White Coat, Black Art

How teaching Urdu to her granddaughters gave this grandmother purpose in a pandemic

Retired school teacher Zahida Murtaza was feeling adrift and purposeless during the pandemic. Then one of her granddaughters asked if she could giver her Urdu lessons.

'This is something they'll remember for life,’ says Zahida Murtaza

Zahida Murtaza and Marium Vahed, pictured on computer monitor, say Urdu lessons have strengthened their grandmother-daughter bond. (Hasan Murtaza)

This is a story from White Coat, Black Art's series called Prescription for Resilience: Coping with COVID on the many challenges people are facing during the pandemic, and what they're doing to find resilience.

When the pandemic started, Zahida Murtaza, 73, was feeling low, close to depression. The retired teacher from Mississauga, Ont., had lost her husband of 47 years two years earlier and had already been feeling lonely and disconnected when COVID-19 arrived and made things worse.

So when her 20-year-old granddaughter reached out last summer and asked Murtaza, who came to Canada from Pakistan in 1971, to teach some of her grandchildren and nieces Urdu, she perked up.

"That was my dream come true," said Murtaza. "I was so passionate. I have the undivided attention of these girls, and I have nothing else to worry about."

The grandmother of six quickly discovered that teaching her grandchildren and nieces Urdu was about more than just educating them in a language. The lessons gave her a new purpose, provided structure to her days and helped the family feel more connected to each other and to their culture.

"I always felt sad that I did not have much of a hold on Urdu, which should have been my mother tongue," said Marium Vahed, Murtaza's granddaughter, who is a student at the University of Toronto and lives in Brampton, Ont.

"I wanted to be able to access the world of Urdu and the world of Pakistan through its beautiful poetry. I had the idea to have daily lessons over FaceTime, and we dove right in."

'My mood completely turned around'

Vahed and her 17-year-old sister, Laila, began taking virtual lessons with their grandmother. Their two cousins also decided to join. Aged 13 and 17, Sakeena and Manaal Syed live with Murtaza and were able to learn in person.

Murtaza found some teaching resources, including Urdu poetry, and put together her lesson plans.

She had been largely confined to her house during the pandemic because she has an autoimmune disorder.

"My whole life is in my bedroom, and I go out very little," she said.

Vahed and her 17-year-old sister, Laila, both pictured on a computer monitor, began taking virtual lessons from their grandmother last summer. So did their two cousins, Sakeena Syed and Manaal Syed, who live with Murtaza. (Hasan Murtaza)

Now that she had a new job to do, however, her home was transformed into a virtual classroom.

"My mood completely turned around," Murtaza said. "There was a direction to my life. This is generational stuff. This is something they'll remember for life."

Reconnecting with family

Having wrestled with and mastered the technology they needed for their virtual lessons, Murtaza and Vahed have both become more assertive in using communication tools to reach out to other family members and friends, staying in touch with those they're unable to see in person because of COVID-19 restrictions.

"I'm calling people, talking to them to see if they're going down in terms of their mood, to see how I can uplift them," said Murtaza.

The pandemic has forced us 'to confront new dimensions of people in our lives,' says Murtaza. Pictured from left to right: Sakeena Syed, Manaal Syed, Zahida Murtaza, Laila Vahed, Marium Vahed. (Hasan Murtaza)

Vahed has gotten better at building a sense of community remotely, too.

"I call my friends spontaneously," she said. "We spent a lot of time calling each other, even silently studying with each other. That's really brought a richness back in my life that we didn't have in the first couple of months of the pandemic."

But by far the biggest benefit for both has been strengthening the grandmother-daughter bond through their culture.  

Vahed learned to speak Urdu well enough to chat and recite poetry. She also got to know her grandmother better and realized what talent she had as an educator.

"That's something that's happened in the pandemic for a lot of us," she said. "We're forced to confront new dimensions of people in our lives." 


Written by Paul Gallant. Produced by Rachel Sanders.

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