On the cold Saturday morning, on January 14th, a group of students from multiple University of Ottawa Muslim student associations rose early and went out to warm the hearts and fill the stomachs of people who are homeless in Ottawa.
(AhlulBayt News Agency) - Members from the University of Ottawa Muslim Student Association (UOMSA), the Ahlul-Bayt Student Association (ABSA), and the Thaqalayn Muslim Association University of Ottawa (TMA) felt it would be a good opportunity to unite and pool efforts to improve Ottawa’s homelessness problem with larger numbers and combined resources.
“Giving charity is a commonality among all Muslims” stated Jawwad Akbari, president of TMA. Noah Taj, financial officer at UOMSA echoed this sentiment, “We saw an opportunity to work together for a cause that was much needed in the city.”
According to a 2015 progress report by Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa, our capital has seen an increase in people accessing homeless shelters. From 2014 to 2015, there was an overall increase of 4.9%, with much of the increase a result of more families and more people over 50 needing to seek shelter.
For Taj, it is time to take action, “We’ve had about the same homelessness rate for the past decade. We have to do what we can to help.”
Rukiah Jheran, vice president of ABSA also saw the need to take immediate action, “There are more people looking for shelter during the cold weather. Through this event, we wanted to mirror the same goals of the Prophet, one of which is to give back to the poor and homeless.”
A secondary purpose for this joint event was to create dialogue and friendships between Muslim students from different clubs. UOMSA is a club with a majority of Sunni members and volunteers and TMA and ABSA are clubs with a majority of Shi’a members and volunteers.
The groups do acknowledge their respective theological differences; however, members stated that these differences should not prevent the formation of friendships.
Ziyad Zeidan, president of UOMSA, expressed that although it is important to acknowledge our differences, it is important to highlight our commonalities for such an event, “As students, we want to focus on what we have in common. It is part of our faith to give to those who are in need.”
Sunni and Shia students pray in the same multifaith room on the University of Ottawa campus. It was from meeting together there that the idea of collaborating on an event originated, according to Akbari, “In Islam, we’re told to fix yourself, fix your family, and then fix your community. In my own mosque, I would pray and stay behind and say salaams (peaceful greetings), and make bonds. I felt that doing this in the mussala (prayer room) with not just Shi’as, but also with Sunnis would open me up to others,” he added. “I found that going out and talking to people and forging bonds in the mussala, and having others reciprocating is what helped us have this event. It goes from a personal level first.”
This strategic method to bring together members and resources yielded a very successful event; in total, approximately 50 volunteers gathered at the university to put together 200 sandwiches. The volunteers also distributed 100 pairs of socks, juice boxes, and fruit. Most of the food was donated from various supermarkets and stores in Ottawa. Students assembled the items on Saturday morning and then distributed them near the Ottawa Mission, Shepherds of Good Hope, Cornerstone Housing for Women, and the Hope Outreach Shelters.
Khaoula Louati, a nurse and current student in Psychology, shared her thoughts after the event on the stereotypes associated with people who are homeless, “Some stigma associated to individuals who are homeless is that they are [always intoxicated], violent or aggressive. I don’t think any of [the homless people we met during the event] were intoxicated in any way, and we did not feel afraid.”
Abir Merabet, a third year student in the Commerce, Management and Information Systems program, expressed that she was glad to help at the event and found connection through something as simple as a smile.
All three clubs believe that the event was successful, and anticipate meeting in the near future to review their success and plan for even better shared events in the coming months.