by Shenaz Kermalli in Toronto

Lynne Kutsukake’s The Translation of Love is as haunting as it is beautiful. Set in post-WWII Japan, the novel touches upon migration and identity issues as pertinent today as they were in 1946.

It is also a rare account of one of the most under-reported and darkest periods of Canadian history  when Japanese Canadians were categorized by the government as enemies and forcibly removed from their homes.

After the Japanese attack on a U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, the Canadian government ordered the removal of male Japanese Canadians from 18 to 45 years of age from the coast of British Columbia.

Those displaced were put in shoddy internment camps in B.C.’s interior and Alberta. Camps were often made of barns or animal stalls.

Others were deported to Japan. Some 23,000 people had their property confiscated and were detained without charge or trial.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Some 23,000 people had their property confiscated and were detained without charge or trial.[/quote]

Life in Occupied Japan 

This is the pulsing backdrop to Kutsukake’s plot: the story of 13-year-old Aya Shimamura’s repatriation to Japan with her father after her mother suddenly dies. 

But there is little respite in Tokyo. As her father works long hours, Aya is often left alone. At school, she is bullied for being a foreigner and speaking poor Japanese. 

Only one child, a feisty girl named Fumi Tanaka, befriends her – but only to enlist Aya’s perfect English skills to help her find her older sister who has mysteriously disappeared. 

Together, Fumi and Aya write a letter to General MacArthur, the American military commander who oversaw the U.S. occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1951. Theirs is one of many letters written by Japanese citizens seeking guidance in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and subsequent U.S. nuclear attacks on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Sending letters of hope 

The letters are remarkable in how they vividly capture the cultural norms – and oddities – of post-war Japan. Topics range from sugar shortages to the difficulty in obtaining train tickets; from the evils of prostitution to the high cost of soya sauce. 

General MacArthur himself never appears as a character in the book, perhaps adding to some of his mystique. Instead, readers are introduced to his trusty Japanese-American translator, Corporal Matt Matsumoto. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Some were not kind: ‘Get out Americans.’ Some letters were written in blood.”[/quote]

Matsumoto is reserved, almost stiff at times, but inwardly feels the heavy burden of every letter-writer he translates – not always accurately - for General MacArthur. 

“Most letters,” Matsumoto relates, “came in envelopes sealed shut with sticky rice glue, but some were rolled up like scrolls and tied with string. Others were folded so many times they looked like strange forms of origami. Some were not kind: ‘Get out Americans.’ Some letters were written in blood.” 

His reflections on the power of words are poignant. At times, they are chillingly reminiscent of the desperation seen in the faces of Syrian refugees today, who take unimaginable risks to travel to European countries for a better life. 

“It was frightening how many people were writing,” Matsumoto laments upon receiving yet another mountain of letters. “Awe-inspiring, but frightening. Such faith in the power of written supplication, such faith in the power of words. There it was, a gigantic mountain of hope.” 

Matsumoto’s colleague is also an enigmatic character. Nancy Nogami is a cheery Japanese-American typist impatiently waiting to return to the U.S. and seems to take a liking to Matsumoto – or at least an appreciation for his down-to-earth, subdued persona, which contrasts sharply with the boisterous American GIs (a military term for American soldiers). 

Like Aya, Matsumoto and Nogami’s characters struggle with the complexities of their Japanese-American and Japanese-Canadian identities. It’s interesting to see how Aya and Nogami, upon meeting, immediately develop a sisterly kinship – a reflection of just how much easier it is for second-generation immigrants to identify with each other than it is for them to assimilate with young people ‘back home.’ 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The exploitation of women in Japan is not a unique case.[/quote]

Abuse of women in conflict 

The gripping search for Fumi’s ‘missing’ older sister, Sumiko, through dance halls, the black market, and the dark corners of Love Letter Alley - where Japanese women go to get notes from GI boyfriends translated - is perhaps what keeps readers most intrigued. 

Over time, Fumi realizes that Sumiko, like thousands of other Japanese young women at the time, felt compelled to leave home and make a living in Japan’s high-collar entertainment industry that began thriving in light of its American ‘guests.’ Selected by a club manager from a ration line in 1946, Sumiko didn’t accept the job offer immediately. 

