Riya Khold, 21, was sitting in her third-year biology class at the University of Toronto recently, waiting for her lecture to begin. She was a few minutes early. A young man sat in the empty chair next to her. She had never met him before, but after a few friendly exchanges, the two struck up an effortless conversation.
He, too, was a biology major. As each week passed, they resumed their conversations. Khold looked forward to the class every week. It was a chance to talk about topics she wouldn't normally talk to her family and tight-knit community about — things like marijuana and going out.
There was something about the openness and ease of their exchanges that was different from those she'd have with her other male friends. Khold had a crush, but it was a crush without a future — for one simple reason: she is Druze, and he is not.
The monotheistic religion encompasses aspects of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and Greek philosophy, among influences.
With only about 1.5 million Druze worldwide, togetherness and a strong sense of community are important parts of the culture.
A key part of preserving the community, most Druze believe, is marrying within the faith.
I grew up around religious people, but it wasn't forceful.- Riya Khold
Within the Druze communities in the Middle East finding a Druze partner isn't difficult, but for those who were born in the North American diaspora, with a population of less than 80,000, it's a much bigger challenge.
Some members of the Muslim, Hindu and Jewish faiths also marry within their religion. In its most recent National Household Survey in 2011, Statistics Canada reported a little over one million Canadians identify as Muslim, just under 500,000 as Hindu and less than 400,000 as Jewish.
But as challenging as marrying within the religion may be for those communities, it's even more so for the Druze, who number about 25,000 in Canada (and less than 5,000 in the Greater Toronto Area).
As Khold enters her 20s, the age at which many Druze women marry, she finds herself coming face to face with the realities of her culture. The expectation to preserve her heritage and to do so with another Druze person weigh heavily on her.
Those pressures weren't always so apparent in Khold's life. She was born in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, and later, the family moved to Beit Jaan, her father's Druze village in northern Israel where her Lebanese-Druze mother opened a restaurant.
Her childhood was split between the two countries. She came to Canada annually to visit her grandmother until she moved back to Brampton permanently at the age of 19.
In Beit Jaan, she had a childhood similar to those of other Druze children, including frequent family reunions and shared family meals. But Khold was also a child of the West. She grew up on Disney movies and Nutella, and her father was open to the idea of his children marrying outside the faith.
"I grew up around religious people, but it wasn't forceful," said Khold. "They just taught us a set of rules … what you should do, what you shouldn't do, and we just didn't question it. My parents weren't strict on it, but it's just what the society taught us."
Those who do find spouses outside the Druze community are usually ostracised — both from their family and the community. For Khold, the fear of losing the community and wider family she loves outweighed her father's openness to a marriage outside the faith.
"I don't want to stop talking to my family just because I'm going to marry a non-Druze, so I'm going to marry within the faith. It's easier," she said.
To make things even more challenging, the Druze religion doesn't allow converts, leaving options for potential partners limited to those born Druze.
You haven't had to think hard about it, but when the moment comes to choose a wife or husband, you do have to think about it.- Gerard Russell, former diplomat
The consequences of marrying outside the community aren't always consistent, says Chad Kassem Radwan, an anthropologist who has studied the Druze for the last decade.
"It works on so many different levels. Somebody could take you out of their will, for example," he said.
Khold has seen such things happen to members of her family. A cousin of her mother's came to Canada from Lebanon at the same time as Khold's mother and spent most of his formative years in the Western diaspora.
He married a Christian woman, and as a result, his family and community stopped speaking to him almost entirely. The most Khold's parents will say to him is, "Hello" or "How are you?"
"I feel bad for them. It sucks to not be part of [the community] just because you married someone that isn't Druze," Khold said.
"The Druze society is so heartwarming, because everyone knows you: they call; they come over frequently. I would be so sad to lose that."
Seeing what happened to her relative increased the pressure she put on herself to find a Druze husband, but she hasn't had much luck.
"You have all this freedom around you, and you don't feel the immediate pressures of a Druze society like those in the Middle East. So when it comes to marriage, I have to create these pressures for myself."
Mostly, she is trying to avoid getting emotionally caught up in relationships that have no future.
"The thing is, I can't allow myself to feel something for [non-Druze men], because then, it would be so much more difficult to break it off in the long run," Khold said.
Khold never tells potential suitors the real reason for rejecting them.
"I don't like saying I'm Druze."
Many of her peers have never even heard the word "Druze" let alone understand the faith and restrictions that come with it, Khold says.
Despite her commitment to marrying within her faith, it's hard for Khold to identify outwardly as Druze.
"I don't want to say, 'I''m Druze,' because I'm not, in my mind. I'm just a human, let's keep it at that," she said.
Gerard Russell, a former British diplomat who wrote about the Druze in his book Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, says that is typical of many young Druze in the diaspora. They don't start thinking about what it means to be Druze until it comes time to choose a partner.
"You haven't had to think hard about it, but when the moment comes to choose a wife or husband, you do have to think about it," Russell said. "Then, that's something they're not prepared for."
The Druze have relied on two ways to encourage single young people in the diaspora to meet each other: international conventions and weddings.
The conventions are straightforward: a weekend is dedicated to hosting hundreds of Druze from around the world, with an itinerary designed to encourage interaction — everything from shopping to sightseeing to picnics and the customary closing gala.
Khold has yet to attend one of these events because, she says, she fears the disappointment of not finding a partner or of finding one who doesn't live anywhere near her.
As a student halfway through her undergraduate degree with hopes of continuing on to medical school in Toronto, she's not ready to interrupt her studies and uproot her life to pursue a relationship elsewhere.
Weddings, on the other hand, are familiar territory. Each summer, she attends about six on average.
My wish for our people is that we all eventually marry out.- Riya Khold
At least two of those are likely to be in the Toronto area, meaning many of the guests will be her friends or relatives.
"It's not like I'm meeting new people," she said.
This past summer, however, she met a young Druze man at a wedding. Intrigued that she hadn't met him before, she struck up a conversation. But her cautious optimism soon turned into disappointment again: he was from Florida.
With a Druze convention approaching in July 2019, Khold's friends have finally convinced her to come along. Her hopes aren't high: the convention is in Florida and attracts an international crowd. The chances of Khold finding a partner who lives close to her are slim.
For Khold, there is no other option but to marry Druze, but she says she doesn't want others born into the diaspora to have the same struggles.
"My wish for our people is that we all eventually marry out."