Muslims have never been portrayed as dedicated, honest and caring citizens who like to make a difference in their communities. But, Sultan Jessa, a Tanzania-born journalist has been able to dispel this myth.
The deteriorating political situation followed by mass nationalization in early 1970s in Tanzania compelled Sultan to pack his bags and leave for Canada to begin a new life. His game plan was to gain experience in Canadian journalism and then move to Vancouver where most of his friends had settled.
In the fall of 1973, Sultan started working for the Standard-Freeholder, a small community newspaper in Cornwall, Ont. that once belonged to the great Thomson chain. His six months stay in Cornwall stretched to three decades.
The Tanzania-born Canadian journalist of Indian origin has plenty of stories about his early days in eastern Ontario’s friendly Seaway city of 45,000 people. When he first arrived in Canada, he had the nearly impossible task of finding an apartment. No one was willing to rent apartments to immigrants, particularly those with a strange accent and a different skin colour. No one would sit next to him in the bus. In casual conversations, he was asked if people in Africa still lived on trees and if the streets were infested with snakes and hungry lions. It was not an easy or a smooth beginning. He experienced racism first hand during his early years. But, all that changed over a space of the next few years. He soon became the toast of the community.
Only six years after arriving in Cornwall, Sultan was declared the community’s top citizen and in March 2005 Sultan was awarded the Order of Canada, the country’s highest and most prestigious honour, at a ceremony at Rideau Hall. And in 2010, Sultan was declared one of the Top 25 Canadian Immigrants. This award recognized 30 years of community service with organizations like the Red Cross, Big Brothers, Children’s Aid Society, Rotary, Kinsmen and the RCMP. In the Cornwall community, Jessa became known as “The Sultan of Sacrifice” and “The Sultan of selflessness.”
The journalist proved himself a tireless and dedicated volunteer, as much as he was a dedicated journalist. He was renowned for his outstanding fundraising abilities, boundless energy, leadership and commitment. Over the years, he has been honoured by municipal, provincial and federal governments and has been recipients of numerous awards, including the Queen’s silver and golden jubilee medals. He won Ontario’s medal for volunteerism, good citizenship and even a medal from the Ontario Medical Association for his work in the health field.
This Ismaili spread his wings to help Christian charities. He has also been honoured by the Catholics, the Jewish community and the Sikh community. He never expected the Order of Canada. “This was a tribute to all who volunteered with me to help the less fortunate,” he said. Landing in Cornwall and finding a job was a fluke. But Sultan has never forgotten the long-lasting friendship established with late Dr. George McGowan, a retired veterinary surgeon, who helped settle the family in Canada. The rest is history.
During his 10-year career as a journalist in his native Tanzania, Sultan covered stories in Europe and Africa; many of them involved interviews with the rich and the famous. They included people like Willy Brandt, the former chancellor of Germany, the late US Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Cuba’s revered revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who helped Fidel Castro overthrow the Batista government, cowboy legend Roy Rogers, Bing Crosby, Harry Belafonte, John Wayne and Sidney Poitier.
Sultan’s parents were well to do business people who owned and operated a lot of going concerns, including a 300-acre coffee plantation, a bakery and a dairy. The family lost everything when Tanzania decided to nationalize everything without compensation. This was a year after Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled Asians and Europeans from his country and gave them 72 hours to leave the country. “The best thing that has happened to us is we have provided the best education to our two daughters,” he said. “No one can take away knowledge.”
Sultan and his wife Rosila, a seamstress, have two daughters, Anaar, an actuary and Yasmin, who teaches chemistry at the University of Miami in Ohio. Sultan and Rosila moved to Quebec more than 10 years ago to spend his retirement. He continues to do community service and write columns for some newspapers.