My whole life I have struggled with my identity, not really knowing where I fit in culturally. With roots in India, a three-generation stopover in Kenya and raised as a first-generation Canadian, things often got muddled. I have been subjected to blatant racism and subtle stereotypes.
Then the Gulf War broke out in the 90s, and suddenly even my religious identity was put to the test. Imagine having to defend yourself against your grade 7 school teacher who openly hated on Islam. He reduced me to tears in front of my entire class for trying to explain that the word Islam actually means "peace" and that real Muslims don't do the awful things that were happening at that time.
It was a tough task for a 12-year-old Indian Muslim girl to stand up for an entire group of people in front of her peers -- do you remember being 12? It was hard enough to transition to adolescence without someone (actually the Western media) trying to make me out to be someone I was not.
But through it all, I have been a proud Canadian. That is because I look past the one-offs, the bad seeds. That is because everything that comes with being Canadian -- honour, respect, integrity, kindness, generosity, pluralism, tolerance, acceptance -- are the values I strive to live and hold on to despite whatever I encounter.
The events in Ottawa on October 22, 2014 shook me and I will always remember the details of when I heard the news. I was standing outside the preschool waiting for my son's teacher to open the door when another parent said, "Oh, it's going to be a bad day..." I whipped my head over to where he was standing and asked, "What? Why?" I wasn't prepared for what he told me was happening on Parliament Hill.
And suddenly, I was in bed in the home I shared with a family in Orillia, Ontario. It was September 11, 2001 and the homeowner was banging on my bedroom door, yelling, "Wake up! Taslim, wake up!" I scrambled out of bed, reached for my glasses and ran out to the living room where she was glued to the T.V., her hand over her mouth.
When I saw the second tower come down, I thought, "Oh God. Please don't let this be someone claiming to be Muslim." You may wonder how I could even have space in my head for a thought like that while this was happening in real time -- I was watching innocent people jump to their deaths. It's because I was still that 12-year-old Indian Muslim girl who loved Canada, but was ever vulnerable to misinterpretation.
Snapping my thoughts back to the present outside the preschool, my gaze rested on the top of my son's head. And then I turned to his Chinese friend, and then his Indian friend, and over to his Caucasian friend. From child to child, my eyes moved, and filled with tears. Please let them always be like this, oblivious to their "differences."
Please let this not get ugly for them. None of the other parents were openly emotional, and I willed my tears not to fall. But it's who I am. I will always feel excessively for others, for the people on both sides of the guns. There are just so many victims. And with each awful occurrence like this, my children's world is being shaped. I try so hard to be religion-neutral, culture-neutral, gender-neutral, and then I send my kids "out there" and hope that nobody taints this tolerant world I am working so damn hard to create.
I just read that the mother of the gunman who was shot and killed yesterday stated that she is crying for the victims, not for her son. I choked on the enormous lump in my throat when I read those words, and this time I couldn't stop the tears. Please cry, Mom. Please cry for the life your son lost, not just when he was shot, but all the years that led up to it. For all the times he felt so alone that he was vulnerable enough to be preyed upon, please cry. For all the times somebody should have recognized a human in need and at least tried to help, please cry for him.
Decades after the Gulf War, I am no longer that trembling, dry-mouthed Indian Muslim girl standing before her peers begging, please don't judge me. I am simply a mother, standing before my country with a message: Canada, I have high expectations of you. I expect you to remain the country I have been proud of my whole life -- dignified, respectable, strong and open. Please continue to be everything I teach my children to be. Please remember who you are.
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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