Samir Dib, who is Christian, and Najwa Dib, who is Muslim. Photo by Colin Boyd Shafer

Canadian photographer Colin Boyd Shafer started thinking about interfaith relationships during the production of his award-winning 2014 photography project Cosmopolis Toronto. Anecdotes of mixed-faith love that struggled and succeeded, despite pressures to “stick to your own,” started to fill his days and his camera.

Canada, he came to understand, is a special haven where two people, regardless of their religious beliefs, can build a safe life together — an impossibility in many other countries. “These people are truly doing something incredible even though it may seem like nothing to them,” he told The Observer.

Shafer and project manager Jennifer Rodrigues launched The InterLove Project, a large-scale portrait project documenting interfaith relationships in Ontario. The following photographs and stories depict how six of his 50 couples met and fell in love, worked through their differences, and bravely trusted that love hopes all things, endures all things. “Without sounding too cheesy,” he says, “these couples illustrate that love can conquer all.”

Samir and Najwa Dib (Christian • Muslim)

Sitting at a table over a book brings back memories of when they first fell in love. In 1960s Beirut, Samir, then Greek Orthodox, was known to Najwa’s parents, one Shia and one Sunni Muslim, as a math genius. He became Najwa’s tutor under the strict supervision of her mother, who would stand over their shoulders during each lesson. At the time, Lebanon was in the midst of a brutal civil war between Muslims and Catholics. “We fell in love and wrote little notes to each other in my math book because my mother could not read,” Najwa says. Once her parents found out about their relationship, Najwa was pulled out of university and kept from seeing Samir. They describe their love and what they have had to do to keep it as extraordinary. They dated in secret for seven years before finally marrying. “Neither of us converted. We felt that religion kept us apart for so long, and we would not let it do that to our marriage.”  Today, Samir describes himself as spiritual but dislikes organized religion. Najwa says she’s a liberal and non-traditional devout Muslim. Over the years, their home in Newmarket, Ont., has become the neutral ground where both sides of their families gather to celebrate Eid and Christmas, Ramadan and Easter.

Avishka Juta, who is Hindu, and Sean Greenberg, who is Jewish. Photo by Colin Boyd Shafer

Avishka Juta and Sean Greenberg (Hindu • Jewish)

Avishka grew up in Hamilton, where her parents instilled in her the values, beliefs and customs of Hinduism. Though today she is not a practising Hindu, she says the religion’s spiritual side is still an integral part of her life. Sean, also raised in Hamilton, was brought up in a modern Orthodox Jewish household. Today he observes the holidays and attends synagogue on occasion. They met at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., when Avishka became Sean’s housemate in a student rental. Sean was taking illustration, and Avishka was studying corporate communications. For the first month or so, Sean and Avishka saw each other in passing, chatting between classes and after school. What started as a friendship soon developed into deeper feelings, and so far the challenges they’ve faced have been minimal. “We . . . have come to appreciate each other’s heritage and traditions while also discovering the similarities between our cultures and values.” From celebrating Passover and Diwali, to enjoying and blending each other’s cuisines, the Hamilton couple describe the experience as an adventure. For what Avishka jokingly calls their “HinJew” wedding, planned for May, they’ve decided to incorporate elements of both religions and cultures. Their families are open to this notion, but Sean and Avishka also know that when they have children, more challenges might arise. In light of this, they are trying to be proactive about reducing possible future conflicts.

Vivek Narola, who is Hindu, and Brandie Narola, who is Christian. Photo by Colin Boyd Shafer

Vivek and Brandie Narola (Hindu • Christian)

Vivek was raised in Botswana in a fairly devout Hindu family; today, he attends the temple for the main religious holidays. Brandie grew up in a small, predominantly Catholic town in Illinois and identifies as a follower of Jesus Christ. They met when Brandie began working at a hair salon owned by Vivek. They instantly became friends and then started dating. Three years later, they celebrated their nuptials with a traditional Hawaiian wedding. Six months later, after relocating to Burlington, Ont., they had a traditional Hindu wedding. Their two children are already learning Gujarati, Vivek’s native tongue, through daily interaction with their paternal grandparents. All of this does come at a cost to Brandie, who at times finds it challenging to be living away from her own family and community. They emphasize how their differences in faith haven’t caused any significant difficulties in their relationship. As Brandie says, “Our love is the most important thing, and I think the difference in our cultures and beliefs only make it stronger.” Brandie and Vivek want to raise their girls to respect everyone, no matter their race or religion.

