AIDS ACTIVIST LOST HER SON TO THE DISEASE
After his death, she devoted 25 years of her life to raising money and awareness about HIV and safe sex
By RON CSILLAG
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, February 10, 2018 Print Edition, Page B23
In the Montreal summer of 1993, Evelyn Farha did what no mother should have to do: She watched her only son die.
Two-and-a-half years earlier, Ron Farha had broken the news to his parents and three sisters after he could no longer hide the telltale brown lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma on his face and neck: He had contracted HIV in the mid-1980s but it was now full-blown AIDS - and he didn't have much time left. He tearfully revealed that his mother would not get her oftstated wish that her children would outlive her.
Then 67, Ms. Farha spent her days cooking her son's favourite Lebanese dishes - yabra (stuffed grape leaves), fatayer (meat pie) and koussa (stuffed zucchini) - and delivering them to him at the Montreal General Hospital. She sat with Ron, worried, and wept.
She also threw herself into studying everything she could find about AIDS, a disease that was first described only a dozen years earlier and seemed confined to gay men.
Ron believed a cure was just a few years away.
"It was hell, what we went through," she said.
The year before he died, Ron, who had taken over his father's garment manufacturing business, launched a foundation to raise awareness and money for research into the disease. He had raised about $200,000 for improving outpatient services for those with AIDS and purchased everything from comfortable beds and chairs to intravenous pumps. Evelyn was willing to let that initiative wind down as she witnessed her son die of pneumonia in July, 1993.
He was 36 years old.
"Just before he died, I said to him, 'Let all of this go when you do,' " Ms. Farha told the Montreal Gazette in the autumn of that year. "But he said, 'No, Mom, keep it alive.' So that's what I do."
And that's what she kept doing for the next 25 years, driven by her son's memory - "I just look at his picture and think of his strength," she said. As honorary president of Montreal's Farha Foundation, Ms. Farha picked up the torch and threw herself into speaking at schools and conferences, beating bushes for money, even talking to random young people about safe sex.
Though she had no experience in fundraising and very little in the business world, she and the foundation are credited with distributing more than $10-million to dozens of Quebec organizations that provide care and services to people living with HIV/AIDS, along with prevention and education programs.
"Her goal was to see that no other family suffers the same loss as her by educating the community that the disease is preventable," noted the Fondation québécoise du Sida, which merged with the Farha Foundation last April.
Local reporters took to calling her a "dynamo" and "relentless." She was a fixture in the foundation's annual Ça Marche AIDS walkathon. Though she was battling arthritis in later years, she ditched her wheelchair in favour of her walker for the entire seven-kilometre walk.
Ms. Farha died in Montreal on Jan. 18, also from pneumonia, at the age of 92.
Being a private person, Ms. Farha conceded that she would have preferred to keep her grief to herself. But the more she learned about AIDS, the more she wanted to dispel the myths and stigma surrounding the disease that claimed her boy. She was shocked, in the early 1990s, to learn that some people thought you could get AIDS by touching somebody.
"People were afraid to sit next to someone with AIDS. In many cases, parents rejected their children with AIDS," she told the Gazette in a 2013 interview. "It shows you how ignorant people were about the disease. And they still are."
At the same time, advances in science turned AIDS from a killer disease to "just another chronic illness." That made people complacent, "and that's a shame." It can also strike anyone, she stressed, not just homosexuals.
She expressed amazement when people asked whether she was embarrassed to say her son had died of AIDS. "Unbelievable. I tell them, 'Of course not.' " But had the disease spared her son, "I don't know how I would have accepted AIDS," she confessed to The Gazette. "I probably would have remained ignorant, like a lot of people."
Ms. Farha was "a trailblazer and a very determined woman," said Yves Lafontaine, editor of Fugues, a magazine for Montreal's LGBTQ community. When he first met her, he found "an impressive, strong woman who turned the death of her son into a crusade to help a community which was in much need of outside support."
She "helped change attitudes toward men and women living with HIV/AIDS, when they were usually shunned."
The oldest of five children, Evelyn Farha was born in Montreal on Sept. 14, 1925, to the former Faride Koury, who was born in Beirut, and Joseph Malacket, who came to Canada at age 13 from Damascus, Syria, to join his brother. Evelyn was a baby when the clan decamped for Brownsburg, Que., about 80 kilometres northwest of Montreal, to open a small general store. Despite rationing during the Second World War, workers at a nearby munitions plant were able to snap up radios, dresses and refrigerators there.
Evelyn left school to work in the family business. "She dressed the whole town," her daughter Linda said. She met Joseph Farha, a lingerie manufacturer, on a church trip. Later, she approached him at a fashion show to buy crinoline for the store. The couple married in 1954 and moved to Montreal.
They accepted the fact their son was homosexual and understood that wasn't going to be easy, given the times.
"She was accepting of gays," Linda said. "She was a mother who didn't turn her back on her child because of his lifestyle. A lot of parents did."
Talking about sex was something else.
"In my generation, you would never think of talking to kids about safe sex," Ms. Farha said in 1993. "And even now, a lot of parents think it's never going to happen to their kids. But nobody can afford to ignore AIDS. We need to reach kids and make sure they practise safe sex. And we need to make sure parents keep talking to them about it."
She took her message wherever she went, even to teenage boys on the street. "I tell them, 'You boys are wonderful, such handsome young men. I hope you do use protection if you have sex.' They tell me, 'Oh it's good to remind us. Thank you.' Not one of them said to me, 'Mind your own business.' " Her mother "had some weird conversations for a woman her age," Linda recalled. "She was a mother and grandmother people could talk to.
She was not shy."
The children of Gary Lacasse, executive director of the Canadian AIDS Society in Ottawa, were among the beneficiaries of her advice.
"She even talked to my kids at a benefit about safe sex a few years ago and the joy to be had in living," he recalled. Ms. Farha was "destigmatizing HIV with every person she met, always educating. We have lost a great leader within our HIV community."
Ken Monteith, the director-general of COCQSIDA, echoed the sentiment, noting that Ms. Farha became an ally of the community as soon as she made the choice to embrace her son after his diagnosis rather than rejecting him, which was all too common in that era.
"Even recently, she was happy to overcome social barriers to raise the issue with fellow residents in the retirement community she lived in," he noted.
"Were their grandchildren aware of HIV and protecting themselves in their sex lives?
[It's] not something that most people would bring up in such a setting, but again an excellent example for the rest of us."
Ms. Farha's accolades included the 1999 Governor-General's Caring Canadian Award, which noted that when not working on foundation business, she spent hours each week visiting hospices in the Montreal area, "providing comfort to persons living with and dying of AIDS." A few years later, she received the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal. And in 2013, she was awarded Quebec's Médaille d'honneur de l'Assemblée nationale.
Her husband died in 1998. Ms. Farha is survived by her daughters, Linda, Nancy and Carolyn, four grandchildren and two sisters.
Like many ordinary people thrust into prominence, she once said, she never thought she would be capable of what she achieved. "It's surprising when you're forced into something what you can do. Maybe my son was right when he asked me to be the mother behind the foundation." To submit an I Remember: email@example.com Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page.
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Activist Evelyn Farha, centre, was widely regarded by local reporters as a 'dynamo' and 'relentless' in her crusade to raise money for HIV/AIDS research and education.
Ms. Farha and her son, Ron.