that they are being pressured into these professions, which do not really coincide with their interests.
Children of parents newly arrived as refugees often do not know who to turn to. The parents do not speak English and the children end up working during daytime to earn extra money for the family. Some of them do not see much value in pursuing higher education while their parents are battling to put food on the table.
Genesis of the journey
How did a man come to dedicate his life to this service to aspiring students? Keshavjee’s passion for championing higher education as a lever to extricate people from the ravages of poverty, bigotry and adverse family circumstances finds its genesis in his experience of apartheid in South Africa. He was born there – one of 12 children —to a pioneering Indian Ismaili business family in the late 1930s. A precocious child, he topped the ranks of the Pretoria Indian High School, and espoused the dream of one day becoming a doctor specialising in genetics. This was a field little known when he entered the University of Witwatersrand, as one of only 6 non-white students allowed under the yearly colour- based quota system.
At university, Keshavjee experienced how apartheid impacted even a liberal university. Non-whites were not allowed to use the swimming pool, buses, benches, lifts, residence halls, and other amenities. Some lectures, such as the autopsy classes, were prohibited to non-white medical students. If the cadaver was of a white person, non-whites had to leave the class, and, by an unwritten rule, the lecturer would not begin teaching until all the non-white students had left. Through interaction with friends from politically conscious families, he became aware of the grand vision of apartheid that sought to reduce the position of the non-white population of South Africa to an absolute minimum. Unfortunately, the impact on the Indian Community of the draconian apartheid laws, forced him to leave the university after being there for only a few months. Keshavjee was called upon to help in the family business, disrupted by the forced relocations of ‘coloureds’ meaning all non-whites under the apartheid regime.
At university, he attended a lecture by Father Trevor Huddleston, a relentless anti-apartheid activist, who railed against the inhuman Bantu Education Act and realised that measures were afoot that were going to relegate black children to becoming “hewers of wood and drawers of water” in the country of their birth. He also became aware of the work of Ismail Mahomed, an expert on the infamous Group Areas Act which destroyed vibrant communities and deprived 3.5 million Indians and Africans of their livelihood by shifting them from their historical places of residence to new areas of settlement miles away from any urban facilities. Mahomed went on to become the first Chief Justice of multi-party democratic South Africa. Other draconian laws were in the offing that were going to severely curtail civil liberties in the country.
In 1957, Keshavjee participated in a march protesting the rise of bus prices, which were causing great hardship on the poor. Such industrial action was drastically restricted and illegal, and the Security Police filmed the incident. He only learned of the filming when he applied for a passport to leave the country 5 years later. With the apartheid state imposing over 148 statutes to subdue the bulk of the population of South Africa, he saw little future for himself and his siblings in the country.
The crunch came when the Group Areas Act started affecting Indian businesses in 1957 and his parents’ fledgling food and cosmetics manufacturing business was severely affected imposing financial consequences on the entire family. Keshavjee had to leave university to help his parents and elder brother run the family business. He had no choice but to lend his support to the fight for basic survival.
Desperate to study in any way possible, he enrolled in a correspondence course at the Union College of South Africa, studying optical science. He needed an apprenticeship, but not one optician in the entire Pretoria area was prepared to offer a position. Of the few who responded at all, most gave the standard reply “we don’t take non- whites”, while others, showing some empathy, shrugged their shoulders in utter helplessness. Keshavjee often left their premises with a sense of deep pain and anguish. Despite being disheartened and resentful, he decided not to let his predicament consume him.
The next 5 years saw increasingly repressive policies in South Africa lead to a brain drain of thousands of people. In 1962, together with his elder brother, he championed the migration of his entire family to Kenya in East Africa which was on the verge of gaining its independence. Like many countries in Africa, including South Africa, a “wind of change”, in Harold Macmillan’s famous words, was blowing. It was this wind that propelled him and his family to newer pastures.
In the 1960s, Kenya represented a ray of hope. Jomo Kenyatta, the firebrand nationalist, had just been released from prison and was called upon to form a government of national unity. Uhuru, freedom, was his rallying call. Kenyatta exhorted all races to come together and work in unison to build the new post-colonial society, needed in the wake of the end of empire. Here, all Keshavjee’s school-age siblings entered the Aga Khan schools, some of the finest educational institutions in the country, open to people of all races. Although he was offered a scholarship to embark on Islamic studies at Harvard University in the USA, for the second time in his life he had to relinquish the dream of a university education, as his presence in Kenya was critical for his family’s resettlement there.
