Fifty years after fleeing Uganda and being granted sanctuary in Canada, Nimi Nanji-Simard’s family will support 50 refugee students pursuing health-related university studies in their countries of asylum.

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People make promises. Sometimes they even follow through, even though few might have held them to those promises.

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In 1972, the Nanji family, along with 60,000 other Ugandans of mostly South Asian lineage, were given 90 days to leave their country. Uganda’s then-leader, the despot Idi Amin, believed that while the country had long been their home, they were “bloodsuckers” and no longer welcome.

Pyarali Nanji, his wife, Gulshan, and their four children were among the thousands exiled, stripped of citizenship and left with only their packed suitcases. After arranging mercy flights for the Nanji family and countless other Ugandan refugees to Montreal, the Canadian government gave them sanctuary.

The Nanji family never forgot this country’s humanitarian gesture and pledged to pay it forward when it had the means to do so.

They went on to prosper in logistics and packaging in Montreal and Toronto, and have indeed paid it forward through the Nanji Family Foundation, which has given millions to hospitals here and around Canada.

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Two years ago, the foundation donated $1.6 million, split equally by 16 Canadian hospitals — including Montreal’s MUHC and CHUM — to help combat COVID-19 through research and staff support.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the family’s welcome to Canada, the foundation has just donated $1 million to the United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) Aiming Higher campaign, to provide financial support for a four-year period to 50 refugee students pursuing health-related university studies in their countries of asylum. Launched in December 2020 to coincide with UNHCR’s 70th anniversary, Aiming Higher seeks to make secondary and higher education accessible to refugees.

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“This gift comes from a place of tremendous gratitude,” says Nimi Nanji-Simard, a director of the Nanji Family Foundation who was 16 at the time of exile. “As my father told the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (Filippo Grandi): when we came to Canada, we were given lots of opportunities — be it in health care, education or counseling — and we were aided every step of the way for us to integrate and feel comfortable here. It wasn’t just about Canada granting us asylum, but that it also gave us the chance to get ahead here.

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“There are many host countries in the world with large refugee populations, many of them developing countries which just don’t have the means that Canada has to offer its refugees. Our family felt that education was the best opportunity these children had to either move back to their countries to contribute and to support their families if feasible, or to carry on elsewhere. So we felt picking 50 students in our 50th year here would be a great start.”

From left: Rema Jamous Imseis, UNHCR representative in Canada;  Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees;  Nimi Nanji-Simard, director of the Nanji Family Foundation;  Dominique Hyde, UNHCR director of external relations;  Pyarali Nanji, president of the Nanji Family Foundation;  and Alex Tom, UNHCR head of private sector partnerships in Canada.
From left: Rema Jamous Imseis, UNHCR representative in Canada; Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Nimi Nanji-Simard, director of the Nanji Family Foundation; Dominique Hyde, UNHCR director of external relations; Pyarali Nanji, president of the Nanji Family Foundation; and Alex Tom, UNHCR head of private sector partnerships in Canada. Photo by Valerie Agawin /UNHCR

The 50 refugee students to be selected will be between the ages of 15 and 22 and are living in host countries including Jordan, Kenya, Greece and Turkey. Many have fled from Syria and Afghanistan, and some are still living in refugee camps.

Nanji-Simard notes that the family will leave the selection of students to those on the front lines who help run the day-to-day lives of the refugees.

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“There are long lists of students who need this kind of support, and our hope is that others will come aboard also to create scholarships,” she says.

Those lists will be getting much longer with the situation in Ukraine, which has resulted in millions fleeing the country for safe haven around the world.

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“The Ukraine situation is relatively new, and down the road it will really have to be dealt with properly,” Nanji-Simard says. “The focus up until now has been on the Syrians and Afghanis. We can’t forget that many of their families have spent years and even decades languishing in exile in their host countries.”

The giving doesn’t end here for the foundation.

“But it’s not just about giving,” she says. “In a way, this donation is really a call to action. The hope is that it will change the narrative. So much of Canada is made up of new arrivals. There are so many success stories here. It would be great to awaken that spirit of giving among all those who have also been provided opportunity here.

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“It has always been my father’s philosophy that once you look after your family, you look after others in need. He feels there’s no greater joy than in giving — that it’s a privilege to help uplift others.”

Pyarali, 92 and living in Toronto with Gulshan, is not slowing down either.

“He’s sharp as a tack and always looking for new ventures, philanthropic and otherwise. Life keeps him constantly vitalized.”

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