Ask every person that had a chance to live, laugh and love with Fariah Haque Chowdhury and they will tell you that she was many things to many people.
For Ahsan Choudhury, he met his late wife at a student concert organized by the Bangladeshi Students’ Association when they were undergrads many years ago. He was 20, she was 19.
“I happened to sit next to her [in the room], but it was really dark, so I didn't know what she looked like,” said Ahsan. But, in between the performances, they would chit chat, which left a lasting memory in his mind.
“It was a chit chat full of incredible warmth,” he remembered. He didn’t sop up the courage to ask her out until months later. “When I did ask her out, she was like, ‘I want to focus on my studies, and I don't want to be distracted.’ I said, ‘You know what, I respect that but why don't we just date for three months? And if it doesn't suit either of us, I'm sure you'll find somebody who's going to make you happy. And I'm sure I will, too.’”
She agreed. And, they stayed together – they were truly happy together. Over a decade together, they married, and had a baby son, Amaar. During their 16 years together, Fariah, an OISE alumna, also became a passionate activist and educational advocate for the likes of No One is Illegal Toronto, the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals and LGBT2QS+ and Indigenous-related causes – using her people skills and tremendous intelligence to stand up for marginalized communities and against structural racism.
Kofi Hope, U of T adjunct professor and founder of the CEE Centre, hired Fariah in an administrative role while she was continuing her studies – dreaming of becoming a teacher in the Toronto District School Board. “She was such a vital part of the team,” he said, “we worked with youth who are in conflict with the law, young parents, folks in crisis, in precarious housing, facing complex and compounding barriers.
“She was all in,” Hope added, praising her allyship and devoted support. “She really embodied this idea of being an ally – of someone who wasn't trying to lead from the front, but was there to support and was there to learn what was putting relationships first.”
The Choudhury and Hope families became close friends. She was funny. Reliable, trustworthy, passionate. Connected. “She was an incredibly charismatic woman,” Hope said. “She would always have us in stitches in the office, she had an ability to just build relationships with folks, despite the background. She had such a brilliant mind.”
As a student in OISE’s Bachelor of Education in the “Secondary Program: Inner City Education” academic cohort (SP:ICE), she was active in and out of the classroom. But, she didn’t stop connecting with her peers.
“I remember on the first day, we somehow were introducing ourselves, some sort of go around. And it turned out that we both are involved in some organizing, and we were drawn to each other,” Ben Saifer, who met Fariah when they each first attended OISE. “We developed a very personal relationship, but it came out of teaching and what our vision was for education.”
She showed nothing but passion, grit, and integrity to her friends and family. So, when Fariah passed away as a result of complications of her pregnancy in 2020, every person in her life felt a great loss. She was 35 years old.
“She was my best friend and somebody built a life with and was growing my life with,” said Ahsan, holding back tears.
However, her community couldn’t just leave it at that. No way.
Transforming gifts into a changemaker
With Ahsan’s permission, many of Fariah’s friends began crowdfunding in order to provide necessities for the family. It also prompted a Facebook group for her peers to share stories, notes and photos of Fariah’s life and times.
“Their intent was to raise it for a cause, because Fariah was present in so many junctures of the social justice movement,” said Ahsan, noting that because of her wide affiliations that there may have been a setback in her work now that she isn’t present.
What happened next was extraordinary. The campaign saw tens of thousands of dollars donated in funding – let alone widespread support for the family, shared stories, and beautiful photos.
With Dr. Sabrina Ahktar stewarding the funding, the group wanted to approach an organization to set up a meaningful way to honour her name. They chose OISE.
What has resulted is The Fariah Chowdhury Memorial Social Justice Award at the University of Toronto, which will be awarded to Master of Teaching students who have demonstrated outstanding leadership in advocating for racial equity, Indigenous sovereignty, migrant rights, and youth poverty. The candidate must also teach a social justice curriculum at elementary or secondary schools upon graduation.
Syed Hussan, a migration and anti-colonialism activist who met Fariah at OISE in 2007, this scholarship’s importance is in how the community remembers her story. “I hope that this scholarship brings out in people the possibility and potential of being able to understand the role which she took upon herself – it was not just teaching but to help transform systems in society,” he says.
Preference for the award would be given to students from underrepresented groups in the teaching profession, including Black and Indigenous students, who require financial aid. U of T, in recognition of the importance of this initiative, has promised to match in the form of a permanent commitment of annual funding. Awards will be administered in accordance with OISE and University’s Policy on Student Awards.
“This new scholarship fund will give students from underrepresented groups a better chance to pursue their educational and professional dreams and make a difference in their communities,” said Sim Kapoor, director of OISE’s Office of Advancement and External Relations. “And to see the university match the donation ensures students will have an option to look to, when they’re seeking resources to continue their education.
“We are very blessed to have been given this chance to honour Fariah’s life and legacy, to continue our mission to prepare our students for the challenges of the world.”
For Ahsan, if this scholarship, in perpetuity, produces at least one teacher that makes a difference, then it would be worthwhile. He remembers countless nights of Fariah marking her students’ papers, not on the basis of what they got right, but on the basis of originality, and how that student performed compared to their last assignment; and rarely ever considering how the entire class performed. She used to say, “Some of my students go home, take care of their younger siblings while both of the parents are working late shifts. They do not get a chance to do their homework or assignments the same way, as someone who doesn’t have those responsibilities. I can’t, in good conscience penalize them in school for what school cannot capture about their lives”.