“It wasn’t until Fumi developed beriberi and required special injections their parents couldn’t afford that she brought out the business card he had given her,” Kutsukake writes. 

The exploitation of women in Japan is not a unique case. Over and over in post-conflict societies, women and girls fall prey to sexually exploitative situations – illegal or otherwise – that often save their families from impoverishment. 

It’s a phenomenon that thrived in post-war Japan, flourished in post-Saddam Iraq under U.S. occupation, and is growing on the battlegrounds of Syria today. 

At its core, The Translation of Love is a story as much about pride and dignity in the face of oppression and humiliation as it is about the dark effects of discrimination, poverty and war.

Shenaz Kermalli is a freelance writer and journalism instructor at Humber College. She holds an MA Middle Eastern Studies and has previously worked at BBC News in London, Al Jazeera English and CBC News. 

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Books

Commentary by Shenaz Kermalli in Toronto

Followers of Islamic State (IS) or Al Qaeda may never admit it, but the election victory of Sadiq Khan as mayor of a city as great  and in their eyes Islamophobic  as London was a slap in the face.

Like the time Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Germany would welcome one million Syrian refugees, and when the Pope called on Europe’s Catholics to open their homes to refugees, Islamists are at risk of losing all credibility.

The success of these extremists, after all, thrives on disproportionate military reprisals, sectarian discord, and deeply engrained Islamophobia in Western societies. So the mere thought of a Muslim winning (Khan was born to parents who immigrated to London from Pakistan) over the most hearts and minds of a non-Muslim population, or of Christian ‘infidels’ opening up their homes to Muslims, challenges their narrative.

It’s worth recalling that a big part of ISIS’s recruitment strategy is posting lectures and videos online with  ideologues dictating that killing the enemies of Islam— meaning the United States and its allies — is a religious duty for every Muslim. Often, they cite U.S. military action in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel as evidence of America’s strategic ‘war’ with Islam. They also play on the insecurities of young recruits by telling them that Muslims in the West would never be accepted into mainstream society.

And given the rise of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump – and increase of far-right parties coming to power across Europe — it’s not impossible to see how vulnerable, disaffected youth could fall into that sort of warped mindset.

2005 London bombings

But while Trump anti-Muslim rhetoric has never been louder, so too have the voices of ordinary Muslims, though not necessarily in the way one might expect.

Many Canadians will remember the anger, confusion and backlash that Muslims, South Asians — literally anyone who even remotely resembled a Muslim or Arab -- faced from their own friends, neighbours or colleagues after the September 11, 2001 attacks in America. A deep climate of mistrust against the community ensued, which for some only gets worse with every new terror attack on Western soil.

I recall that it was amid this climate that Sadiq Khan first entered the political scene in Britain as an elected MP for Tooting in east London. 

As a graduate student in London in 2005, the year four British-born Muslims bombed the London Underground, I heard pundits all wanting to know the same thing: Where are all the so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims? Why aren’t all the so-called peace-loving Muslims living in London condemning these barbaric attacks?

I also heard voices like Sadiq Khan and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi (then the Vice Chair of the Conservative Party) fiercely condemn the attacks and disassociate them with the actual tenets of the faith, to no avail.  As much as people demanded answers from the Muslim community— and Muslims responded in the same unequivocal voice of condemnation every time – it made no difference. The terrorists still seemed to be louder. 

11 years on

What’s changed, 11 years on? Some would argue nothing.

Terrorists continue to slaughter innocents and billionaire conservative politicians continue to incriminate an entire global community for the abhorrent actions of a few. What has changed in the most profound sense is that Muslims are no longer seen (or at least solely) as a fifth column.

The voice of the ordinary, ‘moderate’ Muslim is heard more than ever — not as spokespeople who can denounce the ways terrorists justify their acts through the Quran — but as engaged citizens and leaders paving the way forward in a world that we all want to become more inclusive and tolerant. 

Last year, we saw Canadian Muslims unite strategically for the first time in a non-partisan, grassroots organization to achieve a single goal: Increasing the participation of Canadian Muslims within the democratic process.

