From the warm shores of Kenya to the snowy hills of SFU

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I still recall that evening in Nairobi, Kenya! My eldest brother, more like a father figure, paid me a surprise visit at the Nairobi University. I was a teen at that time, just completing my first year of studies at the university.

The newspapers, TV channels & radios were blaring out the latest news of Uganda: Idi Amin had just announced that all Asians in Uganda had to leave the country within three months. I did not even know about this and did I really care? But apparently my brother did! He looked alarmed! He resided in Kampala, Uganda and he was worried for me, as he had witnessed young girls being abducted and raped. He was deeply concerned for my safety!

Though my country was not yet affected by the atrocities of Idi Amin, he sternly said, “I do not want you to stay in Kenya.” He at once asked me to apply at universities in England. At that time, England was the place of choice for studies due to its proximity to Kenya. I applied to many universities and got accepted to the University of Leeds.

August 1972

I packed my bags and set off on my trip from Mombasa, Kenya to Vancouver, Canada with my Mum. My Mum was going to see me settled in Leeds. However, we were first visiting my sister in Vancouver, who had recently emigrated from Kampala, Uganda. When my sister heard that I was going to study in England, she suggested that I apply to Simon Fraser University. She said, “There is a new university perched on top of Burnaby Mountain; you may want to try applying there instead of going to Leeds.”

My adventure at SFU started. My family dropped me off at the SFU bus stop at the transportation center. All I remember is walking from the Transportation Centre to the Strand Hall: through the Convocation Mall, Library and past the AQ pond, and on to the Admissions office in Strand Hall. I had to stop and ask a student (the late Nasim Sayani, who happened to be basking in the sun on the lawn across from the rock in the pond - as I stopped to ask her for the directions to the Strand Hall, I learned that she was a recent refugee from Uganda!). Finally, I reached my destination - the Strand Hall. I recall the Admissions team was very friendly; they examined all my documents and directed me to a room where I had to compile an essay on a topic of my choice. I was asked to submit all my transcripts and then within a week, I officially became a student of SFU in September 1973.

So, Leeds was out the window & welcome SFU!

I ended up staying for a short time with my sister and her family of three very young children. They lived in North Vancouver, in the Westview area. Being very ambitious, I registered for five courses for the first term. Having being chauffeured around in Kenya, little did I realize that the transportation system would not be as reliable here! Most of the science courses that I had registered for had early morning labs at 8:30 am. That meant leaving home at 7:00 am.

I usually made it on time; however, I recall I had one of my exams scheduled for 8:30 in the morning, a Sociology course if I remember correctly, one of my electives. I really don’t know what happened that morning (either the bus was to be blamed or my deep sleep!) that I reached the exam 30 minutes late. Being so new, I did not have the heart to say anything to the TA. I sat down to write down my answers profusely, but of course could not complete my exam on time. I will never forget that morning. I felt terrible the entire day. To this day, I kick myself for not have talked to my TA; I am sure he would have understood and probably made some allowances.

Anyway, this course surely lowered my GPA. Though I do not recall the name of that TA, I have seen him on campus; he has since moved up to be a professor. Many a time, I feel like I should stop him and relay my story. I am very sure he will not remember, but this incident sure left a mark on my mind!

I was a pretty brave little girl: I did not know a soul on campus! I gradually made a number of friends from various courses that I was registered in. I distinctly remember a young couple in my geography class, who used to live in a tree house! I once went to visit them and wow! What a way of living, not my cup of accommodation for sure! This tree house was kind of located in the present day location of the elementary school on campus.

Talking about accommodation, I had to move from North Vancouver to Coquitlam, so that I was in close proximity to SFU. This was thanks to one of my friends from geography class who recommended this lovely Ukrainian family. This caused a real uproar at my sister’s house, as my brother in law was very upset, and this is something that was never heard of back then, especially in my culture to have a young teen move out and live on her own!

It is too bad that I never kept in touch with my friends, for I would love to chat over a cup of chai. There is one friend in particular that I miss, Debbie. Her family lived in Prince George and she lived in women’s residences. I used to go and visit her sometimes and we prepared dinner together. I used to love studying on the quiet fourth floor of the library with my friend Kuldip.

Romance on campus

Little did I know that a friend from Nairobi University would end up in Vancouver! Once, at an off-campus event, I bumped into him and he never let go off my hand! I found out that he was an Engineering student at UBC and had a great mind for calculus. With that course being one of my weaknesses, he used that as a ploy to mentor me by coming to SFU practically every evening. Yes, you guessed right! I passed my two calculus courses and also fondly fell for my coach and I will let you read within the lines. Our special meeting place was in the alcove below the Images Theatre. Our romance blossomed and we exchanged wows one year later.

I thank Idi Amin for his ‘dream’ of expelling Ugandan Asians as that indirectly affected my move to Canada. I thank SFU for being my home away from home, welcoming me with open arms and giving me a brighter future, my sister and her family as well as my Ukrainian family who made my first years enjoyable. And I would be remiss if I did not mention my late brother, who probed me to leave Kenya and continue my studies abroad. Thank you all! I love SFU and will always pride myself to have completed my undergraduate degrees from the university perched atop of Burnaby Mountain. 

From Nairobi University to Simon Fraser University by default!

Yasmin Jamal
PBD 1994