Building Belonging: Kawartha Muslim Religious Association

As we continue our Vital Signs exploration on belonging and connection to community, we’re sharing stories of how community foundations across Canada are actively building belonging in their communities. Check out our second of three Belonging: Exploring Connection to Community reports released on October 2, 2016 that explores the connection between social participation and belonging.

As winter approached in 2015, the only mosque in Peterborough, Ontario, had a congregation of roughly 100 people. Masjid al-Salaam, as it is known to its members, was an unassuming structure, but it had nevertheless become an important symbol for Muslims all over the Kawartha region. It was a place where family and friends could share not only their faith, but also their news, their joys and hardships.

On November 15th the mosque held a gathering to celebrate the birth of a baby. Less than an hour afterwards, however, in an apparent response to the terrorist shootings in Paris, France, arsonists smashed a window and used Molotov cocktails to do over $80,000 worth of damage to the building. Police were quick to label the fire a hate crime.

Although no one was physically hurt, the event triggered fear throughout the local Muslim community.

“People called to ask ‘can we go outside?’” recalls Kenzu Abdella, President of the Kawartha Muslim Religious Association (KMRA). “People were actually scared. ‘Can our kids go to school?’” they wondered.

Many Syrian families were slated to be settled in the area after fleeing war in their home country. What would they think of their new home country if there were hate crimes such as this?

The idea that you belong to your community can seem a nebulous, intangible idea, until you really need to rely on others.

Enter, Dwayne Rousselle, a PhD candidate at the University of Trent. He was seeing a young Muslim woman at the time of the arson, and had witnessed first-hand how deeply hurt she and others in her community were by the fire. In an effort to help, Rousselle started a crowd-funding effort to help with the costs of the damage, and within just three days, had raised over $110,000.

But here’s the thing: the KMRA had insurance on the mosque, and only needed money to cover the cost of a deductible. So what was to be done with the rest of the money?

Surely, an addition could have been put on the mosque. With the anticipated arrival of Syrian families, the congregation was about to grow, and a little more room might have been useful. Instead, the KMRA saw an opportunity to repair the damage done not only to their mosque, but also to Peterborough as a whole.

“All of a sudden, we were in a situation where we needed to make it about more than just our issue to actually mobilize the community for a common good. That’s when we got involved with the community foundation,” said Abdella. “We wanted to do something more.”

The community decided that since they were made to feel so vulnerable, that the money should go to others who felt the same way. To that end, the money was split: donations of $28,500 were sent to the Five Countries Children’s Centre and to the Young Women’s Christian Association of Peterborough, and separate endowment funds were set up for each organization. That way, members of Masjid al-Salaam could continue to contribute to their communities in perpetuity through the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough.

“It was not just the decision of the committee leadership. … Everybody said ‘this is our community. We don’t have to react negatively.’”

“Since this event, the engagement of our community has changed a lot. People want to get involved and want to do more, not just the Muslim community, but the community at large,” reports Abdella. He has since spoken with two schools that want to bring classes to the mosque to help raise awareness and understanding of Islam.

The story has spread.

“After this whole process with the community foundation, the feeling of belonging is a lot deeper than it ever was. And it has gone even farther than our community.

Some Muslims from the GTA have asked us ‘Is it true? Is this a good community to retire in?’”

When the mosque was reopened on December 23rd , an open house was held, and many non-Muslims were on hand to celebrate, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“The sense of belonging has really been renewed,” opined Abdella.

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