This, along with the opposition’s crude anti-Muslim strategy not unlike Zac Goldsmith, Sadiq Khan’s competitor from the UK Conservative Party, played a key role in bringing Justin Trudeau’s pro-immigration party to power.

Drop ‘Muslim’ descriptor

We’ve also seen Maryam Monsef, who came to Canada an as Afghan refugee, sworn in as Minister of Democratic Institutions in Trudeau’s cabinet, and Ginella Massa, a hijab-clad journalist, become an on-camera reporter for Toronto news network CityTV. 

Britons, too, have seen a rise in British Muslims taking centre stage, from national baking contests to professional sports.  

None of these people ever condemned the abhorrent actions of the so-called Islamic State during their moments in the spotlight, simply because it wasn’t their place. They are all skilled professionals or athletes in their own right, recognized as Muslims, but celebrated for their extraordinary skills that contribute to all of society. 

That’s the way it should be.

Muslims are no different from anyone else, and for that reason, their successes should be commended no more, nor less than anyone else’s. Perhaps, the next step in fostering genuine equity in society is for news outlets to drop the ‘Muslim’ reference altogether.

Shenaz Kermalli is a freelance writer and journalism instructor at Humber College. She holds an MA Middle Eastern Studies and has previously worked at BBC News in London, Al Jazeera English and CBC News. 

Published in Commentary

by Shenaz Kermalli in Toronto 

Hossein is a 10-year-old Iraqi orphan with long hair, big olive-coloured eyes and a shy smile. He loves going to school and playing soccer. He also loves visiting his Canadian dentist for annual check-ups. 

Hossein’s dentist is one of 51 volunteers who fly into Iraq every spring to provide free dental care. 

Armed with colouring books, games and iPads – to entertain the children while they wait for their turn – the dentists come fully equipped to carry out everything from oral health instruction to preventative care, including fissure sealants, extractions and stainless steel crowns. 

Toronto dentist Jaffer Kermalli* has been treating Hossein for several years. “His long hair hides scars from a bomb blast he was in,” Kermalli shares. “He came back to us [this year] and specifically wanted us to fix a broken front tooth and take away the pain from another tooth in his mouth.”

Kermalli recently went on his fifth trip to Iraq with Global Kindness Foundation (GKF), a Vancouver-based charitable organization that takes two trips every year to provide medical, dental and optical services to countries in need due to war and poverty. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“To see the state of these children and how much they struggle; it puts all my first-world problems into perspective.”[/quote]

A passion project 

In 2015, GKF took its dental mission to Iraq and Kenya. In the past, the organization (members pictured) also travelled to Peru, India and Tanzania. 

The 33-year-old dentist calls it his “passion project.” 

“I plan my year around the GKF trips, and over the years have become more active in helping organize supplies and train volunteers. It gives me focus throughout the year, and is my ‘reset,’” he says. “To see the state of these children and how much they struggle; it puts all my first-world problems into perspective.” 

The children they treat are generally thrilled to see them – notwithstanding the usual anxiety that comes with dental visits. 

For many, it means the first time ever sitting in a dentist’s chair, or holding a toothbrush. The lack of basic awareness is a direct outcome of living in both a war-torn country and refugee camps, where dental care is scarce or not available at all. 

Many non-dental volunteers have also joined the group, along with several opticians and physicians. The non-medical volunteers are assigned roles like screening the children in the waiting areas, occupying the children while they wait for their appointment and assisting the dentists. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]For many, it means the first time ever sitting in a dentist’s chair, or holding a toothbrush.[/quote]

Shahina Rahim, an IT executive at the Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto, joined GKF for a second time this year. 

“I wanted to make a small difference to the lives of the children,” she says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about them and wanted to come back and help.” 

This time, though, she took a few Arabic classes in Toronto before leaving in order to help overcome the language barrier. 

Meeting many needs 

Additional medical and optical camps were also set up, seeing more than 1,000 children over two weeks. Many were referred to specialists. 

“One child had a case of congenital heart defect which had gone untreated and required surgery,” recalls Vancouver dentist and GKF founder, Dr. Hasnain Dewji (pictured).  

