Refugee Family Celebrates 50 Years in Canada

Signing ceremony with (L to R) Rema Jamous-Imseis, Representative in Canada, UNHCR; Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Nimi Nanji-Simard, Director, Nanji Family Foundation; Dominique Hyde, Director of Division of External Relations, UNHCR; Pyarali Nanji, President, Nanji Family Foundation; and Alex Tom, Head of Private Sector Partnerships in Canada, UNHCR. © UNHCR/Valerie Agawin

In 1972, Pyarali Nanji, his wife, Gulshan, and their four children got word that they, along with 60,000 other Ugandans of South Asian lineage, had 90 days to leave the country that they had long called home.

Stripped of their citizenship and assets and declared stateless, the family fled. Thanks to mercy flights organized by the Canadian government, they found sanctuary in Montréal, Canada. They stayed in temporary lodgings at the downtown YMCA, which took care of all their immediate needs. The Nanji family never forgot the kindness they were shown in the face of catastrophe, and they pledged to pay that kindness forward when they had the means to do so.

Eighteen years later, Pyarali started a hugely successful packaging firm in Toronto, and the family decided it was time to make good on their promise. They launched the Nanji Family Foundation, which has donated millions of dollars to Canadian hospitals, including St. Mary’s Hospital, where Gulshan had been treated for rheumatoid arthritis.

In 2020, the Nanji Family Foundation donated a whopping $1.6 million to be split equally by 16 Canadian hospitals to help combat COVID-19 through research and staff support.

Even so, according to the Montréal Gazette, when asked for an overall dollar figure of donations, Nimi, a director with the Nanji Family Foundation, simply quotes her dad as saying: “Not enough.”

“There were so many volunteers who showed us the way when we arrived,” Nimi continues.

“My father was so impressed by the way we were treated, the way our host country took us in during our time of need. It was always his goal to be able to give back.”

Nimi Nanji-Simard quotes her dad

That goal drives the Nanji family to continue to take their positive impact further. This year, in commemoration of their 50th anniversary of South Asian exile from Uganda, the Nanji Family Foundation is granting $1 million in funds to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, for tertiary education scholarships in support of its Aiming Higher campaign.

The UNHCR says that this generous financial contribution will help provide sorely needed financial support to refugees pursuing higher education by funding scholarships for health-related university studies in their countries of asylum. The hope is that this gift will encourage others to similarly support opportunities for young people facing forced displacement.

“In my life, I have learned something; that if God gives you the opportunity, try to share it,” says Pyarali. “First of all, you have to make sure that you are taking care of your family, your community, and then the whole country. So, I thought we have to pay back to the country and the world… and for more than 20 years, we have been doing this.”

With this grant of scholarships to over 50 young refugees commemorating the 50th Anniversary of South Asian exile from Uganda, the Nanji family is hopeful that others in the community and beyond will feel inspired to support higher education for refugees.

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