From Refugee to Active Citizen


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Steve speaks with Farouk Verjee.  Farouk tells of his background as a refugee from Uganda, the law practice he established in Canada, and the situation faced by new Canadians today. A very interesting story of a successful Canadian.

This morning I am meeting with a friend of mine, Farouk Verjee, who is a very strong Canadian and believer in Canada and who came to this country, how many years ago?

When was it that you first came to Canada?

I came in `73 from Uganda.

And I guess there was a political situation in Uganda at the time that encouraged you to leave?

Well, Idi Amin sent the whole Asian community packing and those of us who were citizens of Uganda became stateless and Canada was one of the countries that extended its generosity by welcoming us.

Were you then, at that time, in fact a refugee or what was your status at that time?

Yes, I was a stateless person and I came out of the refugee program.

I see, you were a citizen of Uganda, (I was a citizen of Uganda) but your family had originated …?

My forefathers left India around 1876 and they migrated to, what was in those days known as British East Africa; which was Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. And those 3 countries eventually evolved into separate nation states and we were in Uganda and we became Ugandan nationals.

And you arrived then in 1973, you said, in Montreal?

Actually, well we landed – our first stop was Halifax and the airport in Halifax is quite a ways out of town and looked very barren and desolate, and the passenger next door to me said, “Now you know why Canada has accepted you.” And that`s where we got our landed status and then we flew on to Montreal.

And what sorts of occupations or fields of endeavour have you been involved in since 1973?

Well, I`m a lawyer by training from the U.K. and when I first came to Vancouver I worked as a lawyer`s clerk, if you will , or I was given the designation legal assistant, but basically doing minimal legal work assisting other lawyers.

And did you stay in the legal field?

I didn`t because I had to go back to law school to re-qualify which would have been a 4-year undertaking. Very costly time-wise and money-wise, and I didn`t have the financial resources to become a full-time student for 4 years.

This is quite a common problem, is it not, for recent immigrants? What is a solution to this problem? Is it that the Canadian professions are too protective? Is it a genuine concern about maintaining the standards? Is it … How do we resolve this problem?

Let me tell you how we resolve it. I guess, number one, I was a lawyer trained in the U.K., so it`s the English Common Law system, very similar to the Canadian system.

And you know, we always talk about union-bashing and the unions are this and the unions are that, well the lawyer`s union is one of the most powerful unions in this country and we all know the profession is overcrowded. And this country really doesn`t need more lawyers and the profession really doesn`t want to dilute its work by accepting more and more foreign lawyers. So there are some hurdles to be cleared. But, as it happened, I decided to go into commercial real estate as a career. And so it was a switch and, on the whole, I think it`s been a positive switch. My father was a lawyer for 30 years and he never really wanted me to practice law, so I guess his wish was fulfilled.

How did you find, what was your experience like in the field of commercial real estate?

It was very difficult because I had this lawyer`s attitude of protecting my client. But I usually ended up representing buyers and my commission was being paid by the seller. So really it was the seller who was my client and not the buyer. So it was a very difficult adjustment; instead of conducting myself strictly as a professional I had to become a salesperson and it`s a huge shift and not an easy one, but over the years I`ve learned to understand that you really have to try and balance both parties` interests to be able to act as an effective middleman to earn a commission.

And did you operate in British Columbia only?

Originally, I operated in British Columbia and then I looked further east towards Ontario because there were opportunities in Ontario, and subsequently I even went to the States because there was a big movement of people looking for business opportunities in the United States. So I went down to Texas and California. I suppose it was part of my education.

No doubt. I would imagine that a very good command of English is a precondition for a business such as commercial real estate.

I think it`s so vitally important and in my case, when I was about 7 or 8, my father insisted that I spoke to him in English because he felt that language is such a powerful tool.

It`s much more important than having academic qualifications because if you cannot communicate, you cannot conduct business, you cannot build social relations , you cannot be part of the big society and the big picture that everybody wants to be. So whilst I would converse with my mother in my mother-tongue, my father insisted that I had to speak to him in English and my school holidays were very trying because every day at the breakfast table my father would give me 10 words that I had to look up in the dictionary and construct a sentence which gave a different meaning to the word. But at the end of the day , I ended up achieving a very good command of the English language.

And if I may quote Sir Winston Churchill he wasn`t a very bright student, he actually failed Latin, and he was confined to becoming a good student of English and, you know, today he is regarded as probably somebody who was able to write the best English in the simplest of words, and to be a great communicator of the English language. And speaking of English, and I respect all other languages, and I do speak other languages like French and German. Today English is such an important language that it`s a passport to 90 percent of the world business community. It`s the language of business, it`s the language of commerce, it`s the language that allows you to be independent.

It`s an interesting word: passport.

