Two new Canadians: From atrocities to honours

Posted 05.16.05

This year marks the eleventh anniversary of the slaughter of 800,000 innocent people in Rwanda, so movingly documented in the movie Hotel Rwanda. I seldom cry in a movie, but in the middle of this film I couldn't hold back the tears, and by the end I was sobbing. I kept thinking how close my dear friends, Zulli & Gulshan Najak, came to the tragic fate that befell the Tutsis in Rwanda.

The Najaks were living in Uganda in 1972, when Idi Amin ordered everyone of Indian origin out of the country. Many were hounded down and killed, bodies tossed into the river with family members prevented from retrieving them for burial.

The Ugandan situation had no UN troops trying to keep order, and few Western reporters to tell the world what was taking place. It was only because the Aga Khan, head of the Ismaili Muslims, phoned his friend, Pierre Trudeau, that Canada took 6000 of the refugees.

Among them were Zulli and Gulshan, a young couple married less than a year who were expecting their first child. Both of them came from families who had owned businesses in Uganda for generations, so to be wrenched from the only country they'd ever known was terrifying.

In addition, it was October, they had no winter clothes, nowhere to live, knew nobody in Ottawa. For six weeks, including during the birth of her daughter, Gulshan didn't know if her parents and younger sisters had survived the purge. Fortunately, they had fled to Pakistan and later came to Canada as well.

Starting over is difficult under any circumstances, and that's why, after the Najaks became established themselves, they reached out to other new immigrants.

As a result of this, and their other volunteer work, both Zulli and Gulshan were awarded Queen's Jubilee Medals in 2003. A few medal recipients were couples, but I don't know of any other instance where a husband and wife each received a medal for their efforts in completely separate areas.

After a series of jobs in accounting and administration, Zulli opened his own firm, and eventually Gulshan left the public service to join him. Their daughter, Juliana, a graduate of the University of Ottawa, went on to become a respiratory therapist. Ali, nine years younger than his sister, graduated last fall from Waterloo. Theirs is only one of many immigrant success stories, individuals who began to contribute to our economy as soon as they arrived, never needing welfare.

Refugees have remarkable resilience, and over the years I watched my friends combine the best of Ismaili tradition (one of several branches of Islam) with seamless integration into Canadian society. Zulli and Gulshan both celebrate sixtieth birthdays this spring, and I am proud to rejoice with them at what they've accomplished. The next time you meet a recent immigrant, ask where they came from. You may be surprised at their stories. You may even be moved to tears.

Barbara Floria Graham is the author of Five Fast Steps to Better Writing, Five Fast Steps to Low-Cost Publicity, and Mewsings/Musings. Her website: www.SimonTeakettle.com

Copyright © 2005 Barbara Floria Graham/Log Cabin Chronicles/05.05