“There were also some cases of severe psychiatric conditions, so a referral to a local psychiatrist was arranged. Two other boys needed growth-hormone therapy. We are trying to determine the cost of therapy and see if we can raise the funds needed.” 

The two opticians in the group also flew in from Vancouver, and determined that at least 60 of the children they saw required corrective lenses. The charity arranged for the eyeglasses to be made in Tanzania and delivered for free to Iraq. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"[The kids] have aspirations, optimism and hopes and dreams like all of us.”[/quote]

Kids are kids 

The dental mission to Iraq started on March 19 and ended April 1. GKF is already recruiting its next set of volunteers to travel to Bhavnagar, India, in December. 

For Rahim, the hardest part of her trip to Iraq was witnessing the social remnants of war – the beggars, the children in wheelchairs and the sheer poverty. 

“For many of the kids, you can see the poverty through hygiene, dirty or worn clothes, and shoes or sandals that don't fit them.”  

But none of that seemed to stop them from smiling, laughing and dreaming, she adds. 

“My encounter with the kids has been a wonderful one. They have aspirations, optimism and hopes and dreams like all of us,” she says. 

“Kids are kids after all, no matter what part of the world they live in.” 

*Source is not related to the author.

{module NCM Blurb} 

Published in Health

by Shenaz Kermalli in Toronto

Every day, we see pictures and videos of families desperately crossing the sea to escape war and poverty back home. Hundreds of refugees are interviewed and photographed arriving on Western soil with nothing except what they can carry. 

Sometimes, they are greeted with open arms. Often, with animosity. 

The literary fiction world has jumped on board with what the United Nations calls “the worst humanitarian disaster since the Cold War.” 

That’s not to say that fiction writers are sensationalizing or capitalizing on human suffering. It's quite the opposite – they are sharing these stories in a way that helps us make sense of the world. 

Good fiction, after all, invites us to discover what it is like to be someone else entirely. 

Canadian author Lawrence Hill’s latest book about a refugee marathoner running for his life (literally) and trying to survive in a wealthy island nation falls beautifully into this category. 

Hill’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. 

The Illegal was released in Canada on Sept. 1 of this year, the same day Germany revealed it had registered more than 3,500 refugees from Syria in one day alone. The next day, the British far-right populist leader, Nigel Farage, warned that the European Union had opened the door to an “exodus of biblical proportions.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Hill draws upon themes of racism and political oppression to capture the plight of undocumented migrants today.[/quote]

Enter the fictional world of Zantoroland

Like his earlier work, the award-winning international bestseller The Book of Negroes, Hill draws upon themes of racism and political oppression to capture the plight of undocumented migrants today. But that’s really where the similarities end. 

Set in 2018, The Illegal depicts two fictitious island countries situated in the Indian Ocean between Africa and Australia. 

Zantoroland is tiny, poor and black, with corrupt leaders that regularly sanction torture and killings of dissidents. Just 15,000 km north of Zantoroland is its polar adversary – or so it seems. Freedom State is rich and white, and led by a government as ruthless, as it is impressive. 

The lead character, and hero, of this story is Keita Ali, a quietly determined professional runner from Zantoroland. 

After Keita’s journalist father is publicly executed in the country’s infamous town square for probing too deeply into the government’s alleged dealings with Freedom State, Keita signs on with the notorious marathon agent Anton Hamm and escapes into neighbouring Freedom State. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Zantoroland represents the impoverished failed states that so many refugees today flee from.[/quote]

But the wealthy island nation, for all its economic prosperity and democratic, independently-run institutions, is just as determined to rid the country of potential threats: Freedom State is in the midst of an intense campaign to deport all undocumented ‘illegals’ like Keita back home to Zantoroland, where they would face certain death. 

In his bid to survive, Keita comes across a host of eccentric characters – from Ivernia Beech, a spirited old woman who breaks library policy to issue new cards to undocumented refugees and Lula DiStefano, the fiery madam of the community’s infamous brothel and caretaker of Freedom State’s teeming refugee population, to Rocco Calder, the blue-eyed recreational marathoner and Freedom State’s dispassionate immigration minister. 

