Memories of a Ugandan Refugee: Ismaili Lawyer and Leader Jalal Jaffer Pens His Encounters of Hope from Kampala to Vancouver

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Memories of a Ugandan Refugee: Encounters of Hope from Kampala to Vancouver by Jalal Jaffer, Q.C.
316 pp. FriesenPress
US$ 29.99 (Hardback), US$ 19.99 (Paperback) and US$ 6.99 (eBook) as listed at FriesenPress; also available in all formats at Amazon.ca, and as a Kobo eBook at Indigo.ca (CDN $7.99).

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(We acknowledge, with thanks, the permission of the author Jalal Jaffer to reproduce the following foreword to his book — Ed.)

Foreword to “Memories of a Ugandan Refugee”

By FAROUK MITHA

“For Canadian Ismaili Muslim readers, Jalal has performed an invaluable service by writing this autobiography. It is an eyewitness account of how Ismaili communities established roots and built institutions from 1970s onward. Much of this historical record will soon be lost if it is not preserved. In this light, Jalal’s autobiography will become an important reference work when the history of Canadian Ismaili Muslims is written”

It is 1965 and Jalal Jaffer is on an airplane for the first time. He is flying from Kampala to London, to begin his University studies, and while airborne, he movingly describes his oscillating emotions:

“I stared out of the small window as the plane took off, anxious but not fearful, watching the flickers of light diminishing as the plane climbed higher above the clouds… I was leaving behind a world that I knew, a world of family and friends, a world that had nurtured me, and now entering a new world that I knew little about, a world without family, a world in which I would have to find new friends, a world in which I would live on my own…  However, I did not have the slightest doubt about my purpose in pursuing higher education in London. I had an absolute obligation to help support my family and to take care of their financial needs. It was critical that I studied hard, completed my education and came back home. My family needed me… Besides, the financial support through the Imam’s [Ismaili Community] bursary program undoubtedly imposed additional expectations that I was obligated to fulfill. After completing my education, I would not only support my family, but also give back to the Jamat the benefit of my knowledge, my experience and wisdom.”

Human stories of departures and arrivals are not new, yet this vividly rendered autobiography carries the reader along with Jalal on a momentous, unpredictable journey across continents with unforgettable lessons in the art of living. Jalal captures not only the journey of an individual, but through the arc of his dramatic life he offers rich insights into the life/worlds of Ugandan South Asian communities, particularly communities who have been shaped by multiple migrations and experiences of statelessness. The above, prescient passage contains in a compressed way salient themes running through this autobiography, namely, tensions negotiated by Jalal between individual aspirations and demands of family duties; between emotional uncertainties accompanying experiences of cultural change and intellectual excitement accompanying experiences of cultural discovery; and perhaps most poignantly, between the struggle to nurture deep faith commitments for his inner life as an individual Ismaili Muslim and yet to equally nurture his commitments for a public life of active community service and to the legal profession in Canada.

“What has stayed with me indelibly after reading this book, is Jalal’s passionate voice. It is the voice of a passionate optimist, rooted in love for his faith traditions and for his spiritual guide, Hazar Imam, the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslim community”

Memoirs of a Ugandan Refugee Jalal Jaffer Ismaili author
“Memories of a Ugandan Refugee” by Jalal Jaffer, 316 pp., FriesenPress, First Edition 2022.

I have known Jalal for almost three decades and in many ways see him as an exemplary mentor for the generation of Ismaili Muslims who, like me, migrated to Canada as teenagers in the early 1970s. For me the most enduring lessons from his life story reside in his example of self-belief and in his tireless curiosity. Jalal’s steely determination is palpable on almost every page, whether recounting his courageous response to a tragic, freak accident while playing at a neighborhood construction site in Kampala at the age of 6, which led to permanent disfigurement of his left arm; or when recounting how he and his wife, Shamshad, literally escaped out of Uganda in 1972, dodging one military checkpoint after another on the road to Entebbe airport, and finally departing with only two suitcases and fifty British pounds each; or when recounting that after several dead-end job opportunities in Toronto, he hunkers down and completes a law degree at UBC and is called to the Bar in 1978, while, remarkably, at the same time working as a full-time realtor in Vancouver and devoting most evenings serving voluntarily as a senior community leader for recently arrived Ismaili communities across Canada. These and many other continuing transitions in Jalal’s life are narrated in these pages. Fast forward to 2016, and the fact that he is awarded the title of Q.C. (Queen’s Counsel) by the Government of BC for his record of professional integrity and exceptional service as a lawyer – is a telling marker of how far Jalal has travelled by dint of hard work and as a selfless leader.    

For Canadian Ismaili Muslim readers, Jalal has performed an invaluable service by writing this autobiography. It is an eyewitness account of how Ismaili communities established roots and built institutions from 1970s onward. Much of this historical record will soon be lost if it is not preserved. In this light, Jalal’s autobiography will become an important reference work when the history of Canadian Ismaili Muslims is written. In several chapters, there is significant archival material presented, excerpted from newspapers and his journal entries. Indeed, this autobiography makes an important contribution to the emerging archive of post-World War II, non-European migration into Canada.

What has stayed with me indelibly after reading this book, is Jalal’s passionate voice. It is the voice of a passionate optimist, rooted in love for his faith traditions and for his spiritual guide, Hazar Imam, the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslim community. Equally, it is the voice of a passionate family man, whose love for his wife, two sons and extended family is an abiding source of his happiness. This passionate voice comes across immediately in the many poems included in this book — poems written by Jalal across different stages of his life. By my lights, these four lines convey the kernel of Jalal’s life-affirming outlook:

We are not a wave
Only a tiny part
Of the mighty sea.
Indeed, we are the sea!