Eman El-Husseini, who is Muslim, and Jess Salomon, who is Jewish. Photo by Colin Boyd Shafer

Eman El-Husseini and Jess Salomon (Muslim • Jewish)

Eman was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents and raised Muslim. Growing up Jewish in Montreal, Jess explains her Judaism as more of a cultural identification than a religious one. When asked how they met, the Toronto couple quip, “Our parents introduced us.”  They are both comedians by profession. They agree that their families are disappointed with their relationship — because it is mixed faith and, in Eman’s case, because it is same-sex — but love them enough to at least pretend to be okay with it. They were recently married and admit that things may get more complicated if they have a child. Jess jokes, “As long as we don’t call him or her Yasser.”  They’ve had heated debates about the Israeli-Palestinian situation in the past and understand it as a sensitive topic. “You assume your people are the only ones coming from a good place.” Eman and Jess find it difficult when their relationship causes discomfort to the people they care about, and knowing their parents are not completely approving is frustrating. They broke up a lot in the beginning but chose in the end to focus on each other and ignore the external noise. “There are so many reasons we shouldn’t be together, but our love for one another is so genuine it was impossible to be apart.”

Brendan Dewalt, who is Agnostic, and N’aina Rasly, who is Muslim. Photo by Colin Boyd Shafer

Brendan Dewalt and N’aina Rasly (Agnostic • Muslim)

N’aina grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in a family with devout Muslim grandparents and parents who ensured that she understood Islam. She explains that while she has also enjoyed learning about other religions she happily calls herself a Muslim. Brendan, born and raised in Ottawa to an Australian mother and Canadian father, was brought up to keep an open mind and a sense of respect for all religions. Today he identifies as agnostic. N’aina and Brendan are both studying to be engineers at Carleton University in Ottawa and have now been dating for almost two years. N’aina says that their story really isn’t anything magical, and they definitely weren’t a likely match. However, the more they got to know each other the more they realized they had much in common. Carleton, specifically, has allowed both of them to be exposed to lots of new ideas and outlooks. N’aina says it is a place that has given her the opportunity to meet not only people of different faiths and those without faith, but also many Muslims from around the world, who have different ways of expressing Islam. N’aina and Brendan have had many interesting debates about religion and usually agree to disagree when necessary. She appreciates how supportive Brendan has been regarding her religious activities. He even took to reading the Qur’an and often asks N’aina about particular passages. Their respective families and friends appreciate their differences and support the love they share for one another. As N’aina says, “No matter how critical our differences in belief are, we do not let it get in the way of our love.”

Lily Sazz, who is Jewish, and Paul Fayter, who is Christian. Photo by Colin Boyd Shafer

Lily Sazz and Paul Fayter (Jewish • Christian)

Paul, an ordained minister in The United Church of Canada, and Lily, daughter of Hungarian Jews, lived in separate worlds and moved in separate circles. A mutual friend, who noticed their similar sense of humour and love of blues music, insisted they meet. There was an immediate sense of connection. The biggest challenge for Lily and Paul was finding the right officiants for their wedding, with a ceremony representing both of their faiths. Paul was even shunned by some rabbi friends for marrying a Jewish woman without converting. Lily remembers and laughs about a photograph her mother sent their Jewish relatives overseas, in which she had taken a marker and blacked out Paul’s clerical collar. Despite these obstacles, the Dundas, Ont., couple have learned that they share important values and consciously work on effective communication — to love even while disagreeing. “Love involves a deep commitment and is unconditional, non-judgmental and steadfast.”  They celebrate the major Jewish holidays and often go to church together. 

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