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‘I Am Your Neighbour And You Don’t Know My Story’

June 28, 2021

She came to Canada in the footsteps of revolutionaries: a 10-year-old girl on an 18-hour flight, imagining.

She imagined a country that would be different from the one she was leaving. She would be disappointed.

Growing up in Johannesburg, Zeenat Saloojee witnessed the “racial crime” that characterized South Africa under apartheid. It was a dehumanizing, segregationist system her mother and father fought against.

That fight ultimately resulted in her parents facing exile and subsequently seeking asylum in Canada in the late 1960s.

Saloojee stayed behind. She was raised by her extended family until her mother “did a cloak and dagger” and brought her to Canada, she recalls.

It was 1977.

“I just imagined that it would be completely different,” she says of her new country. “It really wasn’t.”

Her father worked as a teacher and ran a travel agency while trying to garner international opposition to apartheid. Her mother eventually found work at a department store makeup desk.

As the only person of colour at her new school in Burnaby, the faced a, “constant barrage of racism.”

She remembers always being aware of her hair and her body and how she was different. It was hard to accept who she was, Saloojee recalls.

The surface of what she faced was ugly enough. Beneath that surface there was something worse.

She recalls one particular morning. She’d just opened the door to go to school when she heard herself scream.

Someone had left the head of an animal on her family’s porch and written a racial slur in blood.

“I learned to adapt well,” she says.

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