I heard a wonderful story 19 years ago; I never forgot it.
I was at a North American Interfaith Network conference at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. One workshop, "The Feminine Divine in All Our Traditions," drew me in. I remember thinking how fitting it was to hear stories on the basement level of the building. We began with the Goddess tradition and worked our way through the eons to the Baha'i tradition. I loved every story, but the one that lodged in my mind was told by Karen Hamdon, who is Muslim.
Since then, I have become friends with Hamdon — and her sister Brenda Hamdon Dushinski — because of our shared involvement in the peace and interfaith movements in places like Edmonton, Calgary, Jerusalem and Ramallah. The two make me believe in possibilities, they make me laugh and they make me love life more because they are in mine. This year, I connected with them in a new way. It stems from the narrative that Hamdon told in the university basement. It was the life story of her grandmother Hilwie Hamdon, who, to her granddaughter, shone a light on the feminine divine.
Hilwie Hamdon immigrated to Canada at the tender age of 17. Her Syrian-Lebanese husband came to Canada earlier, and established himself as a trader and then a merchant. After he first settled in Fort Chipewyan, Alta, which is an Indigenous community north of Fort McMurray, he married Hamdon in 1923. She could not read or write Arabic, much less English, Cree or Chipewyan, when she arrived in the country. But Hamdon not only managed, she thrived, learning the languages and what being Canadian meant. What’s more, she became a baker of bread, always keeping her table open. In fact, her hospitality was widely known, both in the north and in Edmonton, where they later moved.
This year, in recognition of this feminist pioneer, the Edmonton Public School Board announced the new Hilwie Hamdon Public School
. The honour recognizes Hamdon’s work for social justice, interfaith relations and commitment to welcoming the stranger to Canada. During the Great Depression, she also gained support from the Jewish and Christian communities in the establishment of the first mosque in Canada in 1938.
The Al Rashid Mosque, which became too small by the mid-1980s, was once scheduled to be torn down. But Hamdon's granddaughters — who are very much like their determined grandmother — had none of that and raised funds to move the mosque to the city’s Fort Edmonton Park, where it sits along with other old places of worship.
When the Hamdons (Hilwie and her husband Ali had six children) learned that there would be a Hilwie Hamdon School, they asked if I could write the picture book Hilwie's Bread
— which includes 15 beautiful illustrations by Edmonton’s Kelsey Nowaczynski — and present it to the school. It took all of a nanosecond to accept the challenge. Happily, we included Hilwie Hamdon’s original bread recipe in the book: a cup each of love, respect and gratitude — just the way she lived.
In this tricky age of interfaith relations, and outright hatred and fear of those who are considered different, it has been an honour to write about a woman who gathered friends and strangers at her table to share stories, exchange ideas about faith and eat together. I hope that Hilwie's Bread
will help to shed light on a Canadian story of peace, which continues to be lived out today.
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