“We weren’t allowed to call ourselves Muslims."


In my community, religion is embedded into our lives. We don’t only learn religion, we live religion. We have a code of conduct, and giving back to the community is an integral part of it. I know that if I want to impart these values to my kids, I have to be practicing them in my everyday life. Words alone are not enough, you need action, too.

I belong to a very close-knit family and a very close-knit community. All four of us are community volunteers. Community gives you a sense of belonging. It also gives you a support system.  

When they say it takes a village to raise a child, we believe it. When my son was born, everyone was there to help me. He came to me for feeding, but one of his aunts took care of his bathing, another took care of his clothing, another his dipper changing, his sleeping.

You are there for others, and they are there for you. We cherish those family values and want to transfer them to our kids.

I’m so grateful to be in Canada, where I can raise my kids the way I want to. Where I am free to tell them about our teachings and they are free to make their own informed choices after.

My religious community, Ahmadi, is persecuted back home, in Pakistan. I love my country from the core of my heart and I respect my country. I am who I am because of my country, my culture, my language. But many of my country’s people don’t agree with our ideology.

We weren’t allowed to call ourselves Muslims. We weren’t allowed to tell our children about our teachings because if anyone found out, they could do anything to us, from the smallest thing like calling us names, to burning our houses down or murdering us. Anything. Not even the law could protect us.

So, we left Pakistan, like so many other members of our community.  

We had friends, we had family, we had a house, we had jobs. All those connections, all those ties, they were gone.

Making a choice willingly and making a choice because you are forced to are very different. When you’re forced to leave your country, everything feels far more difficult. Leaving those ties was the hardest. My Mom and Dad didn’t come with us at first, and we were really worried about them. Things can get nasty when people hate you.

We lived in the United Arab Emirates for six years, but you can’t become a citizen there, even if you marry an Emirati, even if three generations are born there. It’s such a small country and 82% of the people there are ex-pats, so they give residence, but not nationality.

We always knew we would have to move on. Going back to Pakistan was not an option, so we came to Canada.

We’ve been here ten years this April. The weather in Canada is very different, but I actually love the snow. I’m the first one to go out and do the snowploughing. I even do it for my neighbours, I love it so much. And here, we have community again.

Everybody knows everybody. Every month we all get together for a social event at the community centre –it’s all online now because of Covid. Even when everything shut down because of Covid, we were still there for each other. A member of our community needed a medication and reached out to the community for help. Another member drove from Vaughn to Milton and left it on her doorstep, because he got the message.

It’s a blessing.

It’s difficult to move to an entirely new place with such different beliefs, culture, language, and weather. Any time you come from a collectivist society to an individualist society, things are going to be different. Navigating that balance between respecting our own identities and respecting the different values of a new place is a daily task, but one that is worth navigating.  

Knowing that here I have rights, that I won’t be hated and discriminated against for my religion, I am thankful to both my Lord and this country for that. I am, now that I live in Canada, confident enough to let everybody know that I am an Ahmadi Muslim.  

--Attia tul Aleem, Social Service Worker Program

(Interviewed and written by Eugénie Szwalek)    
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