My sister, Zeenab Kassam’s life and death were not in vain. Zeenab’s life began in Zanzibar, East Africa, where she was born in 1957. While Zeenab was a teen, my family moved to Calgary, Canada in the early 1970s due to growing intolerance in that region of the world. Zeenab was fluent in several languages including English and French. In high school, she was an athlete in track and field, sang in the choir, and excelled in art, particularly sculpture. She graduated from Viscount Bennett High School in south-west Calgary. The Montreal Canadians were her favourite team as we were growing up – that was before Calgary had its Flames! In other words, she was a normal Canadian kid who was an avid fan of ice hockey.
As long as I can remember, Zeenab’s passion was nursing. She wanted to provide relief to the sick. When I was a child and later in my adulthood, my sister was always first to arrive when I was gravely ill and she stayed with me until I recovered. Somehow, even from far away, she had the ability to sense something was wrong. To be a nurse requires physical strength, an empathetic disposition, and demands an ability to stomach shocking situations. Zeenab was able to combine all of these abilities as a nurse. She graduated from Royal Alexander Hospital in Edmonton, and worked in the Oncology, Neurology, and Dialysis Units at the Foothills Hospital.
Zeenab was an accomplished ballroom dancer. She loved to travel to diverse lands and meet different peoples. She played an important role in the upbringing of her niece and nephew, my children. She was a committed member of our family, supporting not only immediate family members but also her uncles, aunts, and cousins. Her upbringing within the Ismaili Muslim community and Canada formed the ethical fabric that made Zeenab who she is. The value of voluntary service is fundamentally Canadian. From all across the country, Canadians are volunteering their services in diverse regions of the world.
For the past year and a half, Zeenab chose to serve as a volunteer, teaching English to young people in Afghanistan through the Aga Khan Development Network. By teaching both young women and men, she furthered their professional development. However, learning a new language is not only about acquiring skills for better economic opportunities. It is about communication. It is about furthering human interaction and understanding. This is what Zeenab was doing in Afghanistan at the time of her death. She was facilitating diverse peoples to be able to talk to each other and understand one another. We must not forget this.
When Zeenab was killed, I am told she was sharing a meal, to celebrate the arrival of Spring, with another Canadian, Roshan Thomas, who also serving in Afghanistan. The vernal equinox marks the beginning of the New Year. This celebration is not limited to Persian cultures, but is universal in that all of humanity looks forward to welcoming Spring and the renewal of life. Therefore, even Zeenab’s death has meaning. We hold no malice towards the people of Afghanistan. Instead, we stand with you in solidarity. We even grieve with the families of the boys who brutally murdered nine innocent and unarmed people which included children and my sister. We grieve with the families of these dead boys who savagely killed, because we know what it is like to lose a family member.
However, we have a message for the men who hide in the shadows, who connived to compel these young men to choose violence. You have wounded us, but you have not intimidated us. You will never intimidate us. You use fear, hate, and brute force to bring about death. We choose empathy, knowledge, and hope to secure life. My sister’s life and death was in the cause of service, in an effort to bring about mutual understanding through communication. I remember my sister relating to me an instance when a young man she was teaching said to her in English: How do you know we will not kidnap you or kill you? And she answered: I don’t know. Instead of shying away and choosing the path of fear, Zeenab continued to work in Afghanistan. So again to the men who hide in the shadows, remember, you may kill one of us, but our commitment to peace through mutual understanding, to the education of both women and men, to unconditional voluntary service will not be compromised. Instead our efforts will be redoubled with greater vigour. Zeenab’s death was not in vain, she has galvanized young Canadians to emulate her.
We conclude with a verse from the Quran which is also echoed by the Jewish and Christian Scriptures:
“He who slays a human being …is as though he has slain all of humankind; and he who saves a human life, it shall be as though he has saved the entire humankind. …” (Quran chapter 5: verse 32).
My sister Zeenab Kassam chose to serve humanity through both her life and death. We celebrate her as we welcome the New Year and renewal of life in Spring!
Dr. Karim-Aly Kassam (Zeenab’s Brother)
We would like to acknowledge the assistance of the Canadian Embassy as well as the Aga Khan Development Network in Kabul in helping secure and repatriate the remains of my sister back home to Canada. Countless people, who remain unnamed, in Afghanistan and in Canada, have worked very hard this past week. Zeenab is finally on her way home to Calgary.
We would like to thank fellow Canadians and other people from around the world for their overwhelming support, their prayers, and their kind wishes during this difficult time for our family. We also thank the media for being restrained in reporting as my sister’s remains were being secured in Afghanistan and for giving our family the privacy we need.