Being an Immigrant

Saima Hussain


Sturdy loafers are useful for those who slip them on and off at prayers five times a day. They are also perfect for those who are always on the move, as was Saima Hussain’s father. India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia had all been home for him and his family. He calls himself a Mohaijir, Urdu for “immigrant.” Saima Hussain explores what it means to be an immigrant and to belong to the place where one lives.  


My father owns several pairs of loafers. Black, brown, and tan, they are all the same. Made of leather or leather-like material, they have thick rubber soles and are sturdy enough to be worn in almost any weather. They slip on and off easily, which is useful when he stands barefoot on the prayer mat five times a day. There are no laces to cause delay for the man who, despite retiring some years ago, likes to wake up early, get fully dressed and stay that way until bedtime. Only then do the shoes come off. 

They are the perfect shoes for someone who seems to be forever on the move. 

A few years after arriving in Canada, we took a family trip to Ottawa. Besides visiting Parliament Hill, the Canadian War Museum, and the Byward Market, we took a boat cruise on the Ottawa River. It was there I told my father, “Abbu, you should write your autobiography now. You can call it From Etawah to Ottawa.” 

My father was born in a small town called Etawah in British-ruled India. In 1947, he was barely three years old when the British left and the country was partitioned. So, with his parents and baby sister, he boarded a ship in Bombay, which brought him to Karachi, the largest city and financial centre of the new state of Pakistan. 

He lived in a one-bedroom apartment near Jubilee Cinema and played cricket in the streets around it. In time, he attended universities in Karachi and Edinburgh. He returned to Karachi for some years before we all lived in Saudi Arabia for ten years. He went back and forth from Karachi to Saudi Arabia until we finally immigrated to Canada. 

Once, to explain this endless movement, he had shrugged and said, “Once a Mohajir, always a Mohajir.” Mohajir is the Urdu word for immigrant. It is borrowed from Arabic and, over the centuries, has been applied to many emigrant groups throughout the Muslim world.  

When I first used the word Mohajir in a Shoe Project session, a Roma woman from Hungary spoke up and said: “My last name is MOHACSI.” It is from the same root word and had travelled with the Roma into Europe. That was a moment of recognition. No matter how we got here, we have this in common: we have come from elsewhere. We are immigrants. 

In Pakistan, I proudly identified myself as a Mohajir, which was strange since I was born there and enjoyed full citizenship rights. In Pakistan, the word ‘Mohajir’ had little to do with legal status. It referred to ethnicity.  Politicians had manipulated it to identify people as the other. 

At age 19, I arrived in Canada and was an immigrant. For the next four years, I had the status of ‘landed.’ Then I took the oath of citizenship. I admit to feeling relief. I like to stand on solid ground and firmly belong to the place where I live.

There must come a time when you stop being an immigrant, when you stop thinking of yourself as an immigrant, and when others stop seeing you that way.  I never want to lose my connection to where I came from, but now this is home. 

SAIMA HUSSAIN earned an honours BA in English and history and an MA in South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto. She then moved to Pakistan, where she became books editor at Dawn newspaper. Upon returning to Canada, she produced a history book for young readers, The Arab World Thought of It: Inventions, Innovations and Amazing Facts (Annick Press, 2013) and The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth: Personal Stories by Canadian Muslim Women (Mawenzi House, 2016). Saima is actively involved in arts and community projects, and she currently works at the Mississauga Library.

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