My parents were refugees. They came from Africa, and their parents came from India. My great grand parents sent their children away when they were very young because there was nothing left but hardship in their ancestral land.
The British had made use of a well documented tactic of war called indirect rule characterized by enforced division. An almost unimaginable variety of communities were made to compete for scarce resources by middle-men armed to the teeth.
Eventually the situation became unbearable for my great grand parents, who were members of a small Islamic sect, and their wildly wealthy and well-connected imam urged them to tempt fortune in another part of the British empire where Asians had settled centuries ago and lived in peace ever since.
Asians in different countries of Africa all live differently. My maternal grandfather drove a transport vehicle across East Africa. He would come home bearing chocolate for my mother, who was born in Tanzania. He told me a story one time about running over a snake as wide as a man. He wasn’t sure what it was until he stepped out of his rig and saw locals chopping the snake into meal-sized chunks.
My father’s parents were very “Indian”. They were Ugandans, and from what I can tell, Asian Ugandans never really settled-in, though they are the most nostalgic. Life “back-home” sounds like something out of the Wonder Years... but more paranoid.
What happened in India also happened in Africa. This time we weren’t poor, but we paid a heavy price for not getting involved in countries where waning empires were holding on tooth and nail. After the second world war, Africans took back their countries one after the other.
War was everywhere. And everyone was scrambling for power. The old colonizers refused to let go before getting their hands on every god damn light bulb. Africa was rich and whoever took over would have to be trustworthy. The Europeans knew this, and they knew the country, so the Americans, who didn’t want to lose the world to the Soviets, made sure things went their way. Since this was the first time for as long as anyone could remember that Africans would be in power, suspicion ran high. There were few dreamers and many many bitter people.
In some countries Asians were expelled. Many deserved it. Others left from fear while some stayed and dug their heals in, made compromises or further isolated themselves. It just depended on your community.
Our community in Uganda and around the great lakes, as well as in Zaire and other very unstable countries all left, penniless, to seek refuge in the belly of the beast. Hopping from state to state in Europe and finally settling in Canada, my family made a home for themselves in Montreal. The cold version of America. Whatever, it’s America.
We moved a lot. I never went to any school for more than two years straight. But there was a sort of Headquarters in our community. Actually it was called Headquarters Mosque. My grandparents and my aunt lived right across the street from it, and I lived there more than anywhere else. It was on Van Horne, technically in Outremont, but spiritually in Mile-End because back then, the whole area was kind of a dump.
While Europeans were killing each other and mobilizing their empires for total war, Americans and Canadians were selling them weapons. And after that, they were rebuilding Europe on credit. So basically North America became filthy rich and “ordinary Americans” who had suffered through industrialization in the early 20th century gained access to the middle-class and deserted their crowded cities for greener pastures.
But by the time I was born, the global economy had shifted again and it started to make more sense for white collar workers to live in town. And of course today, anyone who has any pretension to making it in the world wants to live in the city and basically does not in any way separate their personal life from their economic role in society. But that’s for another essay. In Montreal, the middle-class didn’t really return from the suburbs until the 90s because of the recession. My dad talked about the recession a lot.
My parent’s generation of immigrants didn’t want to get attached. But they didn’t really get a chance anyway. While some left for the suburbs because they could afford it and had been wanting to live in a re-run for generations, others left because they saw history repeating itself and didn’t have it in them to fight. The city was changing and after 30 years they still did not feel at home. Living in town became expensive and since they had hit a glass-ceiling they figured it would be best to take up an old house by the highway and just see people at Mosque on Friday.
So little by little many of my friends left the old hood because their families got priced out. We lost touch. Some did OK and some not so well. I recently heard from an old friend who told me that he ended moving nine times since leaving Van Horne. He’s had a hard life, I won’t get into it. Maybe if we had the internet we would have stayed in touch and been able to help each other out. But I’m not sure it works that way.
I don’t know how I managed to do so well. I guess it’s because my dad sent me to college. After all education was the single most important worldly objective for our Imam’s followers.
In any case, our community got split up. A core group maintained the culture as best they could. But we come from many different countries and speak different languages and so somewhere along the line something’s got to give. I believe that many good ways of life have been lost. Many. And everyone has lost their way to some degree. If I cannot speak my language on a regular basis, how will I retain the values and memories it carries? If my neighbors are no longer my brothers and sisters what kind of games will I play? If I walk around and feel more and more like I don’t belong, what will I do to feel free?
Every minority has their strategy. I have gone through the motions and continue to do so. But I refuse to let go even if it means accepting that what I see looking back is just a reflection of what I hope to see ahead. Because what I see is made of the stuff that made me. When I create, nothing is lost. When I allow myself to be in touch with all of which that brought me here, I am making this place my own.
I am never moving again. And if anyone wants to stand by me as I stand by those whose place this is they will have to live up to it as I do beside those whom I have joined. Come hell or high water I am not moving.
The time has come for me to make use of the privileges I have gained from living in a white man’s world. My greatest asset is my ability to understand the fear and hope that inspires those who have power in this society, while still understanding on a deep level what it means to live free as a child of God's medium, nature.
I have had the privilege of attending a few of the worlds most prestigious universities and have presented papers at the National Assembly. But I have also run through dirt streets on my bare feet without any adult supervision from morning to night. I have drunk myself stupid with some of the most sheltered people in the world, but I have also read scripture at Mosque and prostrated in submission to God with people who have no status in this country.
I am in a unique position to build bridges between people who are lost in their excess and fear the unknown more than anything, and people who have seen firsthand what we should be afraid of but have no means to warn the world and show it just how valuable peace really is.
Brick by Brick means different things for each of us who are involved. For me, it’s simply a stable environment to nurture exchanges between people who have a lot to offer the world.
If you are able to see this, then take your money away from the banks that finance the governments and companies responsible for pushing my people out of their homes for generations, and instead put your money to good use. Let Brick by Brick use your capital to take advantage of the real estate market, that absurd commodification of space, in order to prevent peoples homes from ever being sold again.
Building infrastructure for social change in this manner is slow. But it has the immediate effect of making residents feel at home. Their place is secured, rents are stable, and they are given the opportunity to make use of shared space where they can offer and receive services, and practice and perform freedom.
It’s just that simple.