On Sunday, I attended the funeral prayer for Asma and Nasiba A-Noor, two Somali-Canadian sisters who were stabbed to death in their home on Friday. Their brother, Musab A-Noor, 29, has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Asma, 32, and second-degree murder in the death of Nasiba, 29. The Somali and Muslim communities of Ottawa have been reeling since.
Almost 1,500 people braved the cold to attend the funeral at a west-end Ottawa mosque. I saw one man trudging through the snow, a toddler in his arms, as he made his way to the prayer hall. Hundreds of young women gathered, with solemnity and reflection upon the tremendous loss.
I had a personal connection with Nasiba – she was my Koran teacher for almost three years. Even though I am almost twice her age, I readily placed my trust in her knowledge of the Koranic sciences, and humbly entered into the centuries-old Islamic tradition of female scholarship. After dawn prayer, we would converse, by phone, as she would guide me through the recitation of Koranic verses, in accordance with the timeless rules of recitation, called tajweed. She herself had memorized the entire book, and immersed herself in its study – and now she was sharing it with me. A special bond of faith, sisterhood, and spirituality naturally followed. We had our session on Friday morning as usual, and said that we would resume on Monday, adding Inshaa Allah (God willing). The depth of this expression hit home, in the absence of resumption.
Nasiba's love for the Koran was evident not just in the way she taught, but in the manner she lived: with humility, compassion, generosity and optimism. She reflected the beauty of our faith, and represented the best of our community. A gentle, beautiful soul who loved books, photography and reflection of the natural world.
In this age of daily bad news, it is always comforting to find solace in community, to see the basic human decency of ordinary people going about, doing the extraordinary.
As I reflect upon Nasiba, who contributed generously to the Canadian landscape, so many wonderful teachers from our rich, diverse Canadian mosaic come to mind. I was inspired to study physics by my high school teacher, Mr. Szatmari; and quantum mechanics at Marianopolis College by Dr. Aniko Lysy. Both were Hungarian, passionate about science, and most importantly, believed in me, when I lacked confidence in my own abilities. At McGill, Prof. B.C. Eu, originally from South Korea, was instrumental in paving a path toward my study of chemical physics, and entry into Harvard. There were many more along the way. Influential coaches, teachers, counsellors and friends – from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives who helped me to thrive.
Suffice it to say that as calls for nativism increase, let us reflect upon the rich contributions made by immigrants and their descendants to our mosaic. The struggle to adapt to a new land, a new culture is circuitous at best.
Yet millions do it, day in, day out, without recognition – only wanting to belong, to contribute, to succeed, and to forge new paths, new identities. It is both daunting, yet exhilarating. It cannot be accomplished in isolation, but rather, by reaching across cultural lines, and seeing the commonality and beauty of the human spirit – for example, by inspiring a student to learn and giving her the confidence to pursue her dreams. In the process, we strengthen the fabric of our compassionate meritocracy.
This morning, at dawn prayer, I broke down and wept, realizing that I would no longer have those beautiful tutorials with Nasiba again. Never hear her gentle, encouraging voice.
The finality of death is indeed harsh. All the more reason to make the most of our time here, to cultivate the best within each of us, and to share the fruits of our labour.
Eds note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified Marianopolis College as Marianopolis CEGEP