Zantoroland not unlike real world

What makes The Illegal fascinating is, of course, that the fictitious world Hill creates isn’t really fictitious at all. The plot is peppered with cultural references to today’s modern institutions. 

Amnesty International is called to save Viola, a reporter from Freedom State who gets imprisoned in Zantoroland during an assignment, Keita’s father collaborates with a journalist from The New York Times before his murder, and Tim Hortons is referenced as “the cheapest coffee chain in the world … popularized a continent away.” 

Any work of fiction that adopts Tim’s coffee into its setting can never make a Canadian reader feel too disconnected. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]With swift grace and provocative moral questions, The Illegal does well in making us remember the forgotten that live among us.[/quote]

On a deeper level, the world Hill creates reflects strong parallels with today’s universe. 

Zantoroland represents the impoverished failed states that so many refugees today flee from: Syria, Libya and Somalia, among others. Freedom State, of course, represents us – the democratic countries of the West that at times appear sympathetic to the plight of refugees, while simultaneously using underhanded (or blatant) means and rhetoric to keep them as far away from us as possible. 

U.S. Republican candidate Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from the U.S. is perhaps the most recent example of this, but leaders across Europe and North America have generally expressed fear and reluctance to open their doors – Germany being the exception. 

With swift grace and provocative moral questions, The Illegal does well in making us remember the forgotten that live among us. 

One example of this, in Hill's narration, is when Keita arrives at a bank in Freedom State and is refused permission to open an account: “[The banker] extended a thick hand. It was a hand that had been strengthened by a gym membership and fed by hot cereal in the morning, lunch at midday and meat every night. 

“Keita reached for the obligatory shake, but to him, the banker’s cold palm felt like a wall. The wall had a door, and the door had a lock, and the lock needed a key. Some people had keys to this world, but Keita was not one of them.”

Shenaz Kermalli is a freelance journalist specializing in geopolitics and an instructor at the Humber College School of Journalism. 

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Books
Wednesday, 08 April 2015 17:35

Iranian-Canadians Hopeful Over Nuclear Deal

by Shenaz Kermalli (@ShenazKermalli)

Diplomacy smiles, declared a Tehran newspaper last Friday, hours after Iranian state television broadcasted the speech of the American president live for the first time in Iran’s revolutionary history. Car horns honked, people stood atop their sunroofs and waved Iranian flags, and text messages thanking Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif flooded social media and Viber, one of the most popular instant messaging apps in Iran. The details of a framework nuclear accord between the U.S. and Iran had been confirmed, and people across Iran – and the world – seemed jubilant.

In Canada, messages of joy were also shared among the Iranian community. Sauber Mojtahedy, an Iranian-Canadian optician, chuckles as he recalls greeting the local Imam at a Pickering, Ontario mosque last week. “I went to congratulate the Imam (who is Pakistani) after the prayer and he said, ‘I have to say congratulations to you!’” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"As a kid growing up in Iran the very first thing I learnt about America was how to make the U.S. flag so we could either set it on fire or step on it as we walked from the school yard to the classrooms." - Hannah Tabatabae[/quote]

“It’s great for the world and for Iran because the sanctions have badly affected businesses and the economy,” says Mojtahedy.

Hannah Tabatabae (pictured left), a 29-year-old Iranian-Canadian working towards becoming an architect, was also excited about the development. “I was very hopeful but didn’t see it coming so fast,” she says. “I was surprised even when they decided to sit at a table to negotiate in the first place because for many, many years, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s politics were against any sort of talk or negotiations with the West. Things were in the wrong direction for many years.”

Tabatabae immigrated to Toronto eight years ago, after completing her architecture degree from Azad University in Tehran. Her memories growing up in Iran in the first decade after the revolution, where hostility between the two countries was at its peak, left a lasting imprint. “As a kid growing up in Iran the very first thing I learnt about America was how to make the U.S. flag so we could either set it on fire or step on it as we walked from the school yard to the classrooms. I was seven years old and had no idea why were doing this or what it meant. 

