Interview Jamila Devji with Shaheen Sajan

Question 1: Tell us a little bit about yourself. When and where were you born? Did you grow up there or somewhere else?

Answer: I was born in Darussalam. I grew up and went to school there. I studied Montessori and then I ran my own Montessori school until I got married.
In 1972, I got married and 1975 and my first son, Yasin was born.
There was a lot of upheaval in Tanzania before that as they wanted to bring kswahili into everything, including schools, which meant English studies were being phased out. For jobs as well, were always phasing out Asians. The Asian exodus already happened in Uganda and we began to fear it might happen to us in Tanzania as well so many of us decided to move out and explore other prospects.
I was expecting Yasin when I moved.
The way we imagined Canada and the way it was really different.
On a very snow days on February 3, 1976, we landed in Canada and the snowbanks were so high and we couldn’t see beyond them. It was -30.
It was so different when we came here. We never imagined a life beyond East Africa. We had to start all over again, we had to figure out everything from scratch, where to get groceries, learning bus routes, we didn’t have a car, carrying groceries, it was totally different, looking for jobs was the main thing. At that time, there was a lot of racism. The atmosphere was, ‘these paki’s came to take our jobs,’ if you were on the street, they would say ‘paki go home’, if you looked for a job they discriminated as well.

Question 2: When did you start volunteering for our community? What kind of work did you do?

Answer: My volunteering started in Tanzania for the Ladies Islamic Union. I was the secretary and chairperson of the ladies union. We conducted many programs for ladies. We would invite lecturers. I really enjoyed it. We organized events such as Hussein Day and had weekly and monthly events as well.
When I arrived in Canada, because I had a teachers background, my volunteering work started with the madressah.
From the madressahs, I moved onto other roles in the community.

Question 3:Tell us about your first few months in Canada? What was life like here for someone who had just come from East Africa or the subcontinent? What were some of the challenges that you, your family and others faced?

Answer: Life was difficult. My late husband found it very difficult to find a job in his field. He had a degree in organic chemistry and really wanted to work in a plant or factory where he would be able to use his expertise, but nobody would give him a job. The challenging thing was we had a family with needs so his first job was as a security guard as the midnight shift at $3/hour.
I didn’t work because my children were too young, I had 2 young children that were 20 months apart. My Montessori degree was not recognized. If I looked for any jobs, they told me to go back to school and to learn the early childhood education program. They said they didn’t recognize the Montessori program.
I did go back to school part-time and changed my career to becoming a lab technician because I didn’t want to study early childhood education as it was a completely different system from what I was used to and the method I preferred.

Question 4: Did anyone from our community help you and your family settle in Canada?

Answer: Our greatest helpers were your parents (Ghulam and Zarin Sajan), I never will forget how they helped us out because they were our neighbours and realized the predicament we were in. I can’t think of anyone else that comes to mind. A lot of us were coming in at the same time and everyone was trying to settle down at the same time, some managed quickly, for some it was more challenging, and it all depended on lucky.
Rizwan was born and I didn’t do much serving then but did participate by reciting and would help lay out the blankets at the halls we went to and often got a ride with our neighbours, Ghulam Sajan, and went to gatherings together until we got our own car as well.

Question 5: Did you help organize and attend those first gatherings of our community members? Tell me more.

Answer: We used to go to Kennedy Hall, the biggest challenge was that there were no carpets. Our gatherings of course, we all sit on the floor. We would all bring blankets from home and we would help set them up, roll them up and put them back again. I did participate in all the gatherings although I didn’t do much of the organizing. We also went to 5050 Yonge as well as other school gyms in the Yonge and Finch area.
My volunteering centered around the madressah. My husband became the principal of the madressah. I was a teacher for the oldest class. It was a kind of an adventurous time for all of us. Everyone was learning to live in this country. We brought a set of religious values with us, some of them were rituals, some were religion so sifting through that and learning about things, it was a great experience. I did a lot of learning as well as I was teaching that class.
We organized debates, plays, we had oratory competitions, quiz competitions, and the participants were brilliant. I really enjoyed being a part of that. Then we moved onto doing things like camps.
One of the first camps was held.
Once we got to Bayview, a lot of advances were made in many areas of the communities and the madressahs. When Bayview opened, we were so exciting. I can’t begin to tell you how happy we were that Bayview was made and we had a place of our own. For a community that moved from place to place, we had our home. It was something that we could really look forward to.
On the madressah side, there were the 2, the east end, and the center madressah. My late husband became the president of the IEB, Islamic Education Board. During Easter, upstairs, they had the NASIMCO conference and downstairs, we would have the IEB workshops. People from all over the world attended these conferences upstairs and teachers from all over North America would attend the workshops downstairs. It was at this time it was decided the east Africa syllabus we were using wasn’t the right syllabus for North America where children were learning things in a different way.
The syllabus was then created from scratch. Dr. Sachedina, Syed Maulana Rizvi and Marhum Mulla Mohsin Jaffer were among those involved. We spent hours writing and deleting and revising for months on end. It was also approved by the World Federation. In fact, they said they would use it as well. It was a great achievement for NASIMCO that the syllabus was done.
Then became the camps as well. The first one that was held was at Bayview. We had a boys and girls camp. The boys slept on the main floor. The girls slept upstairs in the 3rd floor rooms. Syed Akhtar Rizvi was the main speaker. After that camp, the youngsters enjoyed it so much that they wanted us to do more.
We decided no more mosque camp, we decided we were going to take them out where they could have fun, swim, kayak, play ball and much more. Our camps started in Collingwood, then Kingston area. We didn’t like the Collingwood site as it was crowded and we didn’t feel comfortable. Then your dad (Ghulam Sajan) found a site through a friend that was a beautiful place, there was a huge kitchen, a place for lectures, a terrace, cabins, and this was situated on the lake. We had our cooks go with us, Fatma Lila, Nargis Alibhai, Zarin Sajan and Leila Rawji. They fed us like there was no tomorrow. The breakfasts, lunch, dinner and dessert to top it off while we had our lectures. We celebrated birthdays, we had Sh. Hasnain Kassamali, Sh. Mustafa Jaffer, Maulana Baqri, and Maulana Rizvi.
At the Collingwood site, we had a badminton tournament between the 2 maulanas, maulana Rizvi and maulana Baqri.
Those were really good times.
There was a feeling of everyone pitching into to help in any way they could, I don’t think that feeling is around anymore in certain ways. In certain ways, it is still there. If you organize something, yes, people will pitch in and help, but not to the extent as in the early days.
I remember there was a time during east end madressah, there was an issue about the hijab or the girls as the realization wasn’t there, the concept wasn’t there, I was asked to help out. I had a sewing machine, so I started stitching the hijabs, first for the teachers, and then for the girls. I couldn’t do all the girls, I got help from Zehra Moledina and we gave hijabs to all the girls. They were navy blue with an elastic and a zipper.
We had rough times but looking back, we were able to achieve so much. I could never look back with regret or say it was all for nothing or question it. I think Allah with His mercy decides things for us, he makes us go to places that are meant to be, so that our akhirat becomes better.
When my husband became ill, we stopped doing the camps, but then my children decided to revive them after he passed away. We continued for a few years. Then these camps involved into mother daughter retreats, girls camps, women’s retreats. We stopped during covid but I’m hoping to revive this.
During covid, I facilitated and coordinated the chai and chat online program, we had a lot of attendance, a lot of speakers and we go to know people, what they did with their life, life stories were shared, the Ugandan exodus stories were shared, the immigrants from Tanzania’s stories were shared, we still continue to do it but not as often. We really did reach a lot of people.

