When Roshan Thomas and her husband flew to Pakistan in the 1990s to help Afghan refugees, her concern was informed by the fact that twice in a century her own family had been refugees themselves.
The relief agencies of their Ismaili Muslim communities helped sustain Ms. Thomas’s family during their past struggles. So it was for an Ismaili development agency that she was in Afghanistan when she and a fellow volunteer were killed Thursday, the latest two Canadians to die in the war-stricken country.
Ms. Thomas, a Vancouver optometrist, and Zeenab Kassam, a Calgary nurse, were at what was considered one of Kabul’s safest spots, the Serena Hotel, when a shooting rampage broke out.
Four teenaged gunmen managed to sneak through the hotel’s metal detector and X-ray machine by hiding small pistols in their shoes.
Nine people, including two young children, were shot dead, some at close range, amid the blood-spattered tables of the hotel restaurant. All four attackers were eventually killed.
A mother of three, Ms. Thomas, 60, had been helping people in Afghanistan for more than a decade, delivering eye care then founding an innovative school that had ethnically and religiously mixed classes.
“I spoke to her a few hours before the incident. She was very happy,” her son, Karim Thomas, said in an interview. “She was doing the work that she loved. She had had some exciting things happen with the education program and she was in very, very good spirits.”
Mr. Thomas said he was in a state of shock and was trying to make sense of what had occurred. He learned of the attack through a friend who lives in Afghanistan and knew Ms. Thomas had been at the hotel.
He said his mother had an incredible faith in humanity and was committed to fixing the injustices of the world.
“There are so many stories, I don’t know where to start. We often wanted her to slow down, to do less, but she had such a big heart.”
He said his mother was well aware of the risks of being in Afghanistan and maintained a low profile. He said she would stay in the community and live as Afghans did, instead of residing at some sort of guest house.
He said the education program – which began with 50 students in 2003 and has grown to 900 in six centres today – will serve as a legacy.
“I don’t think she would want people to see this and say that Afghanistan’s not a country worth helping or investing in. She believed very passionately in the people of Afghanistan. I don’t think she would want the isolated actions of a few,” he said, pausing for several seconds, “terrible, terrible people to have the world abandon the majority of Afghans.”
Taleeb Noormohamed, a long-time family friend said Ms. Thomas was an “incredible human being” who was “very clear that individual efforts could make the world a better place and just lived her values.”
Ms. Kassam was a 37-year-old nurse from Calgary. For the past year and a half, she had been in Afghanistan, working as an English teacher. Her family requested privacy on Friday.
The two Canadians were volunteering in Afghanistan for the Aga Khan Development Network, the agencies of the spiritual leader of the Ismaili community, spokesman Sam Pickens said.
Ms. Thomas’s parents fled persecution in India in 1947 and resettled in Uganda, but they were uprooted again when Idi Amin expelled South Asians from Uganda in 1972.
During that time, Ms. Thomas found solace in the teachings of her faith, she said in a 2007 Vancouver Sun interview. She also recalled that, on both occasions, her family had relied on the Aga Khan’s relief agencies. So helping Afghans was a natural continuation of a touchstone of her life.
“When I look at my own life, and my parents were refugees from India, and here I am venturing into a totally foreign country like Afghanistan to start a school,” she said. “This is the kind of motivation and courage and encouragement that he gives us.”
Ms. Thomas moved to Canada after earning an optometrist’s degree in Britain in 1978.
Starting in the 1990s, Ms. Thomas and her ophthalmologist husband, Rahim, provided eye care in Afghan refugee campsin Pakistan for five summers, bringing their three young children along. Over the years, a close bond developed between her family and the Afghans she was helping.
“We realized there was something remarkable about a community that shared so generously with us, even though they had survived decades of horror,” she said in a 2011 article for an Ismaili community website.
A decade ago, the family opened a tuition-free elementary school in Kabul after she arrived with two suitcases of teaching materials. The school is Afghanistan’s first to accept students solely on the basis of merit.
“Education is the foundation of any society, and with our experiences in working in refugee camps in Pakistan, our children quickly realized education was what was needed to get them out of this cycle of perpetual poverty,” Ms. Thomas told the CBC a year after the school opened.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander praised Ms. Thomas’s efforts in a recent speech.
Mr. Alexander, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, said he was almost in tears when she showed him a photo album of the school, which included pictures of him reading to the pupils. The school is called Omid-e-Afghanistan (Dari for “Hope of Afghanistan”), or, in English, the Sparks Academy Kabul.
“The pride we take in those good works beyond our borders is one that is fully justified. … It’s unique, it’s precious,” he said.
Ms. Thomas was “a really warm, kind-hearted person” completely lacking in pretense, said Sameer Ismail, a family friend.
“She’s somebody who exemplified to me anyhow the best of what Canada seeks to be. She spent a lot of time devoting herself to people who were less fortunate.”
Mr. Ismail saw Ms. Thomas about three weeks ago, at a federal Liberal Party gathering in Vancouver. She spoke about her work in Afghanistan with obvious passion, he said.
“I remember the words less, but the tone of voice and the sort of body language … conveyed that she really thought that what she was doing there was quite important and that it was important to her,” Mr. Ismail said.
Nazmudin Jiwani, a volunteer at the Ismaili Centre in Burnaby, B.C., said Ms. Thomas was a frequent visitor and her death came as an immense shock.
Speaking outside the centre, he said: “The only thing we can do is pray for her.”
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