Over Labour Day weekend in early September, more than 2,500 athletes, spectators and volunteers attended the first ever North American Ismaili Games in Chicago. While there were individual medal presentations and celebrations in every sport, the entire Jamat was the real winner.
Speaking to those gathered at the closing ceremonies, Ismaili Council for Canada Vice-President Moez Rajwani called for a lasting legacy.
“There’s a lot of energy in the room,” said Vice-President Rajwani. “What happens when we leave the room? For the athletes: how do you become better at what you do? For the volunteers: how will you serve more in the future? And for the Jamat: how are we going to stay united outside of this room?”
“It’s all about brotherhood and sisterhood,” said table tennis silver medalist Hussain Kabani.
Kabani, who represented Ontario, was defeated in his event by Mazen Tanjour, an elite player who competes at the national level in Canada. Tanjour hoped the gold medal win in Chicago would boost his confidence as he prepared to compete in the following week’s Edmonton Open Table Tennis Championships.
It worked. Days later, Tanjour and teammate Ioulia Degtiar went on to win gold in the mixed doubles event.
While he’s not the only Ismaili athlete at the Chicago Games who competes at the top of his sport, Tanjour has the distinction of being a national table tennis champion in both Syria and Canada.
At the age of eight, he began training with world class Chinese coaches who worked with the Syrian national women’s team in Salimiyah. By the time he was 22, Tanjour was national champion in men’s singles and a multiple title holder in doubles.
An overachiever whose ambitions were not limited to sport, Tanjour studied to become a doctor and in 1988 migrated to Canada to pursue further education. Soon after his arrival, Canada — specifically the province of Alberta — wanted Tanjour to play table tennis for them.
“I was a landed immigrant,” Tanjour explained, when the Alberta table tennis team asked him to play for them at the upcoming national tournament. “Within a week [the immigration office] called and said ‘we have a spot for you,’ and I got my citizenship.”
Once he became Canadian, Tanjour was able to sponsor his parents and brother to join him in his adopted country.
Although Tanjour has been playing table tennis since he was young, he only recently started playing in large Ismaili sport tournaments. Last year, he won both the singles and doubles titles at Canada’s Sportsfest West in Vancouver, and he looks forward to building on his North American Games triumph in the future.
Spirit of service
Kabani, Tanjour and the many other athletes who competed at the games were only able to come together in Chicago because of the efforts of more than 1,000 enthusiastic volunteers. Many of them devoted every hour of their long weekend towards making the North American Ismaili Games a reality. If they were exhausted, no one would never know it from talking to them.
“It’s fun,” said Laila Marali, a Chicago volunteer who came straight from work Friday evening, slept minimal hours and served all weekend. “If I stayed at home and didn’t do anything, I’d feel guilty.”
Marali, 50, came to the United States from Karachi, Pakistan 25 years ago. “I want to do work. I want to volunteer. That’s my passion.”
To a person, all of the volunteers shared her attitude.
“We want everyone to be happy,” said Gulnar Attawala. She and her daughter Sania paid to stay at a hotel near the Waukegan venue so they wouldn’t waste time going back to the city, morning and night.
That dedicated spirit played a big part in landing Chicago the first North American Ismaili Games. Recalling the bid submitted by the city, Zahra Kassam, Aga Khan Youth and Sports Board (AKYSB) Chair for the USA said: “They had the sites, they had the volunteer power, they had the enthusiasm.”
Her northern counterpart, Saif Ajani, Chairman of the AKYSB in Canada agreed. “To unite a Jamat from two countries, it’s been such a blessing to have this volunteer power,” he said.
The service was not only for members of the Ismaili community. Working with Worldwide Hunger Relief, Ismaili volunteers prepared meals for over 6,000 orphans and babies. Samina Andani, one of three leads for non-competitive sports, oversaw the effort.
“We’re always talking about community service so we wanted to make sure we had that at the games,” Andani explained. “That’s what we’re all about.”
Prayer for peace
An inspired volunteer effort, a healthy spirit of competition and newly forged friendships made the inaugural North American Ismaili Games in Chicago a resounding success. But it took place with the knowledge that many do not have the peace and security that Ismailis in North America take for granted.
“We have brothers and sisters around the world who are struggling,” said Vice-President Moez Rajwani in his closing ceremony remarks.
“Our celebration should come with a prayer for all of them, so there can be peace.”