By Zoha Naghar
Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) is known for its mandate to “maintain a visible presence for equity, diversity and inclusion” and holds a large student body that comes from different walks of life. A large portion of TMU’s population are a part of the Muslim community, one that is often unrepresented in many aspects of society.
The month of October marks Islamic Heritage Month in Canada. The Muslim community at TMU is a strong, united and prideful group of students. But like any mass group of connected individuals, it takes person by person to come together as one.
This was the case for Rahaf Al-Ashqar and Maisam El-Wazani, two TMU students who have been friends since they were in elementary school. They came to university as a small group of two and now have a large caring group of fellow Muslim students, all who come from different backgrounds.
“It’s just encouraging,” said El-Wazani, a second-year nursing student. She shares how her friend group can count on each other and how they all encourage each other to become better people—and better Muslims. “Sometimes we’ll be sitting on the eighth floor at the [Student Learning Centre (SLC)] and we’ll remind each other to get up and pray and we’ll go to Khutbah [sermons] together. It’s good motivation.”
Al-Ashqar, a third-year architectural science student, followed up on what her friend said. She said that, during Ramadan, a lot of their classes would end too late to break their fast at home. This would cause most of them to stay on campus until Maghrib prayer.
“We got food and put the tables together at the SLC to have one big Iftar together”
The month of Ramadan is observed by those who are Muslim. Maghrib is traditionally the fourth prayer out of the five that occurs just after sunset.
“One day, there were like 40 students and we got food and put the tables together at the SLC to have one big Iftar together,” said Al-Ashqar. Breaking fast, also called Iftar, together in unity is a special value in Islam and that memory was a sense of unity with the students who were there.
Another one of their friends, Nadine Musa, is a second-year nursing student. Musa and El-Wazani both talked about how they feel seen on campus due to designated prayer rooms and culture clubs on campus.
“I didn’t expect the huge Muslim population to be the way it is and to be how connected it is”
The one critique Musa would have is that there aren’t enough prayer rooms on campus. She hopes for there to be one in the SLC so students don’t have to rush to the Student Campus Centre, the only interfaith room on campus. The Eyeopener reached out to the university for a comment regarding the amount of prayer rooms on campus, but did not receive an answer in time for print.
Besides the critique, Musa shares how nice it is to have found a community on campus. A big part of building a community on campus is through clubs like the Palestinian Culture Club (PCC), that all three friends are a part of.
Ziad Shaarawy, a third-year electrical engineering student, moved from Egypt at 10-years-old. “I was shocked at how accessible [the Muslim community] was. I thought it was going to be a lot harder. I didn’t expect the huge Muslim population to be the way it is and to be how connected it is, but it’s there and it’s strong,” he said.
He listed some of the student groups at TMU that build connections among Muslim students—the Egyptian Student Association, the Pakistani Student Association, the Middle Eastern Student Association and the Muslim Student Association (MSA) to name a few. “The MSA has a lot of really great events and a lot of really good posts [on Instagram]. Whatever you’re looking for, you will definitely find it.” he said.
Shaarawy shares a personal story of how he treats people and creates a bond with the community he has on campus through the teachings of Islam. He greets people and checks in on them often, saying that the two main factors that influence why he behaves this way are his faith and his father.
“My dad is a guy who loves to greet people walking down the road [saying], ‘Assalamu Alaikum’. I love that so much. That’s how I’m trying to be like. And why [is my] dad like that? Because of Islam. The same way my grandfather grew up, with Islam,” says Shaarawy.
As-salamu Alaikum means ‘peace be upon you’ in Arabic. He shares that he will always do his best to treat people with kindness and respect because that is how you build a community and a relationship with others.
“My dad is a great guy who loves to greet people walking down the road saying ‘Assalamu Alaikum’”
Soha Saeed, a fourth-year early childhood studies student has had a similar experience as Shaarawy. She says as someone who is a visible minority—wearing a hijab on campus—she feels represented and seen. She says that when she passes other hijab-wearing women on campus, they’ll greet each other with a smile and a simple hello rather than just walking by.
Fifth-year public health student Marwah Azizi’s story is a bit different. Azizi moved to Canada from Afghanistan at 14-years-old and says she had to feel secure with herself and her faith before she could venture onto campus to find her community. She shares how she had to learn to not let people who don’t like the way she practices her beliefs influence who she was.
Now, in her final year at TMU, Azizi says she’s seen a ton of growth in Islamic awareness and the Muslim student body over the years. “Muslim representation is increasing and I’m really glad to see that. I feel like extensive thoughts and experiences have been put into putting these events together and the focus now is on real issues like tackling Islamophobia and educating both Muslim and non-Muslim communities about real life events.”
Azizi talks about the importance of Islamic awareness, fighting against Islamophobia and how that played a partial role in her decision to choose to study public health. Azizi has had first-hand experiences witnessing her own loved ones face racial injustices within the healthcare system.
According to the Ontario Human Right Commission, “The lack of services in minority languages has been repeatedly found to be an access barrier in various social services, including health services.” Those who immigrate to Canada may not be able to explain how they feel due to the language barrier which may cause them to leave their appointments misdiagnosed or undiagnosed. She says she wishes the courses she’s taking at TMU would focus a bit more on the current state of Canada’s health system and its flaws, especially on racialized individuals.
“Muslim representation is increasing [on campus] and I’m really glad to see that”
Student groups at TMU play a huge role in building a community for both Muslims and non-Muslims students. With a rise in predominantly Muslim student groups on campus, the TMU student body is continuing to build their knowledge surrounding Islam and the community only continues to get stronger and larger.
The president of the MSA, Abdullah Patel, says he’s proud of the work that he and the MSA committee have accomplished and continue to accomplish on campus. He shares that not every event is exclusive to Muslim students either and that anyone on campus is more than welcome to join.
“Breaking stigma, giving people information, answering questions people have about Islam or what we do. That’s what we’re there for. To provide Islamic awareness and build a community,” he said. Patel shares that the MSA has more upcoming events planned this year that will continue to help shine a light on and bring together the Muslim community at the university.
Jana Alnajjar, president and founder of the PCC, says the group is meant to create a safe space for Palestinian students, especially Muslim Palestinians like herself. She shared that the connection between their cultural and religious customs are intertwined given Palestine’s rich Islamic history.
“Breaking stigma, giving people information, answering questions people have about Islam or what we do”
Palestine is home to one of the holiest mosques in Islam, Masjid Al Aqsa, which is historically known as the first Qiblah—first direction of prayer—in which Muslims used to pray towards. That was until the direction of prayer changed to face the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam.
“PCC’s mission extends beyond cultural celebration. It involves educating and advocating on behalf of Muslims. In this way, PCC’s role at TMU is crucial in enhancing the Muslim community’s presence at the university, not just by celebrating our heritage but by also engaging in charitable initiatives to support Muslim countries and causes.” said Alnajjar.
This Islamic Heritage Month, TMU community members can take some time to learn about and celebrate their Muslim friends and their culture—and student groups at the university can be a good place to start.