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A Review of Memories of a Ugandan Refugee

By ROBERT WILCOX SWEET

“Memories of a Ugandan Refugee” is quite simply a delight: rarely have I so enjoyed — or so benefitted from — a book. Anyone wishing to learn more about the Ismailis — that most magnificent and inspiring people — the expulsion of Asians from Uganda, and the great challenges emigrants face (particularly those who have had everything — their country, their community, their home and possessions, their job — taken from them), should read Jalal’s wonderful book. 

Why in particular I found his book so fascinating: most of what Jalal and his wife, Shamshad, went through is quite beyond my experience — and even my imagination. What also struck me — indeed, amazed me — is Jalal’s great bonhomie, his great good nature in the face of difficulties under which most of us would simply wilt. (How inspirational that is! My difficulties seem — and are — so very small in comparison.) To arrive penniless in a new country and achieve the success he has achieved, is little short of miraculous. (And yet, what does he do the moment he arrives in Canada?  He begins to give to, to help, others.) 

The German historian Christian Meier wrote that Julius Caesar “viewed difficulties simply as tasks.”  So, too, does Jalal. Better: Jalal views difficulties simply as adventures! The greatest compliment I can pay “Memories of a Ugandan Refugee” is that it is unique: I have never read another book quite like it.  I am exceedingly grateful to Jalal for having written this book, for having taught and entertained me. (On entertained: Jalal has the most delightful writing style, unfailingly cheerful and witty — almost effervescent — no matter the situation he is describing.) I so wish I belonged to a book group: how I would love discussing this book with my fellow readers!

(For more reviews of Jalal Jaffer’s book as well as his profile, please visit his website by clicking HERE — Ed.)

Date posted: May 16, 2022.
Last updated: May 17, 2022 (added book review by Robert Wilcox Sweet)

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Farouk Mitha, Ismaili scholar, Simerg
Farouk Mitha

Dr. Farouk Mitha, author of the foreword to “Memories of a Ugandan Refugee” reproduced above, is a lecturer and Research Affiliate in the Faculty of Education at University of Victoria, Canada. He is currently the Academic Director for the Postgraduate Research Fellowship Programme at Institute of Ismaili Studies. He has published in the area of medieval Islamic thought and on teaching Shakespeare, as well as on Canadian literature and Iranian cinema. His book, Al-Ghazali and the Ismailis: A Debate on Reason and Authority in Medieval Islam was published by I.B Tauris in 2001.

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Robert Wilcox Sweet, author of the review, studied history and literature at Oxford University as an English Speaking Scholar, and Arabic and history in Syria as a Fulbright Scholar; he holds two master’s degrees. He is Senior Philanthropic Advisor to Aga Khan University and the author of ” Life Fighting: Why We Must Sometimes Fight, and How to Do So Well.”

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Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos. Simerg’s editor Malik may be reached at mmerchant@simerg.com.

Roshan Thomas – Acting in the Path of God By Jalal Jaffer

ACTING IN THE PATH OF GOD

Roshan Thomas was among those who were killed in a terrorist incident in Kabul while she was celebrating the commencement of the Persian New Year, Navruz. She was buried earlier this week in Vancouver, where almost 2000 people from all walks of life attended her funeral at the North Vancouver Ismaili Jamatkhana.

Roshan Thomas was among those who were killed by terrorists in an incident in Kabul while she was celebrating the commencement of the Persian New Year, Navruz. She was buried earlier this week in Vancouver, where almost 2000 people from all walks of life attended her funeral at the North Vancouver Ismaili Jamatkhana.

By Jalal Jaffer

Acting in the path of God
Eliminates limitations, restrictions, conceptions
In pursuit of noble actions
To sustain, promote, achieve
Enhancement, progress, understanding
Amongst God’s most beautiful creation
The human being.

With clarity of mind
Determination against any odds
It was but natural
That Roshan picked a far-away geography
Hoping and pursuing and working towards
A change, some progress, any improvement
In a country, amongst a people
Engulfed in reactionary, ideological, meaningless
Battles and wars and human carnage
To what end, what purpose
Nobody could understand, far less explain
Where pre-historic level of crass ignorance
Animalistic behaviour, un-knowledge…prevailed.

Her commitment to her cause
To act in the path of God
Open the minds and hearts
Of the young and the old
Especially free the girls and women
From the yoke of servitude and worse
Through schooling, through learning, through education
A cause as noble as difficult
A place as harsh as promising
An activity as demanding as fulfilling.
Was solid and uncompromising.

Threats of violence and physical harm
Were ever present
Wise counsel to resist and desist
Came from all corners
None of this held her back
None of this affected her resolve
None of this dampened her spirits

Alas, the heartless ignoramus
A curse on human kind
Targeted her physical form…
Never realizing, never understanding
The spirit, earnestness, commitment
Residing in and within her
That would inspire, empower
Hundreds of new Roshans
More motivated, with greater commitment
To  rise, fight and complete
Her cause, her belief, her vision
For the whole world to watch and celebrate.

Copyright: Jalal Jaffer.

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About the author: Jalal Jaffer is a practising lawyer in Vancouver.

Related: To the Memory of Roshan Thomas and Zeenab Kassam by Navyn Naran