Vancouver education crusader, volunteer English teacher gunned down in Afghan attack

Published: March 21, 2014

Vancouver optometrist Roshan Thomas was among those killed in a gun battle inside the Serena hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan. She had spent years helping women and girls in the country. Submitted photo/astonalumni.org

MICHELLE MCQUIGGE
THE CANADIAN PRESS

Roshan Thomas spent weeks at a time living in Afghanistan’s impoverished communities and opened her Canadian home to youth seeking opportunities outside the war-torn country.

In the comparative safety of a well-guarded Kabul hotel dining room, however, the B.C. woman’s crusade for educational equality came to an abrupt end.

Thomas’s son Karim confirmed the Ugandan-born optometrist was among nine people gunned down in the Hotel Serena on Thursday while enjoying a dinner to usher in the Persian new year.

She died alongside another Canadian, Zeenab Kassam, a 37-year-old from Calgary who had spent the last year and a half volunteering as an English teacher at a school funded by the Aga Khan Foundation.

Karim Thomas said his mother was in Afghanistan helping to screen and select Afghan youth for an international scholarship program.

It was just one of her many efforts to level the playing field and bring new opportunities to the country she had visited regularly for the past 11 years, he said.

“She felt it was important to educate both girls and boys because without that balance of educated children becoming educated adults, you wouldn’t have a society that could progress and develop equally,” Karim Thomas said in a telephone interview from Vancouver.

Roshan Thomas uses materials sewn by mothers to train a group of teachers at a new Early Childhood Development centre in Kabul. Submitted photo/The Ismaili/Karim Thomas

His mother’s work with Afghan youth began in the mid ‘90s when she began volunteering alongside her husband, an ophthalmologist, to provide eye treatment to refugees fleeing Taliban rule.

When those refugees returned home, Thomas followed them and began her crusade for better education.

She opened a school for Afghan children and recently became more involved in offering opportunities for them to study abroad, Karim Thomas said, adding six Afghan youth are currently living in his parents’ Metro Vancouver home.

Karim Thomas said the knowledge that his mother made a genuine difference in the world has helped him, his father and his two sisters cope with the shock of her sudden death, which came months before she was expected to welcome her first grandchild into the world.

“It’s been quite overwhelming, the amount of support, the phone calls, the emails that have come from all over the world with stories about how my mother touched their lives,” he said. “That’s been an incredible source of comfort and strength for us.”

Long-time friend Sen. Mobina Jaffer was also struggling to come to terms with Thomas’ death.

“She was one of the most unselfish people I know,” Jaffer said. “I had just seen her a few weeks ago, she was doing such good work.”

Lauryn Oates, the projects director for the Calgary-based NGO Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, said the attack is a harsh reminder for everyone in the international aid community.

Oates, who knew both victims, said such tragedies never get easier to accept no matter how often they happen.

“It’s something we’re braced for all the time and we were well aware that things were dicey,” she said. “. . . You just think of their families and what they’re going through right now and it’s heartbreaking.”

A member of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, displays some of the identification cards and weapons gunmen carried during an attack on the Serena hotel Thursday, during a press conference at the Interior ministry in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, March 21, 2014. AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus

The attack that killed Thomas and Kassam comes as a shock to a country long accustomed to coping with militant violence.

The Serena Hotel in Kabul was long considered one of the safest accommodations in the country. Yet on Thursday night four teenage gunmen worked their way past security, entered the hotel restaurant and opened fire on the diners.

Police killed all four attackers after a three-hour standoff, with shooting resounding through the blocked off streets outside.

At the time of the attack, the hotel restaurant was packed with Afghans celebrating the eve of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, as well as foreigners who frequent the hotel.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird condemned the brazen attack, but said it would not deter Canadians from fighting terrorism in the country.

He described the two Canadian victims as development workers who were not officially employed by the federal government.

“Many of these people dedicated their lives to helping everyday Afghans build a better country for themselves, including education, and enhancing the role of women and girls in Afghan society. For this selfless work to be met with violence, especially on the occasion of Nowruz, just further proves the depravity of the Taliban and those who support them.”

Jaffer agreed.

“For something like this to happen on what was supposed to be a day of celebration it’s just horrible,” she said.

The shooting rampage was the latest in a series of high-profile attacks as the Taliban and allied militants step up a campaign of violence in the weeks leading to April 5 national elections.

– News of Kassam’s death has left her family devastated and contemplating some very painful questions about her last moments, said her younger brother, Karim-Aly Kassam.
“Did they do it quickly, so she didn’t suffer? Did they prolong it? Did somebody hold her hand in those last moments? That’s what I’d like to know,” he said.
Zeenab Kassam had been in Afghanistan for a year and a half as a volunteer English teacher, one of many stints working and volunteering throughout her life, her brother said. The woman was working with an NGO but her brother declined to name the organization, fearing publicity may jeopardize the return of his sister’s body.

(FILES) This photo taken on October 28, 2009, in Kabul, shows armed Afghan police surrrounding the five star Serena hotel in central Kabul following a rocket attack. Four suspected Taliban gunmen entered a luxury hotel in Kabul on March 20, 2014, in the evening, before being shot dead, officials said, adding that three people were wounded as guests were rushed to reinforced safe rooms. ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

It’s the second time this year that Canadians have died in Kabul.

In January two Canadian accountants died in a Taliban suicide attack in Afghanistan.

Martin Glazer of Gatineau, Que., and Peter McSheffrey, of Ottawa were among 21 people killed when a suicide bomber and two gunmen attacked a popular restaurant in the Afghan capital.

The two were in Afghanistan doing an audit for the Canadian International Development Agency.

— With files from Terri Theodore in Vancouver, Bill Graveland in Calgary and The Associated Press.

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