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50 years after arriving in Canada, this Toronto family is sending 50 other refugees to university

When 16-year-old Nimi Nanji-Simard arrived in Canada in 1972, she knew the country would be an “important new home” for her family.

Having been stripped of their citizenship and assets in Uganda, Nanji-Simard, her parents and siblings were among thousands of Asians who had just fled under the rule of then-dictator Idi Amin, even though many had lived there for generations. Canada opened its doors to approximately 7,000 of the displaced.

“We were received with so much compassion and respect,” she told CBC News.

The family landed in Montreal before settling in Toronto, where her father and mother, Pyarali and Gulshan Nanji, eventually started the Nanji Family Foundation.

Through the foundation, the Nanjis made it their mission to give back to a long list of hospitals and organizations — both in the country that welcomed them and to a myriad of other international causes.

Now, to mark their 50 years in Canada — and how far they’ve come as a family — they’re providing university scholarships to 50 young refugees across the world.

Ugandan Asians arrived on Sept. 18, 1972 at Stansted Airport on the first of several specially chartered flights to Britain shortly after Ugandan military dictator Idi Amin implemented a new regime expelling all Asians from Uganda. (Keystone/Getty Images)

“No matter how successful one becomes, we’re always aware of our roots and we know where we came from,” Nanji-Simard said.

“We’re so blessed to be in a country that allowed us to grow as much as we did — financially, academically, socially, in terms of our communities — it’s every level.”

The scholarships are made possible through the Aiming Higher campaign launched in 2020 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UNHCR says the family’s donation of $1 million will provide sorely needed funding to refugees seeking health-related university studies in their countries of asylum.

‘We are all one in the same’

Nanji-Simard recalls the opportunities she was given when she first arrived to Canada — opportunities she says must be given to youth, a cohort she describes as “very vulnerable.”

“We had school counselling, we had career counseling — whatever guidance we needed was always available,” Nanji-Simard said.

While she and her siblings were in school, her parents started buying real estate and eventually came to own Markham-based Belle-Pak Packaging Inc. It’s through the success of that company that they were able to pursue philanthropy and their steadfast goal of giving opportunities — “not handouts” — to those in need.

On Dec. 2, 2010, North York General Hospital officially reopened its renovated Medical Imaging Center, largely funded by Pyarali Nanji, right, and his wife, Gulshan. The couple is pictured here with Justin Trudeau, whose father, Pierre, was Prime Minister when thousands of Ugandans were offered sanctuary in Canada in 1972. (Submitted by Nimi Nanji-Simard)

“In my life I have learned something, that if God gives you opportunity, try to share it,” Gulshan Nanji said in a statement.

“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.”

More than 90 million forcibly displaced people worldwide

The UNHCR hopes the Nanji family’s gift will encourage others to support opportunities for young people facing forced displacement.

“It’s not just the right and moral thing to do,” said Levon Sevunts, a communications officer for the UNHCR. “We very often forget that refugees have the tremendous potential to give back.”

Sevunts says bringing awareness to international issues is especially important now, with so much of the world’s attention on the crisis in Ukraine. Data from the UNHCR shows that before the displacement of more than 13 million Ukrainians, there were already 84 million displaced people across the rest of the world.

“There are so many other issues… Syria, Yemen, the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh,” Sevunts said.

“We have to make sure that the generosity, this incredible outpouring of support for Ukraine, doesn’t come at the expense of all other crises.”

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, left, and Pyarali Nanji sign the grant agreement in support of the UNHCR’s Aiming Higher campaign. (Valerie Agawin/UNHCR)

Nanji-Simard agrees, calling her family’s donation a “call to action.”

“It’s time for all of us, all Canadians, all global citizens, to realize that not everyone is as fortunate and that we can uplift lives all over the world.”

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