John Halani, the former honorary consul of Uganda in B.C. and a well-known leader in the Ismaili Muslim community in Vancouver, is being remembered as a man with a big heart after passing away two weeks ago. He was 85.
Halani died May 2 after a brief illness, according to a family member. He came to B.C. in 1972 after escaping the persecution of the Idi Amin regime in Uganda.
He was heavily involved in helping resettle Ugandan refugees and immigrants here in Canada, and was also honoured by the spiritual leader of the Ismaili community for his services to that cause.
"He was a giant of a man. A big man with a big heart, kind and compassionate," said Farouk Verjee, a close friend of Halani and a fellow member of the Ismaili community.
"If I can use a Jewish terminology — in Yiddish, he was a 'mensch.' He treated everyone with kindness and compassion."
Halani came to Vancouver as a 35-year-old business owner in 1972. He'd had his assets confiscated by the Amin regime as he was leaving Uganda.
He immediately got involved with businesses upon arriving in Vancouver, according to Verjee.
He first got a job with a glass company, and then was able to lease out the Robsonstrasse hotel in downtown Vancouver. Soon after, in 1975, he was running the Tropicana Hotel across the street.
He went on to an active political career, including being named honorary consul for Uganda in B.C., and was involved with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. and other advocacy groups.
Deep family ties
"Funnily enough, our family owned the hotel next to his — the Gifford Hotel," Verjee told Gloria Macarenko, host of CBC's On The Coast. "Our pathway continued here in Vancouver."
Though Verjee only met Halani once they were both in Vancouver, they shared a deep connection going back generations.
"John and my sister lived in the same apartment building in North Vancouver, and he invited her over for tea one day," Verjee said. "When she entered his living room, she saw a picture of John and my dad laying the foundation stone of a school in Masaka, which was John's hometown.
"That's when John realized who my sister was. Serendipity!" Verjee said, laughing.
In addition to his advocacy efforts, Halani was honoured for his work within the Ismaili community by the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. He was given the title of rai, which means "respected one."
"I remember the Aga Khan saying once: the Prophet Muhammad said, 'Do enterprise with a conscience,'" Verjee said. "We all want to make money and more money, but what do we take with us?
"John has taken away so much goodwill. There were so many people from the interfaith community, so many people from the African diaspora, and we took pride that he was one of us."
Verjee said there are plans in the fall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ugandan refugees arriving in Canada, and there would likely be a consensus then on how best to honour Halani's legacy.