When Yahya Abdi-Hadi began setting up the booths for Islam awareness week on the University of B.C. campus in the last week of March, he knew this year would be different.
‘’The spotlight is on us now,’’ said Abdi-Hadi, president of UBC’s Muslim Student Association. ‘’So it is time for us to educate people about Islam.’’
Many booths, like the “try on the hijab’’ exhibit, took on a whole new urgency after a spike in Islamophobia incidents across Canada was reported this year and last, many of them directly targeting Muslim women.
Hate crimes against Muslims have increased dramatically in recent years, with 22 cases already reported in 2017, according to the National Council of Canadian Muslims, an organization, which tracks ’anti-Muslim incidents.’
Focus on security
Canadian universities have not been immune to the rise in Islamophobia.
After the November 2015 Paris bombings, two Muslim women were verbally attacked while on campus at UBC.
In January, a Muslim woman at Simon Fraser University was told to take her hijab off and to ‘’go back where she came from.’’
More recently, 47-year-old Hisham Saadi was charged after making multiple bomb threats against Muslim students at Concordia University.
“In the past, there has been a blind eye towards it,” said Zainab Ahmed, co-ordinator for the student association’s volunteers. “People just assumed hate crimes never happened on campus, being in Canada.’’
Despite the rise in anti-Muslim incidents, it took the shootings at a mosque in Quebec for the student association to double down on campus safety.
“After the shootings in Quebec, we sat down with UBC [representative Janet Teasdale] and with Safewalk telling them how we felt and asking them to first acknowledge that this was something which needed to be addressed,” said Abdi-Hadi.
The group isn’t just relying on administrative support.
It is taking a pro-active role in educating members on how to be safe.
During the association’s meetings, group leaders are taking special care to inform international students about campus security initiatives, like Safewalk, which is a service that provides a walking companion for people who feel unsafe on the campus at night.
The association is also urging any victims or witnesses to report anti-Muslim incidents.
“We are encouraging people to report any thing that happens to them, and people do come to the MSA (Muslim Student Association) for us to report on their behalf,’’ said Ahmed.
Association works to build bridges
Beyond its members, the association is reaching out like never before.
The “try on the hijab’’ booth during the Islam awareness week was one of several exhibits meant to build personal connections through culture, something the student association says is the best way to combat Islamophobia.
‘’Making contact with other people, making friendships, changes phobia,’’ said third-year student Hussein Khan. “If people see you face to face, maybe it will change their mind and show that they’re just like you.”
It was all part of a wider effort this year to bridge the gap between Muslim and non-Muslim students on campus and have an honest discussion about cultural and religious misconceptions.
‘’When we talk about what’s true and what’s not true,” said Ahmed, “people leave with a lot less confusion and hatred.”
Still feeling positive about the future
While some Muslims on campus are feeling nervous, many still feel that Vancouver is a safe place.
‘’Vancouverites see the hate,” said president Abdi-Hadi. “So I am very optimistic about the future.”
Zainab Ahmed agreed, citing the helpful response of UBC administration.
“There is a lot of support on campus, a lot of resources for Muslims and we are encouraged to practice our faith.’’
After the meeting with Teasdale, UBC president Santo Ono attended Friday prayers on campus, assuring the association that UBC would be supportive.
‘’We have been trying to meet with the president for a long time,” said Abdi-Hadi. “So to finally get him to speak with us and give his support meant a lot.’’
With more events on the horizon, the student group is hoping that a newfound focus on dialogue and interaction will ensure a better campus atmosphere in the future.
‘’We have to have those conversation about misconceptions,” said Ahmed. “Hatred starts from misunderstanding.”