“Meanwhile, I also thought America had lots of tasty chocolate and other amazing things, as my aunt would bring me things from there. So I had mixed feelings about it. But then I travelled there when I was a teenager and everything has changed in my mind since then.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Harper has cut relations with Iran. He has isolated Canada from the world because he favours policy that is favourable to Israel, but not to Canada.” - Sauber Mojtahedy[/quote]

The nuclear deal is a step in the right direction, Tabatabae says. And if relations continued to improve between Tehran and Washington, she would even contemplate re-locating. “I would definitely consider moving back to Iran – not because things are already better, [but] because at least we are in the correct direction. [Iranian] President Rouhani was not the ideal candidate, but we have to work with what we have and make the best out of it.”

Iran-Canada Ties

For Mojtahedy, the nuclear accord is not so much as a step forward in terms of political reform, as it is recognition that Iran is a powerful regional player committed to peace. “Iran is not interested in creating a nuclear bomb,” he says, quoting a religious edict issued by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei forbidding the production and use of a nuclear bomb. “It only wants to produce nuclear energy for domestic use, like Canada does – for running power plants, electricity and other nuclear technology.” 

Like the U.S., the Canadian government has also held estranged ties with the government in Iran since Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979. Diplomatic ties worsened still in 2012 when Foreign Minister John Baird listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and expelled its diplomats from Canada, a move that angered many Iranian-Canadians – and thrilled Canada’s close ally, Israel.

“Harper has cut relations with Iran. He has isolated Canada from the world because he favours policy that is favourable to Israel, but not to Canada,” Mojtahedy argues, citing Canada’s support for Israel even during the country’s attack on Gaza last summer. “It’s undemocratic. As Muslims, we believe in moderation. All the [terrorist-related] problems in the world exist because of extremism – from Al Qaeda, from Islamic State and from Israel in their treatment towards the Palestinians. 

“If you want to have real peace in the world, we need to oppose extremism and support peace and moderation,” he adds. 

‘Nothing has Changed’

Not everyone feels the winds of change in Tehran and Washington though. An Iranian-Canadian businessman (who did not want to disclose his name), who founded a company in Toronto 20 years ago, after working under both the Shah and Khomeini, says nothing has really changed. 

“Rouhani, Ahmadinijad (Rouhani’s predecessor), they are all puppets in a harsh religious regime – a regime with only one man in power.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"Most people in Iran have been living under pressure of sanctions and religious laws so they easily get excited over any sign of relief.” - Iranian-Canadian[/quote] 

He points to the deep mistrust held by both countries since Iran’s revolution. “The way the United States and the West treated Iran and its allies in the Middle East has left no room for the Iranian regime to seek a better or long-lasting relationship with them,” he says. 

“Iran also understands that Russia and China have a better history of supporting their allies. Take a look at [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad, who is still in power after three and a half years of domestic war in Syria, even after Hillary Clinton said ‘Assad’s days are numbered,’ three years ago. Most people in Iran have been living under pressure of sanctions and religious laws so they easily get excited over any sign of relief.” 

People in Iran are being “bombarded” with news of victory by government-controlled media. When they find out that nothing is going to change, depression will ensue, he adds.

Despite the skeptics, others say those small signs of relief are a sure sign of a better future. “There are always reasons to be sad, but throughout years of isolation and sanctions, we learned to enjoy and celebrate the smallest sparkles of hope,” says Tabatabai. She quotes the great Persian poet Omar Khayyam: “Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.”

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Top Stories

by Shenaz Kermalli (@ShenazKermalli)

When Michelle Chagpar, an information technology professional from Toronto, told her employers she was taking two weeks leave to travel to Iraq to carry out humanitarian work, they were more than a little taken aback. “They were very surprised,” she says. “But just before leaving, I mentioned it to a client and they asked how they could get involved. For the most part, that’s been the reaction from people.” 

Concern over Canadians visiting Iraq right now is far from misplaced. With the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and Iraqi forces still battling over control of Tikrit, and dozens of foreigners – from charity workers to journalists – kidnapped and killed on a daily basis, Iraq remains highly dangerous, particularly for Westerners. Only a handful of international charities remain in the country.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“We are so blessed, especially in Canada, that we need to give back as much as possible.” - Dr. Hasnain Dewji[/quote]

The volunteers from the BC-based charity Global Kindness face an even greater threat. Most of them belong to the Shia sect of Islam – the minority group that has been targeted most brutally by ISIS. ISIS fighters believe that the Shias are heretics and must die in order to forge a pure form of Islam. While Yazidis, Turkmen, Christians and the country’s other minorities have also been singled out, the risk to Shia Muslims is far more widespread. Last year, ISIS claimed on Twitter that it had killed at least 1,700 Shias in one month alone.

