Blessed by your presence
Toronto’s highly accomplished Ismaili community, gathered for an awards night at the Royal York, is told Canada has been ‘extraordinarily enriched’ by them
Dec. 8, 2006. 06:27 AM
Fresh from being honoured for her community service at the Ismaili Awards for Excellence, Shazeen Suleman did not waste time basking in the limelight. After posing for photos with other award winners at the Royal York hotel Wednesday night, she was in a hurry to get home. After all, she had to be up at 5:30 a.m. to make sandwiches and prepare breakfast for the homeless at a downtown soup kitchen where she volunteers. After that would come a full day of labs and lectures at the University of Toronto.
Suleman exemplifies the term “role model,” the kind of young woman who would make any parent’s heart swell with pride. A child prodigy, she started university at 16 and now, at 20, is working on a master’s in physiology with a focus on neuroscience. “I like research, but I also like working with people,” she says, adding that a medical career might satisfy both urges.In her “spare time,” she is co-founder and president of MusicBox Children’s Charity, which provides music education to 400 disadvantaged kids. Bahadur Madhani, an Order of Canada recipient and fundraiser extraordinaire — the United Way of Greater Toronto raised $170 million under his 1996-99 tenure as chair — was named co-winner of the community service award. Such were the kind of people honoured at the $90-a-plate, four-course dinner featuring herb-roasted chicken and tilapia, attended by 350 guests, with CityTV reporter Farah Nasser as emcee and Alnasir Samji, president of the Ismaili Council for Ontario, as host.A sect of the Shia Islam, Ismailis number about 75,000 in Canada, split primarily between Vancouver and Toronto, according to Reena Lalji, a lawyer and volunteer with the council.Ismailis first arrived in Canada in the mid-1960s from the U.K. and Europe. A large cohort came from East Africa in 1972, many of them part of the South Asian contingent kicked out of Uganda by Idi Amin. More recently, they hail from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.Ismailis regard His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, as their spiritual leader. And much of the impetus to achievement derives from his direction, says Lalji. “He really instils the values of work ethic, volunteerism and sense of community. Unfortunately, in today’s world, Muslims have a bad rap. It’s important to show the other side.”Frank McKenna, former New Brunswick premier and ambassador to the U.S., delivered a keynote speech that began with a wry anecdote. McKenna recalled being almost recognized on a recent flight by someone who asked: “You used to be somebody, didn’t you?”Canada has been “extraordinarily enriched” by Ismailis, who, rather than dwelling on the “cruel circumstances” of their arrival, “rolled up their sleeves and went to work,” said McKenna. “We have all been blessed by your presence in our country and exhort you not to rest on your laurels.”There is no danger of that happening, if the ingenuity, talent and entrepreneurial drive on display at the awards banquet was any indication.Arif Noormohamed picked up the Distinguished Business Award for companies with sales over $10 million. He’s president and owner of Clothing for Modern Times, which operates the Urban Behavior and Costa Blanca stores. Beginning with just one shop in 1989, the company now boasts 165 stores across North America.Then there’s Kaizer Suleman, founder and CEO of I Love Rewards Inc. The computer genius developed a turnkey software program to deliver loyalty “points” plans for top companies. Named one of the top 50 employers in the GTA by the Toronto Star, he gives his workers a week off per year to volunteer for charity. He got the Distinguished Small Business Award.Karima Velji was named Outstanding Professional for her work as vice-president of patient care and chief nursing executive at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, where she manages a $60 million budget. Velji has also done research on cancer symptom management and is a tireless charity volunteer.Most Accomplished Young Business Executive (under 30), went to Alim Somani. This dynamo is president of Infusion, a Wall Street information technology consulting company with expertise in writing trading systems for the world’s largest investment banks.To keep the process fair, a panel of judges from outside the tight-knit Ismaili community — including Robin Walker, Susan Eng, Brendan Cunneen, Mike Stevenson and Bryan Tannenbaum — made the choices from a list of nominees.