Because it really does enable you to go anywhere in the world. Similarly in Canada, I think even for someone who wasn`t born in this country, if you can speak English comfortably, you can go to any little village, any town anywhere, even within Canada. Sometimes, recent immigrants who tend sometimes to concentrate in certain areas in certain big cities might feel a bit of a reluctance to go to some of the smaller communities in the hinterland where there aren`t so many people of their origin. But certainly, everyone that I`ve spoken to who has gone to those smaller communities finds that as long as you can communicate there is no problem.

Not only no problem, but I know from the history of the settlement of my own community, which is the Israeli Muslim community, that the people who left the major urban centres and went into smaller towns and communities prospered, the opportunities were greater and they actually found greater acceptance in small communities because smaller communities tend to be more welcoming and there`s less competition compared to big cities. And a lot of new immigrants do not have the sophistication to compete with people who have been around much longer.

And I think the smaller communities often are more welcoming and care more about the members of that community, whereas in a big city nobody really cares that much about their neighbours.

That, and I think the family unit is probably stronger in the rural community as opposed to big cities.

People have more time for each other. People give out a helping hand . But you have to become part of the community; you cannot live in your own little world . That`s important.

Now as someone who, since coming to Canada, has placed a lot of importance on being part of the community, like you have, and being a Muslim, how did the events of September the 11th and some of the reaction and fallout from that affect you?

Well it`s very interesting because, as you know, I would think the majority of Muslims are extremely troubled by what happened . We do not believe it was a reflection of the faith.

But the fact of the matter is the terrorists were from the Muslim part of the world, and we hear about clash of civilizations etc, but what helped us immensely is that, because I was very much involved as part of the big community, I had so many people who reached out to me and said, “Farouk, we are sorry what has happened, is there anything we can do, is there any way we can help?”

In fact, at our house of worship in North Vancouver, 3 ladies actually showed up one day with a bouquet of flowers (I wasn`t there of course but the lay minister told me) to extend a gesture of goodwill towards us and say that we recognize that you are a peaceful religious community and we from another faith community just want to acknowledge this fact by bringing a little bouquet of flowers. And I don`t think they would have done that unless there was a genuine and sincere effort to reach out and become part and parcel of the community.

Do you think that the Muslim community, I mean even before September 11th, was not sufficiently well understood and how does one deal with that ?

Undoubtedly there is a longer history of Christianity, of the Jewish religion, and so forth, in this civilization in this country; how does one bridge that? How do people become more familiar with the Muslim faith?

I believe in one thing – that the only way people can understand your faith or your culture is if YOU reach out as a newcomer and get involved . And I think one of the easiest ways to get involved is by becoming a volunteer in a community-based organization, because as a volunteer, there`s no financial interest involved, there`s no political interest involved, but you are meeting people, you are communicating with them, you are interacting with them and that`s the only way they can find out what your faith or what your culture or what your value systems represent.

And you will find that most cultures put forward very positive ideals for coexistence and respect for the environment, respect for diversity.

You know, it`s interesting, the image of Islam that`s presented of course recently seems to emphasize, this sort of, I think they`re called, “Wahabi” the extremists and that seems to be the only image that`s put forward; all we ever see on the screen is that. And of course I know because I`m interested in history; the period of, in a sense , the renaissance of Muslim civilization from I guess the 8th to the 14th or 15th century, but we don`t see very much of that, there`s very little representation of that on television or elsewhere.

Some of the philosophers, I think leading doctors …

Well, there`s a reason for that, and I think the reason for it is that the majority of the Muslim faith community is a silent majority . They live in the rural areas of their respective countries; they have very little voice in the choice of government. So the governments do not really represent the people. We take democracy for granted here, we take elections for granted here, but I do not believe there is one or more, or what`s at least very few Muslim countries which you can say are democratic in the Western sense. You`ve got despotic governments, you`ve got monarchies, you`ve got dictatorships, and these people are supposedly speaking for their people but they have no mandate from their people.

And you have the unholy trinity of ignorance, poverty and disease and you have a total waste of the oil wealth. And, most regrettably, Islam in the Western world is only seen through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict which is not a religious conflict. It is a conflict involving land. And in the context of British Columbia, I said to most of my friends, if you can imagine the native Indian people are saying, “This is our land.” And we are saying, “Yes, it is your land but we are now here, and we have to work out a reasonable co-existence.”

I personally have been to Israel and I`ve seen what a remarkable country it is and I said to myself, “The whole of the Middle East could be so remarkable when you look at the tremendous resources of manpower and financial resources that are available there.” The reality is that the Jewish people have always had an existence in Israel. I mean, they are the oldest monotheistic tradition. And Christians are monotheistic, by which I mean, worship of one god, and so are Muslims, so we are really part of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition. But in the Western world, Islam really stopped at the gates of Vienna, when the Muslims invaded Europe. And that`s where the demarcation has been formed.

