We returned to Canada in the spring of 1991. We landed at the Toronto International Airport. Zara received a six-month visa. We first rented a studio apartment on Walmer Road in Toronto. It’s been four years since I have been to Toronto.
It soon became apparent that we would not be able to afford the place on Walmer Road, as I had no work. After the first month, we left the apartment and went to mother’s house in Trenton. Mother was welcoming at first. But that did not last.
We stayed with mother for a few days. I called my brother about staying in Sudbury for a while. We stayed there for a few days also. The atmosphere there was not quite welcoming either.
I packed up belongings into the Econoline van that Charlie gave me, and off we went to British Columbia. We stopped at Sault Sainte Marie for the night.
We drove the next day and spent the night in Thunder Bay. Then on to Saskatchewan, where we stayed in Regina. Each day we made it through one province. In Manitoba we stayed in Winnipeg. It was cold. Always we stayed in a motel for the night. Ditto in Calgary, Alberta.
The entire journey was about 4,300 km and took about 40 hours of driving over six days.
We arrived in British Columbia after almost a week of driving. It was January 1992, but the grass in BC was still green. The first day, we stayed in Kamloops, a small town just across the border with Alberta. The following day we arrived in Vancouver.
Like Toronto, Vancouver has its own China Town. The co-op movement was also quite strong – so it seemed to me – in Vancouver. North and West Vancouver is where wealthy people live.
I drove on to Victoria, but by the time we got there, I developed a bad feeling. We returned to Vancouver. There I telephoned a friend and asked if we might stay for the night. Frank agreed.
Frank was a friend from the University of Toronto. He studied philosophy there but wanted to become a Trappist monk. He was of a Ukrainian background. We had many interesting discussions. The next day I rented an apartment on Water Street. We went on social assistance.
Reversion and marriage
We married in Vancouver. I also “reverted” to Islam there. I remember the event. I went to a mosque in a suburb. There I met the imam, who was a very pleasant, and mild-mannered chap. He introduced me to another fellow who gave me a copy of the Quran to read.
I was asked to come to the mosque in the evening. There were about a dozen bearded men sitting there, all looking at me intently. I recited the confession of faith after the imam. I knew what I said. “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger.”
As I was returning home that evening it dawned on me that the person who earlier left the house would never be coming back. He just sort of vanished and was replaced by another person, me as a Muslim. It was an interesting feeling. I almost felt pity for the person that was not coming back, and even as it were tried to make excuses for him.
“Oh, come on, he wasn’t such a bad person,” I thought to myself. But I knew that no matter what happened after this, I was no longer the same person as before.
The fellow who gave me the Quran, a Yusuf Ali transliterated version, was from Pakistan. He always appeared to be very happy. I started to read the Quran, and I managed to read about half of it.
Then I sort of “ran out of steam.” I ended up in an area where I was neither quite here nor there. I would resume reading it after the second return to Canada, when we stayed in Ottawa, and where I completedmy reversion. I guess I experienced what is known as an identity crisis.
Since then, I have been reading it every day, except when I feel unwell. I also use it to learn Arabic. I hear its recitation and, simultaneously, follow the English translation. Doing this repeatedly enables one to learn the meaning of what is being recited.
At this point I understand about eighty-five percent of the book when I hear it being recited. I am working on the remaining fifteen per cent. It is quite gratifying when I go to the congregational prayer, and I can actually understand what the imam is reciting. Often, I can tell which chapter he is reciting from.
I looked for work at Manpower and found a job with COHO management Services, a subsidiary of the CFHBC, the Cooperative Housing Federation of British Columbia.
COHO was located on Main Street. There were about a dozen employees, nearly all ladies. The Executive Director, however, was an immigrant chap from the UK.
The fact that I was previously active in Toronto’s Campus Coop helped me get the job. I was hired by Joan Elliott, the manager. She seemed like a very sensible lady. I got along well with her.
This job lasted almost a year. I learned how to use Lotus 123 and additional skills. The people at COHO were decent folk.
Even the place on Water Street felt expensive. I looked around and found a trailer park which also rented tent spaces. The park was next to Whiterock, a town in Canada right on the border with the US. I rented a space to put up a tent. I then erected the tent and we moved into the tent from the bachelor apartment.
This was an experience. I bought a Coleman stove and Zara would bake the sourdough rye bread in it. I used to take showers in an outdoors shower room. Soon I found out that Zara was pregnant.
One of the housing co-op members, Sandy McRae, helped me get a subsidized unit in the co-op on East Fifth Avenue, just off Commercial Drive. It was a one-bedroom unit.
I think the fact that we lived in a tent at the time actually helped us, as there was a long waiting list to rent any subsidized unit. I guess we were moved to the top of the list.
The fact that I worked for COHO, which managed the Co-ops finances, must have been also helpful. Sandy was in a wheelchair. Once I asked him:
“Hey Sandy, how did you end up in a wheelchair? Were you born with a problem? I hope you don’t mind me asking.”
“Oh no, I don’t mind. Actually, I am kind of ashamed to tell, but I’ll tell you anyway. I was returning from a bar, drunk, and I passed out right on the road. A truck ran over my legs.”
“Oh my God, that’s terrible,” I said.
“Yeah, it was pretty bad. Since then, I don’t drink. You might say I learned my lesson,” he added.
“An expensive lesson,” I thought to myself. “But then, how many people suffer even greater pain due to drunkenness?”
In late October in Zara gave birth. Our daughter was born at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.
Bellingham is a coastal town of about 80,000 people in the US, just across the border from Whiterock. I could be in Bellingham in about forty minutes, assuming there were no issues at the border. Normally the immigration fellow would simply ask:
“What is your business in the US, Sir?” I would always give the same reply.
“Well, I’d like to do a little shopping,” I would say.
Upon hearing this, he would simply wave me through. I did to have to show a passport or even any identification.
A lot of people visited the US that way. Fuel was cheaper there, and I used to fill both tanks in my van with diesel before coming back.
Seattle was just 140 km from Bellingham, and I though several times of driving there, just to look at the city. But with our constrained finance at the time, I thought I better leave it until later.
Search at the border
Once I was returning from Bellingham, and I must have been a tad brash with the officer, because she asked me to pull over. A fellow showed up to search the van. I think he suspected that I might have been trying to smuggle drugs.
He had an interesting way of searching. He would run his fingers along different parts of the van, such as the edges of doors, and watch my facial expression at the same time.
I think he was waiting to see sign of anxiety. If I were to appear nervous at any particular place, I think he would ask to take the panels off in that area and conduct a deeper search. He did not have to do that because I did not look nervous. If anything, I might have looked a bit annoyed at having been delayed.
The search took more than half an hour and I was upset with myself for not having been sufficiently polite to the immigration lady. But he did not find anything, except for some painting equipment in the back, so he let me go.
Interview in Houston
I saw an ad in the paper for a job in Saudi Arabia. I applied and flew to Houston for an interview. I stayed in a motel. The people that interviewed me paid for the flight as well as for the hotel. I guess I did not do very well, because I was not hired.
While I was there, I had a chance to visit the well-known shopping center, Galleria. Security was tight. The van driver waited until I safely walked about twenty meters from the van into the shopping center.
Back in Malaysia
I saw an ad for a lecturer at Sunway College in Malaysia. Sunway was a direct competitor to Taylor’s College. I applied. and had an interview with a friend who hired teachers in British Columbia for the Canadian program at the College. He seemed to be a good fellow. The interview went well, and I was hired. About two weeks later, we were on a flight to Malaysia.