SFU undergraduate student Samaah Jaffer is a journalist, intellectual, community organizer, advocate for democratic engagement, and outspoken critic of Islamophobia. She’s also the program assistant at SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement, where she helps facilitate dialogues on topics ranging from social justice and sustainability to urbanism, indigenous issues, and arts and culture.
“It’s been an amazing opportunity to work in this office because it’s given me a lot of insight into what I am personally really passionate about,” Jaffer said in an interview at SFU Woodward’s.
In the fall of 2015, Jaffer began noticing an increasing number of hate crimes directed not only at Muslims but also at people who appeared to be Muslims.
“It really started to become a personal concern for me,” she said. “It’s something that I definitely feel is important to talk about. I think it’s a phenomenon that people often don’t believe is real or believe is a fabrication of some sort. I find that also very worrisome because of how real it is and how I’ve seen it manifest in so many ways within my own life.”
Her parents both moved to Canada as children from East Africa, where many people of Indian ancestry were subjected to intense discrimination. Her father, who traces his roots back to the Indian state of Gujarat, was among the nearly 60,000 South Asians expelled from Uganda in the early 1970s by the country’s vicious dictator, Idi Amin.
“I had one conversation with my grandfather about Islamophobia,” Jaffer recalled. “He mentioned that when they first came to Canada, they were targeted with racial slurs as well, but with time it phased out.”
She said that it’s been particularly difficult for the older generation to come to terms with the return of racism after feeling that they had been accepted in Canada. It’s why she’s organizing two events within the Muslim community this month to foster conversations about Islamophobia. She feels it’s especially important to build bridges between different sects of Islam.
Jaffer, who is the B.C. editor of rabble.ca, also cautioned people against making assumptions about why Muslim women don a hijab. For some, it might be a political or fashion statement, whereas for many others, it’s strictly an act of faith, and assuming otherwise could be extremely offensive.
“You can’t put a label on why people choose to wear it or not,” she said. “It’s really important to acknowledge that.”
So where did her activism come from? She credits her friend and mentor Itrath Syed, who was the federal NDP candidate in Richmond East in the 2004 election. At the time, Jaffer was an elementary-school student in Richmond.
“That was definitely a pivotal moment where I was able to see a fellow Muslim woman wearing a hijab doing such an amazing job carrying herself in what was a very difficult campaign,” Jaffer said. “Just even as a child watching that, I was definitely inspired.”