But you know it`s interesting in a sense, some of those rivalries that go back to the medieval period; I mean that was a different world then and there`s also a very strong demarcation between Eastern Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, and Western Christianity; things that mean much, much less to us today. And I think the concern is that we take some of these almost medieval rivalries and bring them into modern context.

And I think to the extent that the sort of Islam versus Christianity, or Islam versus the West conflict is an ideological one, then it`s almost medieval, and I agree with you that some of those countries, their problem is not that they`re Muslim, the problem is that they`re still … it`s not fair to say -they`re not backward … but they`re operating in a mode that is more akin to the medieval period than it is to today.

Well, I think the tragedy of the Muslim world is we claim that there is no distinction between the faith and your daily existence; that there`s an integral approach; the faith should reverberate on your daily lives.

So Islamic societies have tended not to be secular but the state and the church, if you will, are one. Whereas the Christian world decided at the time of the Reformation that that was not going to work; and that the state has its place and the church has its place. And maybe in the Western world the secularization has gone too far , from my point of view, because where do your children learn the ethics of society? I`m not saying this to promote a particular religion, but you can`t start learning the ethics of a society after you leave university. Ethics have to be taught at a very early state.

So in a sense while the Western world has made fantastic material progress, I think they have also lost something in the process and which is the ethical values; respect for humankind.

But, you know, it`s interesting, in the Middle Ages, which was the period when the West was presumably the most religious, when there was no separation between church and state prior to the Reformation. That did not necessarily correspond to peace. King Richard the Lionheart, whatever, would be praying in his cathedral and then he`d go out and lay waste to the countryside of France; and kill everybody he could see.

Like so much in life, I mean there`s all kinds of contradictions, but maybe we could close off by looking at Canada and so we have all these different communities who might be religious communities, or communities of different ethnic origins, we have the larger Canadian community, we have the local community, how do all these different communities … how do we get a sense of solidarity and common goals in Canada?

Well, I think first and foremost is take pride in being Canadian. When we first came, Senator Ray Perrault gave us very good advice: he said become “unhyphenated” Canadians. Now, I don`t need to identify myself as a visible Canadian; anyone who sees me sees I`m brown.

I don`t need to identify myself as a Muslim-Canadian; a name like Farouk tells you I`m a Muslim. And what does it matter whether I`m brown or whether I`m Muslim, the important thing is that I`m an active citizen contributing to the welfare of my country. For my sake , for my children`s sake and for everybody else`s sake. And I think we, as Canadians, have a unique opportunity of projecting ourselves to the world as a tolerant, peaceful, diverse society in which each one is able to pray to their own god, take pride in their ancestral values and yet take greater pride in being Canadian. Because the first generation immigrants obviously harked back to their motherland.

But you have to think of your children as to how they will best fit into Canadian society. My forefathers left India over 100 years ago and my father never visited India in his lifetime. To me, Africa is still, when I refer to back home, I still think of Africa. And yet I am not African by race, but certainly Africa has a certain warmth and nostalgia for me. But I`ve made a very determined effort to be a good Canadian by getting involved in volunteer work, getting involved in the political life of Canada. Being an active community worker where I live because where I live is my community; these are where my neighbours are and my neighbours are part of my community. And my faith group is also part of my community.

And my professional association is also part of my community. But the most important thing is that I am Canadian and for a couple of years, when I first came, I used to travel around as a stateless person from airport to airport, and I was always viewed with a great deal of suspicion. And when I finally got my Canadian citizenship the thought that nobody could ever take it away from me; ever, ever, ever not only gave me pride but so much peace and comfort. I mean, I was born in Uganda; my mother was born in Uganda. My father was constitutional advisor to the first Prime Minister of Uganda and took part in the independence negotiations and yet, by a stroke of a pen, we could all be stripped of our nationality.

And what people don`t realise is that once you have met the citizenship requirements it is your RIGHT to become a Canadian citizen. In the United States, it is still a privilege; you can be denied citizenship. But in Canada, as long as you have conducted yourself properly, it is your right. How many countries offer new immigrants the right to become a citizen by spending 1000 days here?

But while it`s a right, I think it`s also a privilege, and it has a tremendous value. And I think you feel that, and I feel that.

Well, I`m exceptionally thankful and I feel I am very blessed that I came to Canada. And I`m a very, very proud Canadian.

And I`m sure Canada is very lucky that you came too.

Well, I hope so. I owe more to Canada. I will not be able to repay my debt to Canada certainly in my lifetime.

Well, I think the fact that you think that, is a statement of why Canada is lucky that you came here.

Thank you!

Thank you.

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