The Yukon’s Muslim community: accepted and accepting

In Islam, the true meaning of jihad is "struggle," and when you practise a religion whose traditions are largely scheduled to the rising and setting of the sun, Yukon summers can pose a real challenge.

Summertime is a real jihad for the Yukon’s Muslim community.

In Islam, the true meaning of jihad is “struggle,” and when you practise a religion whose traditions are largely scheduled to the rising and setting of the sun, Yukon summers can pose a real challenge.

Muslims pray five times a day: when dawn breaks, at noon, in the afternoon before sunset, right after sunset and when night falls, which usually comes right before 2 a.m.

And then there’s Ramadan.

Faraz Khan moved to the territory one year ago, during the month of Ramadan.

Ramadan falls between July and August and for 30 days Muslims must fast during sunlight hours.

“Days are a lot longer here,” said Khan, raising his eyebrows and inhaling. “As Muslims, we’re not supposed to eat between sunrise and sunset.”

It’s an adjustment that takes getting used to, he said, mentioning this past year’s Ramadan – his second in the territory – was just as tough.

But for Khan, who was born in Pakistan and immigrated to Mississauga, just west of Toronto, Whitehorse is now home.

“My fiancee is from New York and she’s asked me a couple times to come over there, and I said, ‘You know what, sweetheart, I love you and all that but I will not trade this country for any country in the world,’” he said. “We as Canadians are probably the most compassionate nation ever. I am an immigrant. I’ve only been here for the last 12 years in this country. And what I’ve achieved, what I’ve gained, what I’ve learned, what I’ve experienced – I would have not done that where I come from. All my negatives were turned into positives. All of my hardship was turned into opportunity. All I’ve ever gotten is support and help from normal, average Canadians who play hockey with me, play soccer with me. Do I prefer to live here for the rest of my life? Yes. Would I die here? I want to be buried here. This is my country.”

Khan has just purchased his first home in Whitehorse and his wedding is planned for January.

According to Statistics Canada, there are about 60 Muslims in Yukon.

Hazra, originally from Fiji, is a Muslim woman who moved to Whitehorse in 1990. She asked that her last name not be used. Hazra remembers when the territory’s Islamic community was much smaller.

“In the beginning it was just a couple of families,” she said.

Now there are about 20 to 25 Muslim families who call the Yukon home, she estimated.

“I am a Yukoner,” said Hazra. Her 13-year-old daughter, Alisha, was born in the territory.

Together, the mother and daughter have broken a lot of trail for Muslims, and Muslim women, in Yukon.

“When she was in Grade 6, when she decided to wear the headscarf, the hijab, we went to the principal – she was at Selkirk (Elementary) then – and explained to him that we were Muslim and this was her choice and how did they feel about it?

“He said, ‘You know, hey, this is your faith and if she’s ready for it and she wants to wear it,’ he was very receptive about it,” said Hazra. “She was told that it might be something that people will ask her about; it’s something different. In the beginning, she explained it, and after a while it was just Alisha. It didn’t matter that she had her head covered or that she wore long sleeves all the time or stuff like that – that didn’t matter to any of them. Even now, she’s in Grade 8 and starting at F.H. Collins and she’s doing wonderfully. Again, the kids there, they know that these are her clothes, this is what she wears and she covers her hair and there’s nothing different about her.”

The schools have also accommodated Alisha by allowing her time to do her one prayer during the day.

Hazra encourages others in the Muslim community to take steps like this for themselves.

“It’s just as easy to say, ‘This is my prayer time, can I take my lunch break at this time?’ Or, ‘I can stay 15 minutes later at work so I can take that time.’ I know that people are a little bit hesitant about asking. We’re from different backgrounds, we’re from different countries. But I thought, you know, if we don’t speak up, if we don’t ask, then we won’t know. We can’t just say that we live in a non-Islamic country and we can’t do it – that’s not right. Then we’d be judging without even asking.”

Since Khan has been in Whitehorse, he has never had an employer tell him he couldn’t take the breaks he needs for prayer. He simply goes into the lunch room, he said.

Islam is about respect, he said, meaning he wouldn’t pray at any time or place if it made those around him feel uncomfortable.

But there is no mosque in Whitehorse.

In the past, the Muslim community has rented space, including the United Church’s basement, for gathering and prayer and has now established their own Musallah space on First Avenue and Strickland Street.

Both Hazra and Khan believe there will be a mosque in Whitehorse one day.

“I don’t see any reason why not,” said Khan.

“Insha Allah,” said Hazra, in Arabic. “That means, ‘If Allah wills.’ That is, I think, every Muslim’s dream: to have a place where they can go and pray. Hopefully one day we will, like the Northwest Territories do.”

After two years and 4,500 kilometres by road and barge, Inuvik established Canada’s most northern mosque in 2010.

But even without a mosque, other aspects of society in Whitehorse are becoming more accommodating of Islamic faith.

For example, Superstore now offers a decent selection of halal foods.

When she first moved to Yukon, Hazra remembers having to ship all of their food up from Vancouver.

It was expensive and difficult, she said. So the community began asking the grocery stores if they would offer halal foods, which have been slaughtered in a specific way. (When animals are killed for halal meat it is done through a ceremony and in a way that is meant to cause the least amount of pain to the animal. Muslims also cannot eat pork.)

Friends of Hazra’s husband have invited him to go hunting with them, adding that he could slaughter the moose, for example, following halal tradition.

“He said he’d prefer to go hunting in Superstore,” Hazra said, laughing. “You know we’re all afraid of the cold.”

But the invitation was just another example of how comfortable and welcoming Yukoners are to the territory’s growing Muslim community.

“I have never met so friendly, accepting and accommodating people,” said Khan.

There are times when friends may ask why he isn’t drinking, other times he’s been offered pork, or food during Ramadan, but Khan has always been given the chance to explain that he’s Muslim and the reasons behind abstaining or fasting, he said. Before moving to the territory, he had never been camping before. Now, Khan owns his first hunting knife and often goes fishing with his diverse group of friends, he said.

Khan has never been teased or excluded based on his faith, skin colour or the way he talks, he said. Instead, those around him have developed a better appreciation of Islam, he added.

Relations between the Islamic and Western worlds have reached an all-time low recently, with the now-infamous anti-Islamic video and the violent reaction that ensued.

But here in Yukon, the true teachings of Islam are being practised, said Hazra.

“People that hurt other people, that do these things, they can’t be Muslim, because that’s not a teaching of Islam. Islam teaches us to help each other and to be tolerant toward each other.

“Islam teaches tolerance and respect, and we’ve had that in the Yukon. I truly believe that you have to treat people as you want them to treat you. We’ve never had any problems here.”

Khan participated in this week’s Interfaith Symposium. The annual, 17-day conference travels throughout northern B.C., the N.W.T and Yukon promoting peaceful and respectful discussion between the world’s major religions.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com

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