MOHAMMED AZHAR ALI KHAN
Canada reluctantly bade farewell with sorrow, admiration, respect and warmth to a loving daughter - who had brought happiness to many of Canada’s daughters and sons.
Initially, Canada didn’t want her daughter to go. But when her departure became imminent Canada honored her and told her she was loved and valued.
When she departed, Canada honored her again, at a memorial ceremony that moved everyone who attended.
Lieutenant-Commander Wafa Dabbagh made history when she joined the Canadian armed forces in 1996 – the first Muslim woman wearing a hijab to do so. Officers were baffled by why she wanted to join, and wondered how her recruitment would work out. She won that battle easily – everyone she met loved her friendliness. They not only accepted her, they embraced her.
When Wafa left she made history again. For the first time in Canada, an official memorial service was arranged where the function began and ended with a recitation from the Holy Qur’an.
Padre Captain Suleiman Demiray began by reciting from Sura Aal-e-Imran. He concluded by reciting Al-Fateha. Both, seeking forgiveness and divine guidance, were translated and printed in the memorial service program.
The Canadian military invited Ottawa’s Muslim community to the function. VIPs and guests included General Walter Natynczyk, Chief of the Defense Staff and the most senior military officer, Assistant Deputy Minister (Policy) Jill Sinclair, Major-General Ian Poulter, representing the Vice-Chief of the Defense Staff, Rear Admiral Ron Lloyd, Chief of Force Development and others.
The speeches illustrated Wafa’s powerful impact. Rear Admiral M.F.R. Lloyd, Wafa’s senior commander, stated that Wafa “epitomized the best of human qualities and inspired everyone.” He said she had made it easier for Muslims to join Canadian forces.
Rear Admiral Lloyd declared that he had never met a person who didn’t like Wafa. Everyone loved her. A friend, Corporal Nesbitt, recalled that when Wafa learned she had cancer she arranged a feast to share the news with friends.
Other speakers said her devotion to Islam increased their own faith in their religions and reminded them that we are all human. They said she always added “God willing” in her e-mails. So highly was she regarded that when her superiors learned that she’d probably lose her battle with cancer, they went to the hospital and presented her on behalf of the government with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal, a prestigious award that marks the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne. She was honored for “her dedication to duty, her cheerful spirit and for improving understanding between Muslims and the Canadian military.”
Rear Admiral Lloyd stated that they went to the hospital with heavy hearts but “left buoyed by her fighting spirit, her infectious good nature and her overall enthusiastic approach to life.”
Wafa died in Ottawa at the age of 50. A Palestinian who was born in Egypt, she grew up in Kuwait and moved to Canada in 1990 when she was 28. She had two degrees but jobs were not easy to come by in Canada so she tried the military.
“The commanding officer sat me down and said ‘I don’t know what to do with you,’” Wafa recalled. “He had called every branch of the forces and no one had a covered Muslim woman in their ranks. I told him, ‘What you see is what you get, sir. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t eat pork, but I can do everything else.’”
She wore a longer skirt and a looser shirt. But she worked with such enthusiasm that she was accepted and she advanced. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2010.
Wafa was a pioneer. “I want the Muslim community to know the door is open for them in the Forces. My experience has been 95 percent positive,” she declared.
“And I want other Canadians to know that there are people serving Canada who are not white with blond hair and blue eyes. We are all working together, white, black, Asian, Arab, Aboriginal.”
In addition to praying five times a day and wearing the hijab, Wafa followed the Islamic teachings of gratitude, kindness, integrity and good manners. Though she never married, her sister lives in Montreal and her brother in Dubai, she counted many colleagues and neighbors as family, and they loved her as well.
She recalls that when she asked to shower alone, her female friends stood outside the shower to guard and make sure nobody barged in. The cooks provided her pork-free dishes and her superiors gave her 10-minute prayer breaks.
Chemotherapy and radiation weakened her but she kept working, and entertaining her colleagues and neighbors. She wished them Merry Christmas and they wished her Happy Ramadan.
Her lifestyle represented the true Islam. Her colleagues’ attitude toward her represented Canada’s multiculturalism. She brought the two together in her life and death. May Allah grant her paradise.
— Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian newspaperman, civil servant and refugee judge. He has received the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Award.