Kenya had its own challenges for the minority Indian community and Keshavjee played a leadership role in his religious community as a volunteer Chairman of the Ismaili Youth Union —involved in serving the development needs of the country — and later as a member of the Nairobi Ismaili Provincial Council, and finally, of the Kenya Territorial Council.
Unable to pursue further education in Kenya, Keshavjee dived into business, first as a budding industrialist in the food and cosmetics field, and later as a partner and Managing Director of one of the largest property management companies in Kenya. Together with his business partner, Sadruddin Ebrahim, he made it part of their corporate social policy to help hundreds of promising African businessmen acquire their own homes through easy financing and management services. It was in Kenya that he met and married the love of his life, Sherbanu, then a nurse at the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi.
“South Africa posed the initial challenge, Kenya provided the hope, and Canada became the enabler.”
Kenya was a dream in the making until 1972 when the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada decided overnight to expel the entire Indian community from his country on six weeks’ notice. This heinous expulsion sent paroxysms of fear throughout the minority Indian community in Kenya, as well as neighbouring countries as far away as Malawi. Indians started leaving Africa and Keshavjee spearheaded his entire extended family’s move to Canada together with his wife Sherbanu and their two young children Fatima and Salmaan . Canada, under Pierre Trudeau, had whole-heartedly opened its doors to the Ugandan refugees and by extension to people from neighbouring East African countries.
Like all new immigrants to Canada, Keshavjee had to re-establish himself and find ways to support his family. He first requalified as a realtor, and then moved on to set up a small business producing plastic signs. He eventually used his business expertise to become a management consultant to the petroleum industry. His success in Canada has empowered him to indulge his passion to work for the most marginalised in society. Referring to his learning trajectory, Keshavjee says “South Africa posed the initial challenge, Kenya provided the hope, and Canada became the enabler.” His voluntary efforts led to the Rotarians, even though he was not a member, giving him their highest honour, naming him a Paul Harris Fellow. He has also been a TEDx speaker.
“Doing nothing is not an option. Anyone can shrug their shoulders in helplessness. But is that the rent we pay for inhabiting this earth?”
Keshavjee is a self-effacing individual who does not clamour for recognition. From the Bhagavad Gita, he learned that one cannot be wedded to the fruits of one’s labour. “These are seeds we plant. We cannot wait to see the fruits-as only time makes that happen.” Keshavjee recalls his own personal experience with the apprenticeship he needed in South Africa and laughs. “Doing nothing is not an option. Anyone can shrug their shoulders in helplessness. But is that the rent we pay for inhabiting this earth?” he asks rhetorically. While his inspiration comes from various influences, he is guided by the Islamic ethic that teaches that one has to share what one has in life with those who are less fortunate and in need, and knowledge that remains unshared becomes a girdle around one’s neck ready to throttle the hoarder of it. He draws great inspiration from the example of his spiritual leader, His Highness the Aga Khan, who has emphasised the value of education from the time he ascended to the office of the Imamat.
While Keshavjee’s endeavour is a one-man initiative, he has received assistance from the Education Boards of the Ismaili Muslim community in Canada, and through the Aga Khan Development Network which runs the largest non-governmental not-for-profit educational system in the world. “The Aga Khan”, he says, “has unceasingly continued to build institutions of learning from early childhood education to university education. He understands that education constitutes a whole interconnected ecosystem. At every stage new challenges will arise and these have to be addressed with new knowledge underpinned by the essential spiritual wisdom to make that knowledge valuable to human society.” Keshavjee hopes that some of the individuals whom he has encountered will carry that spirit with them and through their work will contribute to a more robust civil society which will play a constructive role in our so-called post-truth dystopian world.
Perpetuating his work
He feels that his services need to be institutionalised. While he plans to bequeath the plethora of information he has collected to The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, to be stored for future generations as reflecting one aspect of the social history of the Ismaili Community’s settlement in Canada, he desires that more be done so that students from various communities can tap into the information he has collected and use the approach he has pioneered.
Keshavjee sees students’ difficulties in achieving higher education as structural and multifactorial. There is no quick fix. Children have to be guided from a young age and encouraged into certain activities that will make them attractive to universities. They need to be guided to take certain core courses. They need to be trained to read with an eye to critical thinking.
