DANGEROUS FOES, DANGEROUS FRIENDS
Jamil Jivani wanted to be a gangster. Instead, he became a lawyer. In a new book, he explores the destructive ideas that can drive young men. In an interview, he talks about his new fight — with cancer
Jamil Jivani was basking in hard-earned success until a cancer diagnosis came out of the blue, on Family Day weekend.
Estranged from his father as a young man, Jivani, who was born in Toronto and raised in Brampton, felt the temptations of a life of crime, going as far as asking a friend to find a gun for him.
As a young Black male, Jivani felt alienated from the mainstream. But he chose a different path.
Jivani buckled down and entered university — York, where he earned a BA in international development studies in 2010, and later Yale Law School.
He was an activist specializing in youth employment and policing issues and dove into community initiatives in Toronto.
He was called to the bar in 2015 and became a visiting professor and scholar at Osgoode Hall Law School. The next year he began serving as director of a nonprofit based at Ohio State University that’s striving to improve social mobility and combat opioid abuse.
“You’re so used to the thing between your dreams being about effort, luck, opportunity and intelligence.”
His crowning achievement came April 3 with the release of his first book, Why Young Men: Rage, Race
and the Crisis of Identity, which explores the conditions that lead to terrorism and violence among young males. Part of his research for the book included trips to Europe and Egypt in 2016, following terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Everything was looking up when Jivani, 30, came to Toronto for the Family Day long weekend in February to visit his mother, Pam, and two younger sisters.
He had developed a swollen lymph gland but figured it was a virus.
He was staying with his mom in North York and she went with him to North York General’s emergency department around 5 a.m., thinking he’d get some antibiotics.
A doctor ordered an X-ray. The results brought news that was devastating.
“The doctor had tears in her eyes and said ‘I’m sorry, I think you have lymphoma,’ ” Jivani said in an interview this week. The news made him cry at the time, too.
Tests followed, and in two weeks they confirmed stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It had entered his bones, damaged his spine and caused fractures in his neck and back.
He now wears a brace to protect his spine. His busy life is on “pause.” The celebration he’d hoped to enjoy has been muted by hardship.
He takes six different pills a day, and
must take five chemotherapy drugs every three weeks.
He’s had one course of radiation, a chemo session, has lost about 20 pounds, has endured intense headaches and pain and is battling fatigue. He faces more of the same. But Jivani is confident he’ll recover. (Patients with stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma can have a fairly high survival rate.)
During the interview he was energetic, smiling and full of good humour, though his voice at times choked with emotion as he described his health problems.
The psychological ride he’s been through lately has often been more draining than the physical toll, he says. Jivani has had to shift his outlook. “You’re so used to the thing between your dreams being about effort, luck, opportunity and intelligence,” he says. “I was comfortable thinking that if my dreams don’t become real it’s mostly within my control. Now there are things out of my control that might stop me from realizing my dreams and that’s a really hard thing to accept.”
His illness has forced him to confront something else: his estranged relationship with his father.
Ismat Jivani, 55, who had been in and out of Jamil’s life from when Jamil was 8, left the family home for good when Jamil was about 17. But Ismat reached out to his son two weeks ago for the first time in 10 years, after hearing the news about the cancer.
The contact came through a Facebook message. Jamil responded, but doesn’t plan to be “pen pals” with his father.
Jamil says his dad has had a complicated life, and he explores his relationship with him in a section of the book, which forced him to not just be “mad at this guy for all the things he didn’t do,” he says. “I had to (acknowledge) he went through a lot of stuff that was a lot tougher than I’ve gone through.”
During an interview, Jamil Jivani was energetic and smiling, but a few times he got emotional discussing his health.
Jivani graduated from Yale Law in 2013, and vowed to do everything he could to help kids like him realize their potential.
Jivani takes six different pills a day, and five chemotherapy drugs every three weeks.