Ahmadi Teacher Tanya Khan touched lives far beyond the classroom

When Greater Toronto schools reopen their doors Tuesday, a teacher who touched lives far beyond her Thornhill classroom will be absent.

Tanya Khan, who taught at Louis-Honoré Fréchette Public School, died Aug. 6 of complications from a brain aneurysm she had suffered nine days earlier.

“She was the most spirited, joyous, loving woman I’ve ever met in my life,” says Judy Csillag who knew Khan for about 15 years. “She left a gaping hole in everybody’s life.”

The 38-year-old mother of three from Maple was more than just a teacher wearing a hijab. She was devoted to her religion yet dedicated to interfaith dialogue. She was a role model for students and teachers alike. She had a phenomenal sense of humour and knew how to put people at ease inside and outside the classroom. She had many friends yet made each one feel like her best friend.

In a note to the family, a former Grade 8 student recalled how Khan forgot “her FIRST EVER designer purse in the grocery store and one of the employees found it and returned it to her.

“It was a small, unimportant event, but she told this story to my class with so much passion. You could hear it in her voice and see it in her eyes. These little stories that she told us made me want to keep faith in humanity and society.”

Thousands of people attended Khan’s Aug. 10 funeral, the largest ever for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Canada, says her husband, Asif Khan. Premier Kathleen Wynne was there “to acknowledge Tanya’s important contributions to the community.”

“She made you her fan,” says brother-in-law Ahsan Khan. “She would not spare a compliment. People found that she genuinely listened.”

Torontonians first met Khan in a big way in October 2006 in the midst of Ramadan when she invited a Star reporter and photographer to spend the day with her family. Her husband wasn’t thrilled about opening up his home to the world, but his wife wanted to do it. “She was fully engaged,” he says.

Khan was featured again in the Star two years later in a story about a Women of Faith Building Group project co-chaired by Khan in which 28 women came together for a day to put up drywall at six homes for Habitat for Humanity.

Most of Khan’s work, however, was outside the media’s spotlight.

“She had an absolute total commitment to interfaith education,” says Rev. Cathy Gibbs, chaplain at The Bishop Strachan School. “She was adamant about all of us understanding each other. She stood out as a person of change.”

Speaking about reaching out to other faiths, Khan once said that if “we want people to learn about us, we need to learn about them.

“Through all the various outreach, through all of the various activities of interfaith . . . one thing always resonates with me, and that is that there are more similarities between the different faith groups that come to visit us than there are differences. . . . You pray like this, I pray like this, but we’re still praying to the same God.”

Khan was adept at reaching out to the community, says Rabbi Lori Cohen, a teacher at Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. She visited Cohen’s high school class to talk about her religion and to “put a human face to Islam,” says Cohen. Students asked Khan questions about relationships between men and women and about how she dressed.

Khan once said wearing a hijab at school was a “very positive experience.

“Do I get a lot of questions? Of course. Do people wonder? Yes. Do I wish that they would ask more questions? Absolutely, because I know those questions are there.”

Tanya Khan was born in Edmonton in 1975 to parents who had emigrated from Lebanon the previous year. Her family moved to the GTA when she was 10 and opened a restaurant offering pizzas and subs.

The eldest of five girls, the youngest being 17 years her junior, Khan “was the backbone of our family,” says her mother, Amal Alrawdah. Khan was her sisters’ role model and they looked up to her. “It’s like she was their mother,” says Alrawdah.

When it came time to go to university, Khan’s parents asked her to delay her start for a couple of years so she could help them manage the restaurant. But Khan declined. “She wanted to go to university so badly,” says Alrawdah. “Education always came first.” Khan started studying business right away at Ryerson.

Khan had been brought up as a Druze. She started her transition toward Islam during her university years. “The summer prior to meeting me, she had read the Bible and the Koran on her own and had decided that she was now a Sunni Muslim,” says Asif Khan, who met his future wife at Ryerson. “She always wanted to make sure that it wasn’t because of her relationship with me that she was converting. She wanted to do it because she wanted to do it.”

After graduating with a bachelor of commerce in 1998, Khan joined Deloitte & Touche as a consultant, travelling every few months as far away as Australia.

Jet-setting, however, was not part of her long-term plans. “She was always focused on the family and she wanted to have a schedule similar to the kids so she could be around to raise them,” says her husband.

While on maternity leave with her first child, Khan went back to school and graduated in 2002 with a bachelor of education from York University. She became a teacher at Kleinberg Public School that September.

In her 11 years of teaching, Khan participated in many school board initiatives to improve equity and inclusiveness in the schools. “She was an inspirational role model that broke down the stereotypes of the past,” says Ken Thurston, education director at the York Region District School Board.

In the classroom, Khan left a lasting impression on many students. “She was a really chill woman, very modern, enthusiastic, and engaging,” says Ola Mazzuca, 20, her student in 2003. “She pushed boundaries in a positive way. She knew how to make herself equal to us by throwing in references to pop culture that would inspire us to listen. It wasn’t flat instruction.”

In a note to the family, Mazzuca says she will never forget Khan’s Grade 6 health class. “No one, and I mean no one, could have taught sex education to a group of timid, naive, innocent children like you did. Your graceful demeanour, calm composure and wisdom taught us many things about growing up.

“You taught us about equity, treating peers with fairness, contributing to society, and embracing our unique qualities.”

In July, Khan coached her oldest and middle daughters for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community’s annual girls’ national education championship. At the event held just a week after her funeral, 12-year-old Alia and 10-year-old Safiya each placed first in the English public speaking competition in their respective age groups.

“My middle daughter didn’t want to go, but my eldest daughter told her that mom would want us to do this,” says Asif Khan. “They’re strong because of her.”

Several people this summer owe their lives to Tanya Khan. She donated six organs to five individuals, one of whom received her liver and pancreas. Asif Khan says she was an ideal donor thanks to her O-positive blood type.

About a month before her brain aneurysm, Khan bought a piece of art that she displayed in the kitchen. The work was emblazoned with the words: “If you don’t live for something, you’ll die for nothing.”