Pakistani couple move family to Calgary for a brighter future

On a brisk Sunday afternoon Shahnaz Raja Abid sat in the passenger seat of the family car. She raised her index finger as if getting ready to scold someone, pointed it at her husband Raja who was driving and asked, “Are you happily married?” in a jokingly firm voice. “Yes, yes, very happy,” he answered. This was indeed the safest response, but it also felt incredibly genuine, considering their marriage had been arranged. But after spending an afternoon with them and witnessing the way they interacted with one another it became clear that they were very much in love. “We grew to love each other,” Shahnaz shared with me as she looked over at her husband with admiration. “We are extremely happy.”

The Pakistani couple moved to Canada in October 2011, to raise their adopted children and provide them with a better life and the chance to have a prosperous future.

Like Shahnaz’s family many Pakistanis have come to Canada. Statistics Canada showed in 2011, Pakistan was one of the top 10 birth countries of recent immigrants to Canada. The Calgary city census also shows 10,540 Pakistanis living in Calgary as of 2011.

While many come here, the transition isn’t always an easy one. As Shahnaz and her family have experienced, there are some things that require adjusting to.

Not always roses

Growing up, Shahnaz and Raja had met a few times on different occasions, as they were distant relatives. When Shahnaz was a college student Raja’s mom asked her mother for her hand in marriage and Shahnaz refused. The offers persisted a few more times and she continued to turn them down because she said, “I thought he argued too much.” When Shahnaz had completed college her mother pleaded with her to meet Raja one last time before turning down his request for her hand in marriage for good. To comply with her mothers’ wishes Shahnaz met with Raja and this time enjoyed his company so she agreed to marry him.

They were married on July 26, 1989 after being engaged for just over a year. One year after being married Shahnaz and Raja desired to start a family. They then struggled to get pregnant for eight long years.

“I remember now how it used to hurt every month when you found out that you were not pregnant when you were trying every month,” Shahnaz shared with pain in her voice.

Now sitting in her living room, our couch conversation became extremely somber in a sudden instance. “I’ve never talked about this, never, to anyone,” she told me and I realized how rare and special this vulnerable moment is. “Thinking back… oh gosh,” she began as her voice became heavier and her words began to break up, “it brings back all the hurt,” she finishes as she raises the tissue to her eyes in an attempt to stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks.

I offered to change topics but she assured me it’s fine and continued sharing. “It’s like falling down and getting up again with new hope each month. “In Pakistan it’s a different culture and people were very open about always asking us if we were pregnant yet. It’s hurtful.”

Shahnaz said, in Pakistan, not having children is a very big deal. Usually when a woman cannot have children the husband will move on and remarry. The fact that Shahnaz and her husband’s commitment to each other overruled this cultural norm is yet another testament to their love for each other.

Blessings in disguise

After years of disappointment their doctor ordered them to go on a holiday for a much-needed refresher. It was then that they decided to try something else.

“I always thought there has to be a reason for this, and now I know the reason. If we had had our own kids we would have never adopted and we would have never been blessed with these two children. I believe there is always a purpose for everything. Everything happens for a reason,” Shahnaz shared.

Shahnaz and Raja adopted their daughter Taskeen who had been abandoned at birth in November of 1997 when she was only one day old. Then in 2003, they were chosen out of 13 couples to be the parents of their now son Fakhar-Uz-Zaman who had also been abandoned at birth and was undernourished.

But adoption is understood a bit differently in Pakistan than how we understand it here.

Fayaz Tilly, Imam and religious leader of the Muslim community of Calgary said that there are certain rules or injunctions that Islam has established and legislated where taking in a child is concerned.

“The difference between adoption here in the West and adoption as per Islamic tradition is that the child won’t necessarily — from a legal perspective in Islamic law — be the biological child of the adoptive parents,” he said.

“Here in Canada when a person adopts a child, that child may inherit from their parents estates, rather in Islam they wouldn’t be able to inherit from the adoptive parents but it would be worded more as a bequeath rather than an inheritance.”

This means that the adopted children wouldn’t have rights to the inheritance but their parents could designate that it be passed on to them.

He then explained that there is a law on the amount allowed.

“According to Islamic law the adopted children could be bequeathed a maximum of 1/3 of their parents property, furthermore, they can receive unlimited gifts from their parents while their parents are living,” Tilly said.

Shahnaz was well aware of these facts as a result of working as the administrative program assistant to the Immigration Program Minister in Pakistan for just over five years. This weighed very heavily on her and her husband’s shoulders because like most parents they wanted to provide for their children and set them up for successful and prosperous futures. This was their main reason for choosing to move to Canada two years ago, in October of 2011. They knew that here, their children would have a better, secure future and that they would always be accepted as their children.

Cultural barriers

Shahnaz and her husband took me for a drive to the building site of their home in Calgary. Raja turned his head over his right shoulder and asked me, “What do you think about immigrants in Canada?” My first thought was that his reason for asking this question was perhaps because he was curious if my view would align with many of the stereotypes, or perhaps he felt misunderstood. He assured me that he was very happy living here but also dispelled what I think is a very common misconception —many new Canadian immigrants work in customer service jobs because they are under-qualified individuals. Raja is a prime example that disproves this misconception. Since they moved here two years ago, he has been working at 7-Eleven. In Pakistan however, he had received both a bachelors and masters degree and was working as a payroll supervisor and senior auditor.

When he came here he found out his schooling wouldn’t be recognized. He then faced the task of having to start over again. When he first learned this he felt extremely discouraged and feared he wouldn’t be able to do anything here.Selected for Habitat for Humanity, the couple is proud of their new home, which will be completed in February.

Photo by Sydney Karg

“One thing I feel is that when I came here I hadn’t been given a chance,” he says. “Why don’t they tell us in Pakistan how it works here,” he pondered aloud.

Along with these changes came a huge adjustment in their quality of life as a whole.

In Pakistan they lived a rather rich lifestyle, which changed drastically upon moving here. There they owned approximately 75 acres of land and owned two houses with servants. When they moved here, they moved into a small apartment in the city and found it was a struggle to pay rent and also save for their children’s futures.

That’s where Habitat for Humanity came in. Shahnaz’s only brother, who already lived here, told them about the opportunity to get help attaining a home. After researching the organization, they applied for a house through Habitat and were successful.

Shahnaz’s house is now in the process of being built and is expected to be completed in February 2014.

“Habitat for Humanity has played a tremendous role in giving us this hope as the satisfaction of having a house for your children gives us a sense of security,” Shahnaz said.

They left everything in Pakistan as is so, Raja is planning to go there in the near future to tie up some loose ends. He later plans to get back into the accounting field now that his English skills have improved. Shahnaz is working with diversified staffing where she gets placed in different areas but wants to get a permanent job once they get their home. Taskeen and Fakhar-Uz-Zaman have many friends here now and Shahnaz says she thinks they prefer life here despite missing their relatives back home. They plan to take them to visit after they have their new home.

The greatest thing I learned from Shahnaz is that we are not victims in life or of the circumstances handed to us, but that those are all blessings that we can grow and learn from.

“Good values are like a light from a lantern,” she said. “If you are a positive person you spread the positive energy wherever you go, and positive energy has positive result”

skarg@cjournal.ca