Working No Words in COVID-19 | The Ismaili Canada

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Working No Words in COVID-19

Volunteerism is bringing the Ismaili community together during the pandemic

Zahra Akhter Premji
Published September 29, 2020
Safira Teja (right) sewing masks with her family. Photo: Courtesy of Safira Teja.

Imagine being in the final weeks of your university degree. You’re inches away from the finish line and then—the unexpected: a pandemic has shut down the world and put everything you’ve worked on, for years, on hold. I’ve watched this become the story of many of my friends and family members in our community.

It’s a story I’ve watched unfold firsthand for my sister, Tasneem Premji, and her dream of becoming a chiropractor. When faced with the pandemic, the answer was simple for her and many others in the Ismaili community: a natural turn to volunteerism and seva.

We’re taught early on that we don’t stop giving when we hit a roadblock and, without Jamatkhana for a study break, there are other ways to find peace and purpose. For my sister and other students, this has meant giving back by offering exercise classes online and managing Ismaili community webinars that we stream into our homes to keep us sane and comforted in isolation.

Early on, I had a moment where I felt sorry for myself. I couldn’t be close to my grandparents to hug and kiss them. Then, it dawned on me: there’s a way around this. And this is what I’ve seen with many of the volunteers in our community. When Jamatkhana closes, we don’t hang up the uniform. We adapt. We find new ways of giving back. I’ve witnessed that around every virtual corner. If I can’t hug my grandparents, my favourite people, I’ll teach them to use an iPad and virtually hug them everyday.

Even if it means shifting from a volunteer uniform to gloves and a mask to deliver groceries to a senior, we haven’t stopped. Work no words. It’s a simple phrase, but its meaning has been put to the test now more than ever. I’ve seen generations of families coming together to help without hesitation.

Take 22-year-old Safira Teja’s family in Calgary. Generations of her family have come together to prepare materials for making masks so her grandma can sew them. Masks for whomever needs them are being pieced together as a family project at a distance. “For me, I found that this was a very therapeutic way to have some control over my impact over the community. Even in the worst circumstances, there are lights shining through,” Teja said.

Twenty-six-year-old Mishaal Shariff of North Vancouver is one of the many volunteers across the country picking up groceries for seniors she’s never met. “I feel like I’m living for something more than myself and it makes me feel like my life has meaning,” Shariff said.

For many seniors, she is their only physical interaction for the week. She doesn’t have a car, so she carries these groceries, sometimes including four litres of milk, and delivers them. “I feel like we’re all put on this planet to help one another,” Shariff said.

Another reality is the world doesn’t stop and people are still dying. But when you can’t be near one another and you have to limit gathering numbers, how does a funeral still happen? In the simplest of words, “we don’t stop, we adapt.” Those are the words of my 60-year-old dad, Akhter Premji. He feels a sense of guilt being at funerals as a volunteer when others can’t, but it is his seva to give the ruhani a proper send off.

“The families are really grieving and we try to fill that void for them. If they can’t recite ginan, I’m going to learn so I can recite it for them,” Premji said.

These are the stories of resilience in the face of disaster that have surrounded me. I’ve had days where it feels pointless to wake up to yet another day of COVID-19, isolation and no hugs. These stories are my constant reminder that even while physically apart, we’ve come together stronger than ever.


This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of The Ismaili Canada.

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