By Judy Csillag
Wife, mother, daughter, sister, teacher, friend, interfaith activist, spiritual angel. Died August 6, 2013, in Toronto of complications from a brain aneurysm, aged 38.
"A woman of valor, who can find?" asks the book of Proverbs. "Far beyond rubies is her value."
I had found my woman of valor in an everlasting friendship with Tanya Khan. "We" were the three musketeers of interfaith activism: Tanya, a devout Muslim, Rev. Cathy Gibbs, an Anglican priest, and me, a Jew. We, so different, yet exactly the same, women who were bent on making the world a better place through common understanding, stoked by a great love and respect between us.
I first met Tanya about 15 years ago when I worked for an organization that taught interfaith understanding to school children. The essence of the program was to take students to places of worship so that they may feel, taste and smell the mysterious world of others and see that the similarities of their lives outweighed the differences. A visit to Tanya’s mosque, the Ahmadiyya Baitul Islam Mosque, was a delightful experience each time, and through hundreds of trips, we found that a true bond had developed between us, over and above mere work.
We began hanging out.
Our relationship was cemented forever when we arranged a women’s interfaith build for Habitat for Humanity in 2008, 30 women, 8 faiths. ages 16 to 82. That initiative created our interfaith woman’s group which still meets today.
We shared Passover Seders in my home, and reveled in Eid at hers. The conclusion: Eid food outweighed matzah. She and I organized the first visit of Muslims, including Imams, to the Toronto Holocaust Centre, where most of the audience wept at hearing a survivor’s story. She deeply understood the importance of this for me, a child of Holocaust survivors.
We watched foreign films some incendiary of Jews, Muslims or Christians and that only gave us more manna for conversation, never losing sight of our mutual respect for one another.
We shared Easter dinners at Cathy’s home and Thanksgiving turkeys; we made Hungarian stuffed peppers and Lebanese hummus. We traveled to places including the USA to speak to students and parents who knew Islam only through the corrosive news articles they had been reading since September 11, 2001.
Tanya was hysterically funny, smart, compassionate and strong, a kindred spirit. At a very proper dinner for some very proper organizations, Tanya, who sat next to me, raised the hem of her very proper long coat to reveal cherry red stilettos.
As a teacher at Louis Honore Frechette Public School in Thornhill, she was deeply loved by her students and staff, and always infused her students with a sense of equity and an open heart. Tanya would have been a vice-principal this year, something she had been working towards for years. I’ll never forget her story of one student who told her that if she were a menu item at McDonalds, she would be a "McGorgeous."
We tend to identify strength with physical power, but true strength comes from within. It is the power to perform the menial with dignity, the everyday task with enthusiasm, the raising of children with heroic discipline and unstinting devotion, the infusion of the home with holiness, and the creation of that indefinable warmth and joy that make a beautiful family. She was the true meaning of a wife, mother, friend, confidant, teacher and a student of life. Her credo was always "If you don’t live for something, you will die for nothing.”
Our hearts are inconsolable that she has physically left us but we truly believe that people only die once they are forgotten. Through her multitude of friends, family, and three beautiful young daughters, Alia, 12, Safiya, 10 and Nadya, 6, she will live forever.
She just needed to "move on" to her next project. Although gone, Tanya’s family donated her organs and six people’s lives were saved through the Trillium Gift of Life. Even with her sudden departure, her wish was still to give what she could. Tanya’s funeral was attended by over 1000 people, including Premiere Kathleen Wynne, mayors, MPPs, MPs, corporate executives, clergy, teachers, students all indiscernible in grief. There was representation from every faith and ethnicity in Toronto and her casket carried by many different denominations – Ahmadiyyans and Sunnis and Shiites. She created peace, if only for a moment.
What though the radiance
which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass,
of glory in the flower, We will grieve not,
rather find Strength in what remains behind.
– William Wordsworth, "Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" (1807)
Steven Del Duca's Member Statement regarding "Remembering Tanya Khan" on Sept. 12, 2013.
Teacher Tanya Khan touched lives far beyond the classroom, Toronto Star, 02 September 2013
LIFESTORIES: Vaughan teacher left a lasting legacy of caring, York Region, 09 April 2015
Hijab Not Mandatory Insist Muslim Women, City News, 11 December 2007
Strangers impacting the lives of strangers, The Islamic Light, 03 June 2014
Ward 1 Civic Hero Award Given to the Late Tanya Khan, Vaughan, 10 September 10, 2014