Asked if he thought schools were providing this service, he responds “in a way yes. It depends on the school.” Generally he feels that career guidance in schools does not focus on the critical issues. While schools have a facility they are not always up to date with their information. If they were, why would so many students need to search him out? Schools need to learn the politics of higher education in North America and train their students to engage that process creatively.
Career guidance specialists at schools need to upgrade what they offer, parents need to be socialised to the need and value of higher education, children need to be guided from a young age, and institutions within communities need to have educational information on hand. Often, there are no organisational structures in communities, even though the desire is there to provide this type of service. The Ismaili community, he states, does have educational boards and Keshavjee has worked through them in various countries for many of the years that he has been providing this service.
While he regrets that, over the last three decades, nobody has seen fit to institutionalise the service he has been providing, he sees great strength in the fact that he has been able to operate outside the unnecessary constraints of bureaucracy. He strongly believes that civil society has an important role to play, but not in a highly bureaucratised way, as that itself can become a problem. This role has to come through individuals who have a passion to help and are ready and willing to give of themselves in order to ignite the spirit of hope in others.
He hopes that, someday, some technological wizard will turn up and produce a viable sustainable, non-commercial program, to reach the most marginal children in society, and help them access institutions of higher learning on the basis of merit, continuing the work he has pioneered. “It has been nourished by my passion” he says “do I want to see that destroyed?” he stresses.
Promoting Access to education
Having experienced the challenges of obtaining an education in apartheid South Africa, early post-independence Kenya, and with his own children in Canada, Keshavjee feels access to higher education is critical and should become a basic human right. “No one should be deprived of the opportunity to reach their self-fulfilment in life.” He has discussed the practicalities of this issue with various leaders and educationists from the UAE and India to the halls of Harvard in the USA.
He has shared his ideas on how higher education can become a basic human right with the Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, who suggested that this should be taken up by Canada’s representative to the UN.
He reminded Thabo Mbeki, former President of South Africa, of the broad value of education, including the humanities, when that leader mentioned to him that present-day South Africa needs more computer programmers and specialists in practical fields not only in the humanities. Keshavjee reminded Mbeki that South Africa was reaping the unfortunate bitter fruits of the Bantu Education Act. While more practical skills were critical, humanistic disciplines have an important role to play.
“Education is the only way forward.”
Nothing gives Keshavjee greater joy than to hear of a person, whom he has counselled, walk down the aisle of a good university after having graduated in the field that captured their childhood fancy. “They will become the leaders of tomorrow and they will change the world” he says. Many of the young people he has helped over the years send him letters and cards keeping him abreast of their achievements. With thank-you cards filling a score of cardboard boxes, Keshavjee takes pride in asserting that “apartheid did not break me. I was a disheartened man but I decided to serve humankind and to transform my bitterness into constructive energy through small practical actions to ameliorate the problems of others.”
Some of those students today are playing an important role in civil society as university professors, lawyers, judges, doctors and even artists, filmmakers and musicians. Syrians he helped access institutions of higher learning in Europe and Canada were able to help their families resettle to escape the ravages of war. Students from Rwanda and Eritrea whom he counselled have reoriented their educational aspirations to contribute towards the post-conflict reconstruction of their respective countries. Many domestic workers whose children might never have accessed institutions of higher learning now look to the future with hope. Keshavjee cites the example of Greta Thunberg, the leading climate-change activist, and Malala Yousafzai, champion of the right of girls to an education, and says, “These are the future generations standing at our doorstep, asking us to account for depleting their rights to a better life. We are answerable to them, and indeed to a higher reality. We cannot escape from our obligations.”
“We owe it to those” Keshavjee smiles, “who are less fortunate” emphasising, “and what can be more valuable than to help someone gain knowledge so that they, in turn, can serve others.” Tapping the table, he asserts “I do not want the most marginalized in society to be irretrievably caught up in a poverty trap,” He emphasises “it is our duty to lift them out of this predicament by helping their children access institutions of higher learning.”
It is only then, that we will be able to have a peaceful world where everyone works together towards a shared humanity.” he says.
“Education is the only way forward.”
He smiles as he sits at his favourite table at the north-west Calgary Tim Hortons waiting for his next student to arrive with a deadline that has to be met. “We need to get them through”, he says, “There is no choice” and then he smiles again.
Richard M. Harding is a lawyer serving Calgary in Family Law, Mediation and Estates cases.
Acceptance letter by Ameer Keshavjee calls for making free secondary education for all a basic human right universally