On January 29, 2018, Rokaiya Anis passed away at the age of 83. She left behind her three beloved children and their spouses, Aslam (Janet), Reyan (Tasvir), Azmat (Suzy), and six grandchildren (Sabrina, Shereen, Sameed, Samira, Amira and Sarah), a brother Azad, and two sisters (Razia and Rafia). She is also sadly missed by a large, extended family, former colleagues and most importantly, her “patients”, whom she loved to talk about and who, in turn, kept in regular contact and adored her. As an obstetrician and gynecologist, Rokaiya had a career that spanned four decades and, being in the Army Medical Corps, often performed in conditions that were less than ideal. In the early sixties she was deployed in what used to be called no-mans-land or Ilaka Ghair on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the tribal folks were suspicious of all non-locals and especially women who were advocating for prenatal care, better hygiene and nutrition for women in an environment where maternal and child health was not a concept that was understood or appreciated.
Rokaiya was equally dedicated to her work and to raising her family. While she dearly loved her children, the inhospitable environs where she was posted by the military for much of her career meant that, in order for her children to receive a proper and solid education, her children needed to be sent to boarding school at a very young age – a decision that, while she felt was necessary, also broke her heart.
This was history repeating itself, for in her own childhood, she lived through a period of historical turmoil in the subcontinent which resulted in separation from her own family. During the partition of India, Rokaiya decided to forgo the comforts of a nice home and supportive community with her mother and extended family in Kolkata and instead chose to follow her fiercely nationalistic father to a one-room bungalow in what used to be a paddy-field (Dhanmondi) in Dhaka in the newly formed country of Pakistan.
Even though she wanted her family to not experience the same turmoil she endured growing up, circumstances would conspire against her when the military decided to send Anis and Rokaiya to the UK for specialized training in medicine. She was once again separated from her kids - ironically, this time for her and husbands’ educational needs and not theirs! During the war of independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan, the family (parents in the UK and the kids in Dhaka) was reunited but under less than ideal circumstances: they were shipped to a prisoner-of-war camp in a remote area in Pakistan for two years.
After the family was repatriated to Bangladesh, the kids were restless and wanted a stable education and not move every year to a new location and new school as they had for so many years. The boys (Aslam and Azmat) left for North America to pursue opportunities for higher education and subsequently, to explore career options that were non-existent in a fledgling new country full of its own growing pains. Rokaiya was sad to be separated from her children again; but, thankfully, Reyan, her daughter, stayed in Dhaka and was by her side for most of her life.
For the next 25 years, Rokaiya felt torn between having to choose being with her sons and their children in North America or being at home, doing the work she loved, and being close to her daughter and her family. Twice-a-year she travelled to Vancouver and Michigan to visit her sons’ families and spent extended periods away from her practice. She eventually stopped working and relished in the freedom she had to be close to all her children and their families.
In the last few years of her life, Rokaiya experienced declining health, eventually becoming almost bed-ridden due to weakness in her legs from multiple strokes; yet, she remained surrounded by a very supportive team of caregivers, in Reyan’s home where her every need was catered to with love. Her sons and their wives and grand-children came to visit as she was very much an important part of their lives as they were in hers. Her other family members and her many friends also visited her regularly.
As I reflect on my mother’s life and compare it to my own, I am in awe of the sacrifices my mother had to make in order to provide her children with the opportunities from which they benefitted. I feel so fortunate to have been able to provide a much more stable and less disruptive environment for my own children. They attended one elementary school and one high school and lived most of their lives in the same house. In comparison, my parents were forced to relocate and uproot the family and separate the siblings on several occasions throughout my childhood. Rokaiya had four different nationalities over her lifetime - , Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Canadian! As I see the turmoil in the middle-east, parts of Africa and closer to home with the Rohingya refugees, I see the same pattern repeated for so many other families whose lives are being disrupted everyday due to events completely out of their control and would like to salute their resilience as I do my mother’s – a true pillar of strength until the very end.
Aslam Anis, Vancouver, Canada (firstname.lastname@example.org)