Part 2 of Sam & Saima: How Love & Hope Inspired Calgarians to Welcome Hundreds of Syrian Refugees
My initial encounter with Saima Jamal was at the silent auction portion of a fundraising dinner. My sister and I went back and forth with Saima; repeatedly outdoing each other’s bid. Quite a lot has happened in the four years from that initial encounter. Below is a brief look into the journey that Saima has embarked upon. The Saima I met who engaged in a friendly competition during a silent auction has now become the face of Canada to some of the 25 000 Syrian refugees that now call Canada their home.
I had the chance to interview Saima on November 4th 2016. For me, that day marked the end of another work week. For Saima, on the other hand, it was business as usual. She was getting ready for another packed day which included four back-to-back events. To the average Canadian it may seem like a hectic day, but it is just another day in the life of Saima Jamal. The journey that has brought her to this point is one worth exploring and it begins at the University of Calgary.
International Student Life
In her fourth year, a family tragedy helped light a fire inside Saima and an option class showed Saima where she could direct her passion. The former was the death of her father back in Bangladesh and the latter was a Development Studies class that Saima happened to take as a GPA booster. The death of her father put Saima in a very difficult situation- as she now found herself having to work 2 to 3 jobs in effort to save enough money to sponsor her mother and brother in Bangladesh. Although Saima had found her calling in the Development Studies class, Saima was nearly at the end of her degree and did not want to begin a new one in the Social Sciences.
Instead, Saima opted to graduate with a Bachelor of Science and began what was to be a career spanning over 15 years with the University of Calgary. Saima started as a Program Coordinator in the Community Health Sciences Program within the Cumming School of Medicine and then moved on to accept a position as the Program Manager for the Consortium for Peace Studies within the Faculty of Social Work. This particular experience exposed Saima to the importance of pursuing peace and stability in war torn countries. Saima truly believed that despite all the problems in the world, there was always a reason to remain optimistic and look for solutions.
By organizing and subsequently listening to speakers, students and activists engage in discussions about world affairs, Saima began to feel empowered that she could do something about the many issues that existed in the world. Some events that Saima helped organize include the Calgary Peace Prize, the inaugural Calgary Peace Run, a playwriting Competition around the idea of peace, “Peace Talks”, and several town halls during the Arab Spring and the beginning of the Syrian Conflict. It was through her work that Saima created the networks within the activist community that would help her to organize massive events and rallies for which she has become a household name. In addition, Saima learned how to mobilize people from all walks of life for a cause.
The end of this position reminded Saima of a bitter truth in our society, which she passed on to me, “War is more profitable than peace”, the position that had taught her so much had run out of funding
Just as one chapter closed in Saima’s life, another opened within her own Muslim Community. Several community leaders had noticed Saima’s growth and had identified her as a valuable asset to the Muslim community. These leaders asked Saima to be the Program Director for the Calgary Islamic Chamber Institute (CICI). Saima took the lead and the organization took off. The idea behind the CICI was to use a neutral platform like business to bring people from all walks of life to the same table. As far as Saima was concerned, money brings people together and it could also be used to not only unify, but enrich the Calgary community through the creation of networks and the exchange of ideas.
One unexpected but welcomed outcome of this initiative was the involvement of not just the same Muslims involved in many other groups within the Muslim community, but rather brought together those who did not identify much with the Muslim community. The business provided a platform for people (who may otherwise differ on theological issues) to get to know each other as people first. This It is much easier to disagree and ignore a stranger than it is to do the same to a friend. Although the response was fantastic in terms of attendance, the funds to sustain such a project eventually ran dry and Saima, once again, had no idea of what the future held for her. It was also at this time that many lawsuits were filed from one group of Muslims against another The disagreements became so out of hand that fantastic initiatives like the CICI fell through the cracks.
Turning Words into Action
Around the same time that the CICI’s funds were decreasing, the attacks on the Gaza Strip in Palestine were increasing. Saima felt devastated at the pictures and videos that were being broadcasted through social media. Something unique about this particular conflict that really moved Saima’s life into a new direction was the fact that people were looking to her for leadership and ways to react to such devastation halfway across the world. Saima took all of the knowledge, experience, and networks she had accumulated through her professional experiences and channeled them to organize massive rallies in front of the City Hall in Calgary. Calgary became well known in Canada for having a very loud voice that condemned the attacks in Gaza and naturally, news outlets kept a close watch for stories that could be told of the rallies.
Since this conflict has been and continues to be, such a polarizing issue, Saima had to assess the possibility that being this involved could have a very negative impact on her future professional goals. As difficult as it was, Saima opted to keep her conscience at peace rather than worry about her professional career. At one particular rally, a fight broke out and the demonstrators were held responsible for the incident.
In her own words, “Fear was not in my vocabulary because I felt we needed to change the narrative [regarding the fight]. I had not even arrived at the rally when the fight started. It was very unfair to blame the rest of the protestors for the actions of a few”.
Saima decided to fight back against news outlets who reported on the incident with a Facebook status of her own. The response that she received showed Saima just how much power and influence she had managed to gain through her efforts. Journalists called Saima and asked her why she had said what she did in response to their articles. Saima used these calls to give her side of the story to the journalists and while some became her friends and allies, continued to cover Saima’s activities in a negative manner. Weekly rallies were held for six straight weeks it was during this time that Saima found it very difficult to go anywhere and not be approached by someone who recognized and thanked her for her leadership in providing a platform for peace advocates in Calgary.
One of the connections that Saima had managed to create was with Dr. Arthur Clark, one of the founders of the Calgary Center for Global Community. Dr. Clark hired Saima to organize the “Social Capital Tournament” and encouraged Saima to make sure she pursued education and made it a life long journey. . The idea behind this was shed light on the different pockets within Calgary where volunteers were doing tremendous work. The eventual winner at the inaugural Social Capital Tournament up being a cause that Saima became well known for- the Syrian Refugee Crisis.
“Humanity Washed Ashore”
On September 2, 2015, the photo of the body of a drowned Syrian toddler made international headlines and sparked global outrage and empathy to the plight of the Syrians fleeing the conflict in their country. Canada’s response to this outrage was to pledge to bring 25 000 Syrian refugees to Canada. Praiseworthy as it was, that was simply the beginning of the long road to integration for many of these refugees. It was almost as if all of Saima’s previous experiences were simply to prepare her for this massive undertaking. Saima got involved with the Syrian Refugee Support Group, and organized groups of people to sponsor Syrian families and connected newly
arrived Syrians with people and resources in Calgary.
One of Saima’s favorite aspects of this whole experience has been the overwhelmingly positive response it received from the media in Calgary. Especially after news spread that Syrian refugees were helping Albertans who were displaced by the Fort McMurray fire. Saima began to receive calls from journalists abroad ranging from the United States to Germany The generosity of the Syrian refugees opened many people’s eyes and hearts. According to Saima, one of her favorite aspects of this story was the fact that was able to control the story that was presented and she finally feels that news outlets are reporting on issues important to her. Saima Jamal exudes faith and confidence even in simple conversations, because like she said, “I don’t want to tell people I’m Muslim, I want to show it.”
Saima’s current focus is on specific causes and does her best to stay away from the political disputes that are very prevalent in the Muslim community. She emphasized that her message to the Muslims in Calgary is simply this: “Stop fighting, there are many other, bigger, problems for us as a community to worry about!”