Lessons from a treasured grandfather

Hussein Hamdani

One year ago, someone special died, and I am still coming to grips with the loss.

After battling cancer, my grandfather, Hussein Abdulla Hamdani (my namesake), passed away on July 10, 2008.

In Arabic, the word for treasure is the same root word for grandparent.

In other words, there is an understanding in the Arabic culture that a grandparent should be seen and treated as a priceless treasure: a source of wisdom, insight and good judgment.

I would like to dedicate the next two columns to my grandfather, share what some of his wisdom and teachings were to me, and hopefully, this will benefit readers.

I cannot possibly capture in these short columns all or even most of my grandfather’s profound accomplishments, but I will try to highlight a few life lessons for the reader’s benefit.

Even though this story is unique, it is not that far off from the stories of countless immigrants and refugees who come to Canada looking for a better life.

My grandfather’s life story is quite inspiring.

His father left the small Yemeni village of Toudan in the province of Hamdan to settle in Kampala, Uganda, in East Africa.

In September 1922, my grandfather was born in Uganda (my father and I were also born in Uganda).

Both his parents died when my grandfather was a young man.

He was forced to take care of his brother without familial support.

The large Muslim community in Uganda provided some assistance and support, but for the most part, the two brothers had to survive on their own.

They took on menial jobs like repairing bicycles and delivering corn to the market in order to buy food and shelter.

He convinced an owner of a local poultry farm to let him work there, and eventually he purchased the farm.

He married my grandmother, and together they made a family of six boys and one girl.

In Africa, a large family means that you have more hands working on the farm.

The family was able to take the modest farm and turn it into the largest poultry farm in all of East Africa (a major accomplishment, since most of East Africa is farmland).

They were monetarily successful and compared to African standards, were very affluent.

He was very involved in the Muslim community, his family was doing financially well and things were looking bright for the family.

Unfortunately, the history of Africa is riddled with instability.

There was a military coup in Uganda, and an army general by the name of Idi Amin took over the country.

Amin was a delusional, irrational and strange man, and as time passed, because of Amin, Uganda spiralled toward catastrophe.

In 1972, Amin ordered all Asians, including Arabs and Indians, to leave Uganda (regardless whether they were citizens or if they could trace their connection to the country for generations) within 90 days.

Can you imagine having only 90 days to pick up all your belongings and to leave the country of your birth, not knowing where to go?

At the time, my grandparents had seven children, four daughters-in-law and six grandchildren (which included me).

They could not find a buyer for the farms because all potential buyers knew that in a short time, the farms would be vacated and they could take them over for free.

At the time, Pierre Trudeau was the prime minister of Canada.

Trudeau, in an example of Canadian generosity, sent Air Canada planes to Kampala to pick up as many Asian refugees as possible.

He promised to settle them in Canada.

My family was not on those flights, instead opting to move back to our ancestral home of Yemen.

However, Canada’s generosity was not forgotten, and a few years later, we applied and were accepted as refugees in Canada.

It is noteworthy that the Ugandan refugees brought in the early 1970s are the wealthiest immigrant community in Canada.

It was a great financial windfall for Canada to bring them here.

In my next column, I will discuss how my grandfather and his family — refugees from Uganda — struggled and thrived in Canada.

Freelance columnist Hussein Hamdani lives in Burlington, and works as a lawyer in Hamilton.