One of her favourite questions were “What are you about?”. When Ahsan turned that question back to her, after she started with Section  at TDSB– There are kids in our society that the system, and even some teachers gave up on. If every year I can change 10 of those kids’ lives, in 20 years, I'll change 200 kids lives. That's what gives me energy. and that gives me joy.
“Fariah was a human amplifier and a catalyst. She would be the loudest at a march, and energize people to give their best whether it is for activism, or a dance performance. I hope this scholarship serves as an amplifier and a catalyst to produce teachers who pursue the same mission as Fariah.”
What’s your Fariah story?
OISE has heard many stories about the life and times of Fariah Choudhury – the laughs, the advocacy, the friendship. Below are snippets of just some of the stories shared with us.
“When I see her on a Monday, and I talked about what I did on the weekend, she really talked about what she doing. She had 96 hours of weekend somehow, right? Like, she was taking care of this family member and but [she was] commuting there and taking care of some nieces and doing all this crazy stuff. She just had a lot she had a lot going on.
She would also drop anything for you too. she was focused on getting things done, but at a personal level. For example, when I got an interview for the TDSB, she'd say ‘Alright, you're coming over, right? That day you're coming over, we're spending hours [in preparaton].’ And when I was done, she's like, ‘No, let's just drill this in.’ She would drop anything for the people who are close to her. She was a really full person, really cared about family and friends, it was incredible.”
“In 2009, there had been a series of immigration raids in women's shelters where undocumented survivors were arrested. And as part of the fight to stop these raids, Fariah was part of an occupation of the Greater Toronto Enforcement Centre. At the end of the occupation, the group demanded a meeting with the head of immigration enforcement in Toronto – who was a guy who was not really open to listening to anyone but he agreed to come to a meeting.
“And I remember this meeting, on the 12th floor of OISE, and I am sitting outside and it was all these racialized women on one side, and a series of immigration officials on the other. Fariah was leading the meeting and she would not let them leave till they agreed. For two hours, immigration officials were trying to explain themselves, justify the raids. And she wouldn't let them leave the meeting until he agreed to stop raiding shelters. It was a brief moment, but as a result of those actions, immigration enforcement agreed to stop entering any space that provided support to survivors of violence in the GTA. They overturned that decision a few weeks later, and the local immigration enforcement lead was fired. He was the second most senior officer in the country.
“They had literally been pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed by Fariah to agree is something that they simply did not have the authority to do.”
Civic entrepreneur, U of T adjunct professor
“The one thing I keep remembering was one day we were all just in the staff room. And we were talking laughing. We had one of our colleagues, Xavier, and him and Fariah would always go at it, they'd always be kind of just teasing each other and having some running joke. And we were all talking about music we used to listen to back in the day and Xavier is kind of calling Fariah out like ‘You don't know hip hop, you don't know this artist, you don't know that.’ And then she was, you know, one upping him.
“And then he was saying, well, you don't know KRS One. And at first she's like, ‘Who's that? Who's that?’ And then I think I mentioned ‘Oh, step into a world!’ and she's like, okay, and she gets up and starts singing and dancing it in front of everyone and like waving her hand in [Xavier’s] face. And I think the whole room just broke out laughing and then just started clapping.”
“I have a cat and Fariah is deathly allergic to cats. And I remember during my sister's wedding, she was one of the dancers. On the night of the final dance rehearsal, we also had a party at our place. She popped a lot of Claritin, so she could come in and chill. I had forgotten about her allergy, because at some point, I realized Fariah was in the house, and I looked over at her, and her eyes were so red, and swollen, and she was sitting there with a smile on her face and eating something.
And I'm like, ‘Fariah, are you okay?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, this food is too good.’ I'm like, ‘Maybe you should, you know, leave’ and she's said, ‘I know, but it's your sister's wedding.’ (She and my sister were also friends.) She didn't want to move because she was having a good time, because the food was too good and she wanted to, you know, do that for her friends. I still can't believe she popped the Claritin, nothing was stopping her from having a good time.”
Associate Professor, Teaching Stream
I had the deep pleasure of learning from Fariah when I was one of her professors at OISE. She pushed us all to think, to laugh and to imagine better schools. In review of some of our email exchanges, I came across one that I thought captured parts of the kind of caring dynamo she was...
She had been selected to do the “mock interview” – this is a practice interview with a TDSB principal in front of 60 of her peers. It’s a kind of honour, and more importantly, viewed as a possible boost to help get a teaching position.
On the day of the interview, I received an anxious email from Fariah – she was not going to make it to the interview because she had raced off to support an undocumented family who was being deported, and Fariah was a liaison supporting their case.
Even in the midst of this significant crisis for this family, Fariah had the composure and care to think about and contact alternatives for the interview. It was just one of many moments where she put the needs of others ahead of her own. Caring, courageous and wickedly funny – she left her impact on all she encountered.
Make a gift to The Fariah Chowdhury Memorial Social Justice Award and create lasting change in the lives of OISE's aspiring teachers. Visit our webpage or contact Sim Kapoor, Director of Advancement & External Relations by phone at 416-978-5047 to give today.