Excerpt of Memoirs of a Pakhtun Immigrant


A new book by Cowichan Valley author Teresa Shapansky, to be published in the spring, will present a real-life saga of the struggles of a Pakistani family to come to Canada and settle on Vancouver Island.  Schapansky had previously written fiction and then co- created the Along the Way series of provincial travel facts for kids. Then her old Lake Cowichan school friends contacted her and asked if she’d assist their father Jamal Khan in writing and publishing his memoirs. After lengthy meetings, she compiled the family story which begins with grandfather Gafoor’s daring decision, putting it in context by adding notes on current world events happening as the story unfolded.

paktunSchapansky was inspired by a story that includes an account of the Rawalpindi riots in 1947 and the early days in the BC lumber industry. “A lot of us are not aware of what people had to go through to immigrate,” she said, adding the consulate general of Pakistan is helping host an event for the book. For preorders of the book and more background  go to Schapansky’s website here

Here is the excerpt:

Ripple effects of the war were being felt across the globe, and all industries were affected in one way or another. One example of this was the shipping industry; typically harmless ships that had been built for the purpose of transporting passengers and the importing and exporting of goods would now be commissioned and converted by the military for battle use.

The cargo and passenger ship, SS Rajputana, built in 1925 and known for having carried celebrities the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, as well as Gandhi, would become one such ship. In December of 1939, after reaching port in Esquimalt, British Columbia, it would be renamed the HMS Rajputana, and fitted for combat. In the spring of 1941 this vessel, like many others, would fall victim to a tornado assault and sink off the coast of Iceland.

At this time, the Indian army consisted of more than 200,000 men, and it would soon grow to become the largest all-volunteer military unit known to man.

Gafoor enjoyed his leave of absence from the ship, and just as he had done for the previous eighteen years, took great pleasure in being home with his family and helping with the farming of the land. By the time he prepared to leave the village to head back to work, his sons were two and four years old, and he and Basnoor were expecting their third child.

Gafoor hugged his parents, his wife, and his children goodbye, and began the long journey. He walked away from his mountain village, down the now well-trodden path to the valley below. Miles later, he reached the road that would lead him to Rawalpindi. From there, he rode the train to Bombay.

Neither Gafoor nor his family had any way of knowing that they would not see each other again, for many, many years to come.

Months later, the ship returned to Bombay, and after unloading, the crew was informed that the next ship to leave, the SS Rajputana, would be bound for Canada. Gafoor was taken back, and he was not prepared for this. He knew that he had a quick decision to make, as this was his first opportunity, and very likely the last chance he’d have, to reach the land of freedom. Ultimately, he did not spend this time off by going home to his village, but instead, immediately signed up to join the next sailing. Gafoor kept his true intentions to himself, as he made arrangements to stay with the officer that had first provided him with his job, until the ship was ready to leave.

On Tuesday, November 7th, 1939, after many stops along the way and having travelled nearly 16,000 nautical miles, Gafoor’s ship neared the southern end of Vancouver Island, on Canada’s west coast. The helmsman steered into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and finally the anchor was dropped at Esquimalt harbour. It took the crew two days to unload the cargo, and because new goods to load would not arrive until the following week, each of the crewmembers were granted a pass that allowed them to go onshore. All of the men showered and then dressed in their finest clothes before disembarking. Gafoor changed into his one and only suit, put on his hat and his long coat, and with only four dollars to his name, filed in line with the rest of the crew and left the ship.

Endless grey clouds covered the sky, and there was a constant drizzle of sleet. Despite the chill, spirits were high as the crewmembers talked among themselves, all the while exploring the streets of Esquimalt.

Gafoor felt pangs of guilt and torment by the time he reached his final conclusion; that in order to provide a better life for his family, he could not possibly return to the ship with the crew. What he was about to do was in direct contrast to his beliefs, and he hoped and prayed that the decision he’d made, would be the right one.

Not knowing the fate that awaited him, Gafoor slipped away from the others unnoticed, and headed toward the Johnson Street Bridge. His pace quickened as he crossed it, and he didn’t dare look back.

In a matter of minutes, Gafoor had risked everything he’d known and loved, and had become an illegal immigrant in a foreign country. If he were caught, he was certain that he’d either face deportation or find himself looking out through the bars of a jail cell for any number of years. He would never be able to live down the shame.


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