I sat in front of the television, seething. There it was. We knew it was coming, but the many predictive signs did nothing to diminish the impact when it finally hit. The Muslim ban. Under the thinly veiled guise of homeland security, the United States government had banned entry from what proved to be a rather arbitrary list of countries. They did have one thing in common, and it wasn’t being a threat to the welfare of Americans – they were largely populated by Muslim people.
I knew the impact it would have on innocent people. I knew the hate it would fuel, hate that had been simmering below the surface waiting for an excuse to come to a full boil. I knew it would spill over into my beloved Canada, as hate knows no borders. I braced myself for a fight, refusing to allow bigotry to find an easy foothold. But I did not see this particular tragedy coming.
On January 29, 2017, two days after President Trump signed the executive order giving unofficial permission to discriminate against Muslims, a man walked into a Quebec mosque and opened fire. As evening prayers finished, 25 worshippers were hit with the barrage of bullets. Six died. Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Abdelkrim Hassane, and Azzedine Soufiane were gone, and we all knew why.
It wasn’t just the Muslim ban that had contributed to this tragedy. Three months before, the Quebec government had banned the use of niqabs and burkas while receiving public services, such as riding a bus. My Muslim friends felt unwelcome in their own country. They felt targeted and they felt unsafe. Before the shooting, I watched as Canadians smugly shared articles about Trump’s atrocities, saying, “Thank goodness we live in Canada” as if our country was immune to intolerance and free from hate. If there had been doubt of the poison seeping into our wells before, the senseless loss of life at the mosque had extinguished it. Racism and Islamophobia are alive and well in Canada.
My intense rage soon turned to deep sorrow. I grieved for the families of those who went to pray and never came home. I ached for my friends and their community, targeted in their own home. I worried for Muslim children, afraid to go to school, scared of their fellow citizens.
My Muslim friends and the Muslim community still felt vulnerable and unwanted. They were being used as a battle cry on both sides of the war, and I knew they were exhausted. I knew they needed to feel seen. They needed to know they were loved.
I grabbed a stack of cardstock and some markers. I took my oldest son, then nine, into the bedroom and I told him what was happening in the Muslim community, and asked him how they must feel. I watched tears begin to stream his cheeks as he imagined himself in the place of children who felt unsafe and unwanted in Canada. As a biracial child, I often worry a time will come he will experience prejudice such as this first-hand.
We started colouring. We wrote card after card, proclaiming “We are glad you are here,” “Canada is better because you are in it,” “You are loved, you are valued, you are wanted,” and other messages of love, and then we mailed them to mosques throughout our city. We knew that our one small gesture would not undo the sea of hate, but we wanted to show that there was love out there for them too.
The niqab and burka ban caused more hate to dominate the headlines. A young girl experienced the trauma of having her hijab ripped off her head. Again I raged. Again I wrote. Again I screamed. And then I knew I needed to love. I needed to show these little girls that someone saw them, and loved them just how they are.
Creating a simple pattern, and using any fabric I had on hand, I made 25 small dolls wearing hijabs, and dropped them off on my friend Sheza’s doorstep.
I thought about representation. Did these little girls get to see themselves when they turned on the TV, or opened a magazine? I remembered what it felt like to wander the aisles of a toy store as a child, looking for that one doll I could pretend was my own child when we played house. I realized that even though we made a concentrated effort to give our sons dolls that represented a diversity of people, none of their dolls wore a hijab. A quick Google search showed me that hijabi dolls simply did not exist in any significant way in mainstream toy markets. I knew then what I would do for these children.
Creating a simple pattern, and using any fabric I had on hand, I made 25 small dolls wearing hijabs, and dropped them off on my friend Sheza’s doorstep with an anonymous note to please give them to any children she thought would like one. I thought she would distribute them, and that would be the end of the gesture. I could not have been more wrong.
The next thing I knew, my dolls were on the news. Then they were making international headlines. I knew I had chosen the right person to give the dolls to, but I had monumentally underestimated the spectacular light that is Sheza.
Sheza had not handed out the dolls, as advised. She had bigger plans.
First, she posted the story of finding the dolls on her doorstep on Facebook, and was inundated with requests for one. I had greatly under-anticipated the interest there would be in them. She informed each and every person that she would not be handing out the dolls just yet, that each doll would have a higher purpose, and be used to put good out into the world.
Her story went viral. I saw her interviewed on the evening news. I read the story covered around the world. I watched all of this go down silently, in awe, having no intentions of ever letting people know it was me, even Sheza. Seeing Sheza’s mission begins to grow legs, I made 53 more dolls – 50 for distribution, one for each of Sheza’s own children, and one for my children’s not diverse enough toy box – and placed it again anonymously on her doorstep, along with the pattern for the dolls.
At this point, I could see Sheza’s anxiety grow as she tried to figure out the identity of the mystery seamstress, and I worried that I was causing her stress. I quietly let her in on my secret, and asked her not to make that knowledge public. And she never did. I’m coming forward now because this story is no longer about me or my dolls – the world needs to hear the story of Sheza and her dolls.
What Sheza has done with 75 small ragdolls is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Amongst her first chosen recipients were five children who had faced discrimination for their dressing, sending with them a message of kindness and perseverance.
Hate spreads like a brush fire. Sheza showed me that kindness can regrow a forest.
She donated some to schools, both Islamic and public, where the dolls were used as ambassadors of good will, and promotion of diversity. They placed them in their reading nooks, excited to have a doll that looked like their students. One teacher asked Sheza’s friend to come in and speak about the story of the doll with her class. Another used the doll as a mascot, with the message of kindness becoming their class motto. Still another started a journal where students could write stories and poems about their doll, given the name Shazia by the children, and created a program in which children who have been kind or helpful to another student get to have the doll for the day. This teacher told Sheza of a student who had wrapped her head with a scarf to look like the doll, and see what it felt like to wear a hijab. Another teacher shared with Sheza that the dolls had become a symbol of love, tolerance, and acceptance, and a vehicle of change.
Sheza continued to distribute the dolls to schools and daycares in and around Toronto – but she didn’t stop there. Recognizing the growing number of people who wanted the dolls for their own children, she made some available with a donation to a youth mental health organization.
Sheza sent some to schools in Pakistan. She sent a copy of the pattern to a school in Pakistan where some of the students make the dolls as part of their curriculum. A year later, Sheza has ten dolls left, which she is keeping safe in case she comes across someone who needs that gesture of kindness. She has kept my secret safe too. I never imagined that such a simple gesture could bloom into something so impactful.
I learned an important message about hate and rage from this experience. There is a place for rage. Anger is inevitable and drives us to act. We need that outrage to fuel us to call out injustice and enact needed change. But it cannot end there. It isn’t enough for us to scream and fight and cry out, and if it is all we do, we will burn ourselves out with our own fire. We have to displace the hate with kindness and outreach. We have to show each other what we are fighting for, and why it matters. We must rage, but we cannot lose sight of our humanity in doing so. Hate spreads like a brush fire. Sheza showed me that kindness can regrow a forest.
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