On March 20, 2014, Zeenab Kassam and Roshan Thomas, both Canadians volunteering in Afghanistan, were brutally gunned down by several Taliban. I will speak of Roshan Thomas at another time. That same day, Zeenab’s family in Calgary was informed about her murder.
Zeenab Kassam was born in Zanzibar to an esteemed family. Her great grandfather was Vazir Saleh and her grandfather was Count Mohammed Varas. Both contributed to the economic welfare and emergence of democracy in Zanzibar.
Service through volunteerism was a central tenet of her family. Zeenab, the first and eldest grandchild, grew up with these values. Zeenab and her family had to leave Zanzibar because of the intolerance in the country. They found Canada to be welcoming, and a place where pluralism, democratic values and opportunities for all citizens flourished.
Zeenab did not take this for granted and she dedicated her life to helping others. From a young age, Zeenab was known to have a vibrant personality. She spoke several languages, English and French among them. She was a track and field athlete and a sculptor. Later in life, she was an amateur ballroom dancer. But her real passion was nursing because she believed that it would give her a chance to make a difference in the world.
It was this conviction to make a difference that drove her to go to Afghanistan and give young people the gift of education. She went to Afghanistan under His Highness the Aga Khan’s program of time and knowledge for the marginalized people of the world.
For Zeenab, Afghanistan was not her first adventure into unknown and dangerous territory. Year after year, Zeenab worked until she saved just enough money to be able to take a humanitarian trip. She volunteered in many places around the world. Zeenab believed so strongly in education that she made the ultimate sacrifice: her life.
I want to share with you a story that embodies the strength of Zeenab Kassam. While Zeenab was teaching in Afghanistan she was approached by a young man she was teaching. This young man asked her if she was worried that she would be killed or kidnapped for the work she was doing. Zeenab looked at the man and told him that she did not know for sure if she would be killed, but she did not want to live in fear.
Zeenab is an example of a woman who was so dedicated to empowering both women and men through education that she could thrust aside all fear.
I know that you will join me in honouring Zeenab Kassam and all that she stood for. She implemented Canadian values of pluralism and equality.