Question 6: Why was it important to you that we organize religious programs in this new environment? What were some of the challenges? What about Madressah for the children? For the first few years programs were held in temporary places that you were able to rent. Then in 1979 the community acquired its first centre on Bayview Avenue. Tell us how all that happened and what you felt about that event?

Answer: It was very exciting, I don’t think it was that exciting for Bathurst to be honest, maybe the younger generation felt the same way who was moving into Bathurst. The key was finding a place of our own. It was a landmark in the Thornhill area.

Question 7: What do you remember of the first 10 years at Bayview? How did you contribute?

Answer: When we started the majalis at Bayview for Muharrum, in my madressah class we would be talking about the Muharrum program, the girls would tell me they don’t understand anything because the majalis were in Urdu. ‘When my mom takes her handkerchief out to cry, that’s how I understood it was over’. So I went to my husband and asked why we can’t do these in English. So he went to the Annual General Meeting and his committee and it was then decided English should be given equal time because that was the only language they understood. Soon after, Muharrum was coming up, my late husband went to the president at the time, Hussein Bharwani, he said he can’t take away the Urdu time from the people inside. So Mahmood Devji and his committee suggested pitching a tent outside and getting an English speaker. The president agreed to the solution, the tent was pitched, the speaker was called from Nairobi, Sh. Mohammed Kassamali. We sat together, boys on one side, girls on the other and the girls were in hijab, strictly enforced of course and he recited for the 10 nights. To top it all off, it started raining the day before Ashura, and it was pouring. The water wouldn’t drain out of the tent. We were worried what we were going to do. Everyone stood for the Ashura majlis. There was no carpet to sit on. For the speaker, we brought the cases of canned milk, about 4 or 5 and we made the reciter stand on that and he did the Ashura majlis. And that day, the noise of the children crying reached all the time to Bayview. This was the first time they heard about Ashura. It was the first time they heard about the shahadat of Imam Hussein in English and it really hit home. This was the first English majlis in the whole world. Nobody had done it. Not even in England. They learned from us. After that, there were so many speakers, Sh. Mustafa Jaffer came the next year, then Dr. Liakat Takim, I think Dr. Sachedina came, Hamid Mavani came. It evolved so much that now, ¾ of the center are attending the English program. That the story of Imam Hussein is resonating in all corners of the world.
The tent was moved to the other side of the building, facing Bayview because of the rain and we didn’t want the tent to stop. Someone sent me a map of the battlefield and route of Imam Hussein so I decided to make a display of it. Mohamedali Rashid helped me out and so many others helped out bringing the toy camels, small tents, making the river Furat, I would spend literally 2 days sitting outside the mosque at Bayview making that display until it was ready. Then after the day of Ashura on Shame Ghariba we did a ceremony where we burnt the tents. It helped people imagine what it looked like in Karbala.
I’ve also done so many plays about Karbala. The first one was about Bibi Zainab’s khutba in the bazaar of Sham and how she spoke to Yazid. I always felt the visual has more of an effect on the minds of the young. When you see something, you will not forget. When you hear it, it’s different. When you see it, it will stay with you for a very long time.
I always had this passion about doing something creatively, I don’t know whether I’ve lost this now but I know whatever I could do in my young age I did what I could do and I thank Allah for giving me the Tawfiq, it was not me, it all came from Allah SWA and I pray He accept it as it was done for Him. It’s Allah who guides us.

Question 8: For West and Hamilton interviewees what do you remember of the first few years at Selby and ? How did you contribute?