Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Back to School (feature) ~ The Montreal Minaret

Back to School

Sikander Ziad Hashmi
The Montreal Minaret

I just couldn’t fall asleep after Fajr. Bursting with a mix of excitement and fear, I’d hop out of bed every 10 minutes or so, to see if the sun had risen yet, while
making sure that my parents didn’t spot me. The anxiety and suspense were almost unbearable. Finally, my mom fetched me from my room and dressed me. I ate breakfast and I soon found myself climbing up the steps of an enormous yellow school bus.

It was Monday August 31st, 1987 and this five yearold Muslim kid was off to his very first day at school, armed with a thinly populated English vocabulary of exactly five words: I missed the bus (a phrase that my mom hammered into me, lest I ever missed the bus) and washroom.

Seventeen years and eight days later, the feeling will be the same as I hop onto a train and head to university for the very first time, albeit with a somewhat improved
vocabulary. Similar scenes will be repeated across Montréal and the rest of the country, as students, new and old, head back to school for a new academic year.

In most cases, butterflies are definitely in the stomach. Whether one is making the jump from high school to CÉGEP, or from CÉGEP to university, or even if one is a returning student, there is usually a little anxiety.

After all, as each year passes, one enters into uncharted territory -unless of course one is repeating the grade!

However, for Muslim students, and especially the students heading to a new place for the first time, isn’t there just a little extra anxiety? After all, perhaps we have more to worry about than our non-Muslim counterparts.

There are salah (prayer) timings to fit into class schedules, iftar (breaking of
the fast) issues during the holy month of Ramadan, possible reactions to hijabs (headscarves), and beards (who knows who might take them as a symbol of Islamic extremism?), potentially biased teachers/professors, and being caught with the foot in the sink while making wudu (ablution).

Sixteen year-old Samrah Sher will be heading to CÉGEP this Fall, for the first time. She sees it as a big step forward and likens the transition from high school to
CÉGEP with adulthood.

“During CÉGEP, I’ll probably end up getting my driver’s permit, learn how to use city buses, get my driver’s license, go to summer school, go to school for registration, make my own schedule and this is when education counts the most,” she remarked. “All this responsibility adds up to my becoming an adult.” For Samrah, it all boils down to responsibility.

“When I become this Muslim adult, I’m more aware that people can choose to look up to me, so I have to be extra cautious of my actions, be more aware of what I do, and most importantly, I feel more responsible than ever for my intentions and my actions.”

Samrah concedes that while she is “always up for a good challenge”, she does “feel a little tinge” in her stomach. For her, it’s almost the same feeling she had going into Grade seven, though that feeling was more nerve-wracking.

“That was when I first decided to start wearing the hijab,” she recalled. “So, to help me out, I equipped myself with short but practical answers for the bombarding
questions I was expecting, and as predicted, I got. (‘Have you heard of a religion called Islam? That’s what I follow. You see, I don’t only cover my hair, but my body, too. Well, we’re really keen on modesty.’).”

Come September, the Brossard resident will be heading to Champlain College. The
well-established Muslim Student Association (MSA) at Champlain offers Samrah a sense of security and comfort, and she’s anxious to get involved.

“[Champlain College] already has a successful and established MSA, including a room that is solely dedicated as the MSA Musallah (prayer room). This MSA organizes bake sales, hosts Islamic events, and has Dawah (awareness) Booths, so they could openly increase awareness of Islam, and decrease ignorance.

"Alhamdulillah (praise be to God), I can’t wait to be a part of this MSA and this new college community, which is my home, Insha-Allah (God willing), for the next two years.”

Rooha Sabah Janjua will be entering Grade Eight this September, and the École Secondaire Dorval-Jean XXIII student is excited about heading back to school. She looks forward to seeing her friends again and meeting her new teachers.

But things weren’t so exciting last year in Grade Seven. That was when Rooha, like Samrah, started wearing the hijab, which left her extremely nervous.

“I wasn’t sure if anyone would mind about the way I dress, since we hijabis don’t dress like the other girls we see around,” recalls the Pierrefonds resident. “But after a while, I got the hang of it and some of the girls liked the way I dressed since I always matched (my clothes) with my hijab, so they thought it was cool.”

Rooha was shocked though by the reaction of some of her old friends. “One of the girls wasn’t my friend anymore because of me wearing the hijab. She said that it looked like I wear the scarf because I didn’t have hair. I found that really mean and couldn’t take it anymore.”

