Hussein Hamdani tells the story of his family – Part 2 (From Yemen to Uganda to Canada)
Author: Hussein Hamdani
Source: The Spectator (Hamilton), July 23, 2009, p. A15
Original title: Baba left me a lifetime of lessons
Presentation of the author at the end of the article: Freelance columnist Hussein Hamdani lives in Burlington, and works as a lawyer in Hamilton.
Nothing shocks the system like a cold February Montreal winter night: the first thing my family experienced coming off a plane from Yemen.
They had never seen snow before and never felt -30 C weather. They must have wondered if Canada was worth it. However, there was no turning back then. There was not enough money to fly everyone back to Yemen; we had to make a life in Canada.
Eventually, all 18 of us lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Toronto. Although I was very young, I remember the family having to negotiate sleep-time arrangements. Half my uncles took night jobs, while the others looked for day jobs, so that not all of us were home at the same time.
We all called my grandfather “Baba” which has it roots in Arabic and Swahili for father. Baba was a farmer, and he felt that he had to get back on the land in order to feed his family. He made an appointment with a banker and demanded that the bank provide him a loan to buy a farm. Although Baba did not go to school past Grade 3 (he needed to quit school so he could work and support his brother and himself), he was the brightest and shrewdest businessman I ever met. (As a business lawyer, I have met many businessmen, but no one compares to Baba).
He taught himself eight languages, including English, and he familiarized himself with the language of business. Baba had no credit rating and no Canadian work experience, but he was determined and desperate. The banker must have seen the ambition in his eyes, and although on paper this loan looked problematic, it was provided. The family bought two poultry farms, one in Waterdown and the other in Fort Erie. To this day, the family is still loyal to the bank that provided the initial loans.
The farms turned profits within the first year. Eventually, the farms were sold and the proceeds went into other family-run businesses including dry cleaning, importing and exporting textiles, owning commercial and residential property. God has been generous to the family.
Baba once taught me a story about the Prophet Muhammad. It is narrated that the Prophet said: “Charity is prescribed for each descendant of Adam and Eve every day the sun rises.” He was then asked: “From what do we give charity every day?” The Prophet answered: “The doors of goodness are many … enjoining good, forbidding evil, removing harm from the road, listening to the deaf, leading the blind, guiding one to the object of his need, hurrying with the strength of one’s legs to one in sorrow who is asking for help, and supporting the feeble with the strength of one’s arms — all of these are charity prescribed for you.” He also said: “Your smile for your brother is charity.”
Baba’s point to me was that no matter how much money you may have or not have, real wealth is measured in your generosity and in good deeds. A generosity of spirit is more valuable, in the long run, than excess money in your pocket. He was a man of his word, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to Canadian charities and community groups. He established interest-free loans for newcomers who wanted to start business ventures in Niagara and Hamilton. He co-guaranteed bank loans so that people had money to start a business. He concentrated his donations in Canada because he was a proud Canadian. He knew first hand that Canada provided a home and shelter to his family, and he was determined to give back to his country.
When he died, over 1,000 people attended the prayer at the St. Catharines Mosque, a place of worship that he built and paid for, but then donated to the community. The Niagara police provided an escort to the Muslim burial site.
Many politicians and civic leaders paid their respects: they knew a great Canadian had passed away. The Ontario government awarded him the highest civic senior honour. My grandmother proudly accepted the award on his behalf.
Although it has been a year since Baba’s soul left this world to return to its creator, Baba’s life continues to teach us many lessons.
Some include: if we invest in refugees and immigrants, the results will be rewarding; the more you give, the more you gain — embrace a generous spirit and you will be wealthier; grandparents are treasures, if you can, spend time with them and learn from them; and we live in the greatest country on the face of the planet — we should thank God for this opportunity.