But that hasn’t stopped Vancouver dentist Dr. Hasnain Dewji from venturing on a high-risk mission to Iraq with Global Kindness, which he founded in 2002. The charity takes at least two trips each year to provide medical, dental and optical services to people in impoverished countries. It has run missions in Iraq before, but not since the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq in June 2014. 

500 Children Treated

This year, 24 Canadians, including nine dentists, an orthodontist, a periodontist, a paediatric dentist and nine other trained volunteers, joined the mission. They left Canada for the southern city of Najaf via Turkey on March 19 and so far have treated about 500 children, most of whom are orphans, in the southern cities of Kazmain, Kerbala and Najaf. Treatments range from preventative care in the form of fissure sealants to fillings, extractions and stainless steel crowns.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Some of their stories are heart-wrenching. One of the kids we saw last time was known to never smile or laugh. He told me he was sitting in his dad’s lap when his dad was shot dead.” - Dr. Hasnain Dewji[/quote]

“We are so blessed, especially in Canada, that we need to give back as much as possible,” Dewji says. “And the people we help are very appreciative. They tell us that very few people are willing to give their time and skills, and that being treated with dignity and compassion is something they don’t see often.”

“Some of their stories are heart-wrenching,” he adds. “One of the kids we saw last time was known to never smile or laugh. He told me he was sitting in his dad’s lap when his dad was shot dead.”

“I fixed his teeth... But I couldn’t get him to smile.”

Volunteers Impacted Forever

Volunteering overseas is something the Ugandan-born dentist feels so strongly about that he’s turned it into a family experience. His nine-year-old daughter happily joined the Iraq mission this year. “She likes playing with the kids and giving them the gifts we bring for them after their treatment,” says his wife, and fellow volunteer, Fatemah. Their four other children have also joined Global Kindness on previous trips to Cambodia, Peru and Haiti.

For Chagpar (pictured to the left), a vice-president at a software company, a humanitarian dental mission abroad initially felt far out of her comfort zone. But the Iraq trip this year marks her fourth mission with the charity and she says she comes back to Canada feeling inspired each time. “One time we treated a boy with long hair,” she recalls. “In Iraq, the boys all have really short hair, so it was a bit odd to see. After inquiring, we learnt that the boy has been injured in a bomb blast and had extensive scarring, hence the long hair. Whenever I feel down, or like I’ve lost focus on what’s important, I think of him. Even after everything he had been through he would still be laughing.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“You could see the devastation on the country side the war has caused, but you could also see how these people are trying to overcome it. They are slowly, but surely, rebuilding and that is an amazing thing to see.” - Michelle Chagpar[/quote]

Another pivotal moment for the group came during the long drive from Kazmain to Karbala with a driver who said he was a high-ranking soldier on leave from the army. “He pointed out areas along the way where the army had pushed back against ISIS,” says Chagpar. “You could see the devastation on the country side the war has caused, but you could also see how these people are trying to overcome it. They are slowly, but surely, rebuilding and that is an amazing thing to see – and you see that attitude in the orphaned children as well. They don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Twenty-one other volunteers from Global Kindness’ U.S., U.K. and Africa chapters joined the group on this mission. The Canadian volunteers will be returning on April 3.

{module NCM Blurb} 

Published in International

New Canadian Media provides nonpartisan news and views representing all Canadian immigrant communities. As part of this endeavour, we re-publish aggregated content from various ethnic media publishers in Canada in an effort to raise the profile of news and commentary from an immigrant perspective. New Canadian Media, however, does not guarantee the accuracy of or endorse the views and opinions contained in content from such other sites. The views expressed on this site are those of the individual writers and commentators, and not necessarily those of New Canadian Media. Copyright © 2019 All rights reserved