The Year of Unexpected Connection | The Ismaili Canada

In Focus

The Year of Unexpected Connection

When the pandemic shut down Ismaili community centres and spaces of religious worship, the community filled the vacuum with virtual connections

Gazalla Hirji; Illustrations by Zunash Ashiq Ali
Published October 23, 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Jamatkhana doors shut, Canadian Ismailis could no longer share chai and cake after uniting in prayer, attend religious education events or enjoy a night of dancing raas. Seniors who attended daily were suddenly isolated; many didn’t know how to connect with friends and family online. I could only watch from afar as my grandmother, a regular at Headquarters Jamatkhana in Toronto who lives alone, lost much of her connection to the outside world.

But as the doors of our gathering spaces closed, the screens of our virtual gathering spaces gradually opened. Hundreds of volunteers came together to create online programs for the community. Instead of attending Jamatkhana on important religious days, such as Eid, we turned to our screens for faith-based programming, messages of hope from leadership, and a biryani cooking class. On other days, we could join webinars on topics ranging from business to spirituality or participate in lively, educational game shows. 

Throughout the pandemic, our community has relied on innovative avenues of virtual connection for wellness of mind, body and soul. Below, we take a look at their role in keeping the community united. 

Volunteers sprang into action to support our seniors

The pandemic left thousands of seniors isolated. Many Ismaili seniors lacked technological skills to access the community’s virtual programming, so volunteers across Canada helped them learn how and put into place virtual initiatives such as phone calls, chair yoga, and computer classes. 

Sukoon, a national initiative delivering faith-based programming for seniors via telephone and Internet, had reached almost 5,000 households by January 2021. The program provides seniors with twice-daily programming in English, Gujarati and Urdu. Activities include educational sessions covering religion and health, exercise classes and music parties for Navroz and New Year’s Eve.

At Headquarters Jamatkhana in Toronto, 50 Care for the Elderly volunteers have called more than 800 seniors since March 2020. One of these seniors is my grandmother, Raibanu Malek Alibhai. “Once a week, without fail, [the volunteer] calls me to ask how I am and what they can do for me. I feel connected to [the community] when I speak with them,” she said.

A first-of-its-kind virtual games tournament connected our youth

Each year, a Post-Secondary Games (PSG) tournament is organized by the Aga Khan Council for Canada for Ismaili students from across Ontario. In May 2020, the Council held a virtual competition in lieu of a physical event. The Canadian Post-Secondary Ismaili Games (CPSIG) brought together a record 210 students from Ismaili Student Associations (ISAs) across Canada.

The virtual games helped youth feel like they were part of a team, said Nadim Moloo, one of the organizers of CPSIG. The sports component included hockey, basketball and soccer via PlayStation, while a new arts component—which wasn’t part of the in-person PSG—included a dance showcase, talent show and Jeopardy! tournament.

Neelam Makhani, a participant in the talent show for University of Calgary ISA, said including an arts component allowed for “talent in our post-secondary sector” to shine. She looks forward to exploring future collaborations with other ISAs.

The Ismaili TV nourished our minds with national and global content

Globally, volunteers came together to create The Ismaili TV, a 24-hour streaming platform. Launched in April 2020, it features webinars, fitness classes and institutional programs curated by the global Jamat. Its New Year’s Eve 2021 celebration spanned 24 hours, featuring Ismaili musicians and DJs as the Jamat rang in the new year across 22 time zones.

“The Ismaili TV allows an opportunity for you to turn it on any time of the day and connect with what’s on the screen [and to see] what members of your community are doing around the world,” explained Sherin Manji, a Toronto-based television producer who is part of the global team of volunteers that created the platform.

The idea was to give the Jamat access to programming from Ismaili institutions worldwide “who were creating great content independently for their regional and national Jamats,” she said. 

Friday Night Reflections, one of the Canadian Jamat’s most cherished programs, appears on The Ismaili TV. The program provides a place of connection for those who miss gathering in Jamatkhana on Friday, an important day for prayer and social activity. It features discussions from leading minds in Canada, covering subjects such as science and technology, the arts and professional development, and is hosted by members of the Ismaili community across Canada. Esteemed speakers have included the Archbishop of Toronto Thomas Christopher Collins and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Natasha Walji, a director at Google Canada in Toronto, hosted Friday Night Reflections on December 4, 2020, the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Walji spoke about co-founding the Special Kin Inspiration Program (SKIP), which supports members of the Canadian Jamat with mental, physical and/or developmental disabilities, and encouraged others to volunteer for the program.

She was particularly excited to participate in Friday Night Reflections because the program helped her family remain connected to their faith. “It’s become a tradition in our household,” said Walji, who often prepared chai and baked treats with her four-year-old daughter before the show. “There’s a quote that goes, ‘Even though we’re apart, we’re together in the heart’...I feel like Friday Night Reflections brings that to light every week.” 

In July 2020, The Ismaili TV’s Imamat Day programming reached 250,000 viewers over three days. Around the world, families like Walji’s gathered to watch the celebrations.

This year of unexpected connection reminds us that spiritual fulfillment and enriching educational experiences can exist virtually. As Manji said, a “lack of in-person connection doesn’t mean that you can’t converse, learn or continue to explore and develop your faith.”

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