Naz Rayani's goal: Bring people together

Naz Rayani has been a vital member of the Victoria community for years, constantly giving of his time and energy to make a difference.

An Ismaili Muslim, he delights in introducing the tenets of his faith to others and is known for taking people to the Lower Mainland to visit the Vancouver Ismaili Centre.

He has been recognized for his charitable and philanthropic efforts many times over the years — including with an Order of Canada and an honorary degree from the University of Victoria — and accepts his awards with humility and grace.

Now 72, he has seen his independent pharmacy in Cadboro Bay grow into the Heart Pharmacy chain, with four locations.

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Naz Rayani enjoys nothing more than bringing people of different faiths together.    

He literally bridges the gap, leading tours across the water to the Lower Mainland to learn about Islam. The 72-year-old pharmacist/community activist has taken more than 3,000 people from Victoria to the Vancouver Ismaili Centre in Burnaby since 1991.

His goal has been to promote understanding among groups of people “and to let them know what Islam is,” he said.

He was born Nazmudin Rayani in Kisumu, Kenya, in 1943, the third of five children. His father was a bicycle merchant, and for a time the family lived above the shop.

Diversity was always a part of life in Kisumu, Rayani said. He was raised an Ismaili Muslim — one of many Muslim sects — but the family also embraced other beliefs, led by his father.

“My father was a constant speaker at the Hindu festivals,” he said. “We didn’t see the difference between any faiths.”

The joining of cultures also arose in his choice of a university, in Aberdeen, Scotland, to pursue a degree in pharmacy. Naz said he had had a taste of Scottish culture growing up, thanks to a woman in Kenya who taught Scottish country dancing to local girls.

“The music was in my mind. I love bagpipes. I thought: ‘Scotland, what a culture shock I’ll have.’”

He enjoyed his time there, worked in London and went on to open his first pharmacy in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1972. By that time he was married to Yasmine.

Naz and Yasmine brought their young family to Canada in 1974 in search of more political stability, ending up in Vancouver because his in-laws, refugees from Uganda, were already there.

That experience prompted his current involvement in one of the many local groups sponsoring Syrian families fleeing their homeland, Rayani said.

“We were once refugees, too,” he said.

Raising money and supporting good causes has always been a part of his life. That has culminated in a host of awards, including the Order of Canada in 2006.

“That was the pinnacle,” Rayani said of receiving the Order of Canada. “That was the honour of the honour.”

Also on his lengthy list of accomplishments are lifetime-achievement awards from the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce and Leadership Victoria. He supports many other causes, as well, including the University of Victoria’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society.

“The energy level is there and the commitment is there,” said longtime friend Logan McMenamie, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of B.C. “He’s very community-minded.”

The two men became close friends in the 1990s when Logan was the priest at St. George’s Anglican Church and Rayani was working at his pharmacy in adjacent Cadboro Bay Village. The melding of their faiths included Rayani supplying samosas for events at the church.

As well, the church and the Ismaili community, through Rayani, bonded further over efforts to sponsor a refugee family from Kazakhstan.

“I’ve said that my relationship with Naz has made me a better Christian, and he said to me that it was vice-versa — his relationship with me has made him a better Muslim,” McMenamie said. “And that’s what we’re about, that’s really important.”

Rayani had made his way to Victoria in 1978 and purchased Western Drug Mart Pharmasave. He was with Pharmasave until 1986 when Shoppers Drug Mart acquired his store.

He was with Shoppers Drug Mart until 1991, when he struck out on his own and bought the independent Cadboro Bay Pharmacy —  a move that would culminate years later with the four-store Heart Pharmacy chain.

The company name was chosen for several reasons, said his son, Rasool.

“One was finding a name that honoured Naz’s style of practice, which is he was an extraordinarily empathetic pharmacist, and then there’s the obvious relevance to the health-care angle.”

The name also has a connection to serious health issues for Rayani in 2010, when a blood infection affected his heart and led to a stroke. Once word got out, there were prayer vigils in all manner of places of worship and volumes of cards sent his way.

“When he recovered from that there’s been just a heightened awareness in our business and our family with respect to the Heart and Stroke Foundation,” Rasool said. “We’ve been supporters of that organization for quite some time.”

The pharmacies are a real family affair, said Rasool, who is involved in the business side of the operation.

“My sister is a pharmacist, my brother-in-law is general manager, my sister-in-law is our human resources manager.”

On top of that, Rayani is a proud grandfather with Rasool and his sister, Zahra, having a total of five daughters between them.

Rayani still makes time to visit the Heart locations, and often walks to the Fairfield location from his home nearby. He stops at every store at least a few times a week.

He also keeps busy playing bridge and table tennis at the Monterey and Cook Street community centres.

“So his network is ever expanding,” Rasool said with a smile.

Rasool said his father doesn’t go far before someone recognizes him.

“If you walk around with Naz, someone would say hello to you and then you’d wait patiently while they gave him a hug.”

At the base of Rayani’s connections is his community work, which for more than 20 years has included the World Partnership Walk — a fundraiser for programs to help developing nations through the Aga Khan Foundation. It was one of the activities cited when he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Victoria in 2013.

His involvement in the community is based on the pillars of Islam, Rayani said.

“Volunteerism is quite high, education is quite high, health care is quite high.”

Rasool and Zahra are understandably proud of their father.

“We often comment that we encourage him to slow down because his shoes are already too big to fill.”

Rayani said his wife has made everything possible for him.

“All the accolades I got, without her I wouldn’t have any.”

One of Rayani’s staunch admirers is Mel Cooper, president of the Telus Victoria Community Board, on which Rayani once served.

“I think he’s admired by just about everybody who has ever dealt with him,” he said. “I brought him on the Telus board and he was a very, very good board member. He’s just a super honest guy with a great heart.

“He’s admired for the way he lives and the way he gives, and it’s not just money.”

Rayani was also on the Victoria Foundation board and Rasool is past chairman, so foundation chief executive Sandra Richardson knows them well.

“There’s only one Naz, he’s quite incredible,” she said. “He’s just one of those very thoughtful people. You can tell by the way he’s raised his children and the whole family is giving back.”

She said Rayani is a “community champion” who goes about things in a quiet way.

“When people ask him to do anything, he’s just there.”

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