Ahmed and Hymie: Muslim and Jewish immigrant friends thrived in Canada
My grandfather was like millions who came to this country, David Loftson writes
"Most political campaigns attempt to exploit some fear or another. It just so happens that at this moment in Canadian history the fear of choice is Muslims." Andrew Coyne | Oct. 7, 2015 National Post
"A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.… This country's unique diversity is a blessing bestowed upon us by previous generations of Canadians." – prime-minister designate Justin Trudeau, Oct. 19, 2015
Ahmed Ali Awid, my maternal grandfather, came to Canada as a young man in 1901, an immigrant from the Syrian part of the Ottoman Empire (Lebanon today). His story of struggle and success is reflected in the tales of millions of others who have immigrated to Canada over the past 150 years — but the fact he was a Sunni Muslim whose great friendship was with a Jewish businessman makes him stand out today.
Ahmed was 19 when he travelled halfway around the world with friends to start a new life in a new country. Did he do it for adventure, for a better life or to leave a troubled part of the world? Yes, likely for all those reasons. The Ottoman Empire was not an overtly oppressive place to live and different cultures and religions had co-existed for centuries, but I like to think he sensed the empire was not going to last long.
Moved west for opportunity
Ahmed chose Canada because he knew of other Syrians who had emigrated, although there were only about 800 Muslims in Canada in 1901. He left home by ship and likely landed in New York City. He made his way to London, Ont., where the Arabs he knew had already settled. He spoke no English, but he worked as a pedlar, selling things door-to-door. After two years in London, he decided to move west for greater opportunity and settled in Winnipeg until 1907. He also worked as a pedlar in Winnipeg and eventually opened a general store on Disraeli Street near downtown. He moved on to Brandon, Man., in 1907 and opened another general store. A shrewd businessman and hard worker, he opened five more stores over the next two decades. During this time he also married my grandmother, Mary, and started a family. By 1927 they had six children, the third my mother, Mimoni (Mona). Ahmed and Mary would have another eight children, for a for a total of 14 — eight sons and six daughters.
Yes, a Jewish man would deliver Christmas presents to my Muslim family.
He heard there was even greater opportunity in Edmonton and that city had a larger and more established Arab population, so the Awid family moved to Edmonton in 1927, where Ahmed opened another general store. In Edmonton, Ahmed reconnected with the wholesaler he had worked with in Brandon — a Jewish businessman named Hymie Weisler. Like Ahmed, Hymie had moved on to Edmonton, looking for more opportunity. Reunited in Edmonton, the two became lifelong friends.
In the early days in Edmonton, at Christmas Hymie Wiesler would deliver groceries to the Awid family home. Yes, a Jewish man would deliver Christmas presents to my Muslim family. And one spring, as the river flooded and water approached the small Awid family home in the Rossdale flats, Hymie arrived in his car and evacuated the whole family, opening his home to the Awids until the river subsided.
Ahmed and Hymie became lifelong friends, and eventually, my grandfather asked Hymie to take on two of his sons as apprentices. When Hymie retired in 1951, my uncles bought his business from him.
My grandfather was an observant Muslim; he ate only halal and completed all five pillars of Islam, including the hajj pilgrimage, which he undertook at the ripe age of 80. Unfortunately, when he was in Mecca, he tripped on the wire of his tent and fell, breaking his hip. He completed the hajj on a stretcher, came home to Canada, recovered and lived for almost 20 more years.
Ahmed and Mary's 14 children gave them 33 grandchildren and even more great-grandchildren, including my daughter. When my grandfather died at age 96, I went to his funeral in the mosque in Edmonton he helped build. It was large, with the mayor of Edmonton in attendance. In 2004, Ahmed was honoured as one of the 100 Edmontonians of the century.
The Awids' story is the story of millions of families who came to Canada in waves of immigration. The only difference between my family and your family is that the recent election campaign made Muslims a target. That's not the Canada my grandfather chose. That's not the Canada I know and love, and fortunately for all of us, including my Lebanese-Icelandic-Jewish daughter, that's not the vision of Canada voters chose on Oct. 19.
David Loftson is a local historian and recovering bike messenger. His column Flat Not Boring can be heard regularly on CBC Radio One's Weekend Morning Show with Terry MacLeod.