One positive thing came out of the whole ordeal was that her beginning to wear the hijab acted as a filter, and she learned a lesson about choosing friends wisely.

“The best part is that when you wear it, you find out who just used you and who are your real friends. I like that because I am annoyed of having bad friends, so now I choose wisely.”

As a Muslim high school student, Rooha says she doesn’t face many problems, although
she is annoyed by the way some people dress. However, finding a place to pray remains an issue for the time being.

“Insha-Allah, when school starts, I’ll figure out a way,” says the optimistic 13 year-old.

Bilal Ruzzeh came to Montréal as an international student. Finding himself in a new city and a new university environment, he had a few concerns. How was he supposed to find a good group of Muslims to hang out with? What about discrimination? And like Rooha, finding a place to pray on campus was also an issue. After all, he was new to the city, he didn’t know much about the Muslim community and wasn’t aware of prayer
places on campus.

The McGill student vividly recalls his early days in Montréal.

“I went into a store owned by a Muslim -I knew that from the halal written in Arabic on the window- and I got the prayer times calendar,” he explains. “I didn’t know about a prayer place in the university, and actually I blame myself that I didn’t even bother to reach out to the Student Society to search for Muslims. I just used to run back home for prayer and go back to classes for around eight months, until I asked a Muslim about the prayer room. Then I met the MSA President in one of my courses. He told me about the prayer room, and I was introduced to Muslim brothers, Alhamdulillah. For the first eight months, my policy was actually ‘preserve’ rather than ‘enhance’, in terms of Islamic knowledge and practices. Reading Quran at night before sleep was the only thing I did.”

Bilal still faces a number of challenges as a Muslim university student. But preserving his identity as a Muslim tops the list of challenges for this 25 year-old Mechanical Engineering student.

“To preserve my identity as a Muslim by practicing the basic acts of worship and sticking to my Islamic views, principles of life and behaviour is the first challenge,” he says. Bilal cites a number of examples of challenges, such as salah and class timing conflicts, fasting, and parties where alcohol is served.

“The prayer times do not necessarily fit into my schedule and then I must be ready to leave class if I am to catch the prayer on time,” he explains. “I have to fast (in Ramadan) even if I have exams or finals. I have to be determinant in quitting gatherings where there is drinking and/or useless talks, and be polite in rejecting
invitations by professors, classmates or the department to such parties.”

As with Samrah, a well-established MSA hasn’t left much to worry about from a religious point of view. MSA McGill has made life much easier for Bilal and he feels comfortable in the university environment. He has learned to deal with most of his concerns and has adjusted well to university life, thanks in part to the way he looks at things.

“If I have clear idea of how to deal with people and situations, a clear view of principles to follow and a list of priorities, it will not be a problem to adapt things to my personal preferences,” he says. “It is natural to face some difficulties, because of the system, but I believe they are always solvable. It takes work, patience, management, and before all, trust in Allah, for nothing
happens without Allah’s Will.”

Bilal and Rooha both offer words of wisdom for new Muslim students.

First and foremost, Bilal advises all Muslim students (including himself) should put their trust in Allah and to not be ashamed of being a Muslim and practicing Islam.

“Be confident and proud of your Islam, and be firm and clear in asking what you want,” he stressed. “Don’t hesitate to say ‘I do this because I am a Muslim’, yet be polite too.” He also encourages new students to get involved with the MSA.

Meanwhile, Rooha has important advice for first time Muslim high school students. “Don’t worry, it’s just like elementary but bigger - a lot more classes and lots and lots of different people. Just make sure you study hard and concentrate on your work, and don’t mind the other students. Make friends wisely and don’t get influenced into bad things and ideas.”

As the days pass by and the time ticks closer to zero hour, the excitement and fear continue to grow. The climax will keep building, and then in a fraction of the amount of time it took to come, the moment will be gone. We will slowly settle into our daily routines and life will go on.

From pre-school, to elementary, to high school, to CÉGEP, and then to university and beyond, it is a long journey and it’s really easy to get carried away. As we slowly crawl ahead each day, let’s not forget to take a moment to say Alhamdulillah, for it is only Allah who taught us how to crawl, then walk, and then run, and to Him one day we must return. 

Sikander Hashmi is a Journalism student at Concordia University and is the editor of


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