Businesswoman Rozy Karim will never forget her early days in Canada after arriving as a refugee from East Africa.
She was staring outside a bedroom window in wintry Toronto after arriving penniless with her husband. They lost everything after escaping violence and chaos in Burundi in the 1970s.
“The rooftops were white, the trees were white, and the branches looked like stalagmites of ice,” Karim told the Straight by phone. “The snowflakes looked like a string of pearls from the soft, dim early streetlights. It was magical.”
She ran outside, spread her arms wide, looked at the sky, and stuck her tongue out. She had never seen snow in her life.
“I was spinning in joy and singing to her, my big mom—Canada,” Karim recalled. “She had spread her arms and hugged me to safety. Her crisp windy voice was serenading me: you are safe.”
As a child growing up in Tanzania, she often read fairy tales with happily-ever-after endings.
After her hellish experience as a young adult in neighbouring Burundi, she thought that she'd found her eternal bliss in her new country.
Suddenly, she was grabbed by the arm and dragged back inside by her husband, who told her never to go out in the snow in her nightgown.
“For god sake,” he said, “you are nine months pregnant.”
But Karim retained a dream of attending university in Canada, even as she began at the bottom of the economic ladder. She loaded boxes onto trucks and cleaned floors and the washroom in an automotive store.
She also recalled having to dodge snowballs on her way home, hurled by racists who told her to “go home”—but not to her residence in Toronto. They used a racial slur, starting with the letter "P", commonly used against people of South Asian ancestry in those days.
“Although not easily forgotten, the new meaning of living happily ever after was not going to stop me from keeping my dream alive,” Karim said.
Later, she become a single mother to three sons, eventually moving to the Lower Mainland and opening her own business. She began volunteering at the Ismaili Centre in Burnaby, helping seniors and children.
And on her 59th birthday, Karim told her sons that she was going to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Simon Fraser University.
“They were indeed shocked and did not understand why I would want to go back to school at my age,” Karim said. “I told them that the little girl who used to read fairy tales in East Africa had to fulfill her dreams of going to university.”
She began by taking evening and weekend courses at SFU. Later, she took two days a week off from her business and enrolled in two courses per semester.
And the day after her 65th birthday in June, she graduated with a major in international studies with a specialization in comparative world politics, culture, and society. Her minor was in education, with a focus on early learning.
“My time at SFU was the most amazing experience that one can ever imagine,” Karim said. “I was not given a special preference because of my age, or anything like that. I had to compete equally with the rest of my classmates who were so much younger—the age of my children.”
She credited several SFU faculty and staff members for making her academic journey such a pleasure, including Heesoon Bai, Anisha Arora, Amyn Sajoo, and Ellen Siew Meng Yap.
“My dream had come true,” Karim said with deep satisfaction.
When asked about her favourite courses, she had much to say. She first mentioned the education courses because she learned so much about early childhood education and psychology.
"The international studies courses were also extremely interesting," she added.
These gave her greater insights into the social, political, and economic lives of people throughout the world—and why inequality persists.
Then there were the history, philosophy, and research courses, which added perspective on how different political structures affected institutions.
Even though Karim is at an age when many Canadians are thinking about retirement, she's not in any mood to slow down.
Another dream is to write a children's book. She's already chosen a title.
And for many years, she's wanted to volunteer with the Aga Khan Development Network.
"At the moment everything is on pause because of COVID but I’m hoping age is not a factor," Karim said. "I want to do so much... It's never too late to pursue your dreams."