THE GHALIB FAMILY
Hamna Ghalib was born in Pakistan. The mother of four daughters—Zikh, Hija, Sachi, and Parin, she and her husband, Ghalib Riaz, and their children have lived in many places, wherever his work took the family. But living in Saudi Arabia, says Ghalib, “I can’t even think about those times. As a woman, what I endured, I never wanted my girls to go through that.” Ghalib talks about being forced to be dependent on her husband in Saudi Arabia. She couldn’t drive or work. She became depressed. When her eldest daughter was ready for university, and when Ghalib too wanted to continue her own education, she insisted on moving her girls to what she felt would be a better life. Ghalib and her daughters moved to Lethbridge, Alberta. She describes living in Lethbridge as a very happy time in their lives. Settling in Lethbridge, she says that “Canadian people were gentle and calm, they listened to us, understood diversity, showed respect and courtesy, even at the airport. We felt no humiliation.”
Her husband remained abroad to work and after two years he joined the family in Canada. Separation from loved ones while making money for a new start is a common element of immigration stories. He found a job in the Toronto area and the family moved to Milton in 2015. Ghalib’s husband understood why she wanted their daughters to live differently. “He saw the girls glowing, so happy in Lethbridge, in the schools, with the people. The experience was amazing.” Ghalib felt nothing but happiness in Alberta.
Her first negative experience occurred upon moving to the Toronto area where she was a post-secondary student. It was here says Ghalib that fellow students called her names like “Chicken Curry.” Growing up, Ghalib attended a Christian school as a Muslim. She learned to accept differences and to treat others with respect. “When I came here, I thought, I am moving to an open-minded country.” But life in Canada has had some difficulties. Ghalib says that she and her daughters have been victims of incidents of racist name-calling and suspicion, but overall, Ghalib says that life in Canada has been “like heaven.” A place where she says she has “everything I could have ever wanted for my life and my family.” President Trump’s travel ban leaves Ghalib worried for the future. She asks, “Will Canada be the same ten years from now? Or will Canada become like the US?” Ghalib hopes Canadians will remain as they are. “Trump’s ban is against humanity…even if my country is not on the list, as a human I can feel what people are feeling.”
Spending time with Ghalib, her four daughters and her husband in their home in Milton is an exercise in education and optimism. Filled with family heirlooms and photographs, and lovingly transported favourite furniture pieces, Ghalib’s four girls tell me about life living abroad compared to living in Canada. Having been born in different countries, and having been at different stages in their lives, Zikh, for example, has a very different opinion about the repression she was starting to experience as a young woman in Saudi Arabia, compared to her younger sister who sometimes misses the “awesome shopping.” Zikh is studying Mathematics in university. Her younger sisters attend school in Milton. The four are well-spoken and comedic. I ask them if they have always been so outgoing…they respond by saying that speaking up is something newer for them, but they have always seen their mother and father being outspoken and determined. It seems to be in the family to laugh, to learn, and to seek new experiences.
Shaima Taha is an architect. She moved to Canada with her parents in 1999 at the age of 13. Born in Karachi, she travelled a lot, having also lived in Singapore and in Bombay. Her father worked for an airline, so she saw the world. The family moved to Canada in the month of December. “It was unreal. The snow, the trees, it looked like a calendar!” Says Taha. The family first settled in Markham.
Taha was instantly enamored with the houses, the architecture, the new structures and building materials, which were completely different from what she had seen before. She credits Canada’s education system with inspiring and encouraging her interest in architecture. “When I came here, as Muslims, with hijab and our look, you go through a whole journey through your religion. When I started wearing hijab in grade twelve, I was just representing my identity.” Taha didn’t feel like she was something different. She got a lot of questions, friends and teachers wanted to know more. They were curious. She attended a public school that was culturally diverse, “It wasn’t difficult at all.”
Then came September 11, 2001, and she says, “We were very young and trying to understand. My dad lost his job.” She recalls her father being taunted at work and treated like an outsider. From that point forward, Taha remembers thinking whenever there was any incident in the world, she would think “Please God don’t let it be a Muslim.” She explains that practicing Muslims believe in peace and goodness: “Islam is the opposite of what everyone portrays it as. For us it is tiresome.” Taha also says that Muslims used to be reluctant to report hate crimes. “We feel really intimidated…like it won’t make a difference if we report it. What will really come out of it?” But in Milton, she says “the police are so cooperative, they offer help all the time, they come into the Masjid.”
In December, Taha says she was standing in a store with her sister. She says a teenager standing behind them told Taha and her sister to “leave! Trump’s right.” Taha and her sister were shocked and embarrassed. She felt as though she couldn’t reply and she says, “It was really hard for bystanders to speak up.” The store employees were young and seemed embarrassed an unsure of how to respond also. Another recent incident involved people shouting “get out of here” from a car at Taha and her children as they came out of a restaurant. Despite these experiences, Taha says in general, “people are really nice, they ask you stuff.” When people take the initiative, Taha says, “It makes us feel part of this. Equally together.”
When President Trump ordered his first travel ban, Taha’s family were returning from a cruise in Mexico. Taha was due to give birth, she wanted her parents to be with her and she imagined the worst. “They take away your phone, your right to communicate; the hardest part is not knowing what is happening. They know we are powerless. We have no rights; we are uninformed of our rights.” Taha says she is now afraid to travel to the US, especially through the airports.
“They handcuffed a five year old. I can’t imagine. A five year old is so innocent; you create a monster out of him scarring him like that.” Despite the fear, Taha says she is surprised in a very pleasant way. Taha says that friends, strangers, lawyers are raising their voices for “Muslims who don’t feel their dialogue is welcome.” The support in Canada and around the world gives her hope.