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A bridge and window to a Muslim school

Peter Schuurman tours a Muslim elementary school in Guelph and finds many similarities to the Christian school that used to inhabit the site.

A bridge and window to a Muslim school

Inside a Meezan classroom (faces obscured for privacy).

The building that housed the Christian school my children attended is now home to the Muslim Society of Guelph, and that includes Meezan School of Guelph, a Muslim grade school for JK-8. Most major cities in Canada with large pockets of immigrants now have at least one Muslim primary school, and they are growing. I thought I would visit the Guelph school and report on my experience as a bridge to my neighbour’s community and as a window into their world. As a private religious school, they are colleagues to our Christian school, much closer to us in function, funding and faith than a publicly-funded school taught from a secular humanist perspective.

The staff were all very welcoming to me, and I was free to take a few photos as long as I did not include the faces of the students (due to privacy law).

The school sign above the entrance features an inspiring quote: “One book, one pen, one child and one teacher can change the world” (from Pakistani woman’s rights activist and Nobel- prize-winner Malala Yousufzai). When one first enters the school, colourful wall posters promote good character and fairness. A classroom door was decorated with a winter tree scene full of hearts with the title “Kindness is love.” Inside I saw a display in large colourful letters, “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Welcome to Our Classroom.” 

Sara Sayyed greeted me. She is both the school principal and the wife of the President of the Muslim Society of Guelph, Muhammed Sayyed. She was very open with me about her school, and clearly passionate about seeing her students thrive in Canadian society.

The federal census of 1871 counted 13 Muslims in Canada. The 2011 survey counted about a million Muslims in Canada (three percent of the population, and eight percent of Toronto). Islam is the second largest religion in Canada since the 1990s, if you do not include “religious nones” as a group, and many muslims want to raise their children in their faith while building their character and giving them a good education.

Immigrant origins
I was told there are an estimated 4,000 to 7,000 Muslims in Guelph and about 400 young people at grade school age. The Meezan School started in the year 2014 because of a growing concern among parents in the Muslim Society that their children were not adapting to life in Canada as well as they might be. All parents are immigrants – not unlike the Christian school parents that preceded them in the building – hailing from such diverse places as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Libya. Some of the young Muslims of the Society were struggling academically in public school or getting in trouble; part of the problem was a matter of cultural and religious adaptation. Wilfrid Laurier professor Jasmin Zine has written that Muslim students face peer pressure, gender discrimination, Islamophobia and racism in Canadian public schools. So their dissatisfaction with the system is understandable, and with the support of the entire mosque community, a Muslim school was begun in a former Christian school. Now in their third year, they have five classes and 76 students, including six new Syrian refugee students.

They are taught by five full-time and five part-time staff, the latter of which includes one of the Society’s imams. While the imams are trained in the Sunni tradition, the families that make up the school come from a number of Muslim backgrounds. “We don’t even keep track of their distinctive backgrounds,” said Mr. Abdool, the administrator of the school. “We just teach the basics of Islam here, and its core to all the traditions.” 

As for the teachers, I was told that the most qualified applicants get the job, and currently half of them are non-Muslims. An Ontario Teacher’s Certificate is the basic job requirement. I explained to Mr. Abdool that the philosophy of Christian education I espoused required that all educational subjects be taught from a specifically Christian perspective. Meezan takes a different approach. “What is important to us is shared values,” said Mr. Abdool. “We highlight different values each week – like kindness, fairness, respect, safety and responsibility. If the teachers intentionally connect with these values, they are a good fit for our school.”

The school is still in its infancy. They have no non-Muslim students, no school bus, no computer lab and no playground. The children play happily under the hydro wires where Christian school kids used to climb, slide and hang from a play structure. “The Christian school had a special agreement with Hydro that allowed them to build a playground,” said Sayyed. “That agreement dissolved when we bought the property, and getting through the bureaucracy of both the municipality and Hydro has been difficult.”

Left: Principal Sara Sayyed and resident imam Mubeen Butt. Right: Entrance to the new Muslim grade school. 

A balanced education
They called the school “Meezan,” meaning “balance” in Arabic. Mrs. Sayyed explained that some Muslims think they have to make a choice between being true to their tradition or leaving it behind for fun, sports and their Canadian community. This is a false dichotomy. Muslim students can be secure in who they are as Muslims and still be a contributing member of the wider community. The school’s motto says, “A balanced education for a balanced life.”

“Current politics in North America around Islam and immigration – as well as just the differences of Canadian culture – can be a scary thing for Muslim immigrant parents,” she continued. “They are far from their extended families and the support systems that sustained their traditional identity. For example, you do not hear the call to prayer in Canada – something taken-for-granted in public life in Muslim countries. Parents wonder: how far can I let my children go? We understand these family issues, and Muslim immigrants feel safe here. Many are leaving the public system, feeling their academic and religious needs are not being met.”

Meezan has a dress code in order to promote an “inclusive and safe environment focused on learning.” Blue shirts, gray pants or skirts and no shorts. Sometimes the girls wear jewelry on Fridays, as it is a special day of the week for prayers. Only health classes are gender segregated.

As I was interviewing the principal, the hot lunch came in. The school serves pizza every Friday, although it’s “veggie and cheese” pizza. The Lunch Lady, a business that caters to schools in Guelph, offers a halal menu for those that ask for it – even in the public schools she serves.

Education as discernment
They teach the Ontario curriculum – all the math, English and science that is required by the province. The children's art, following Islamic tradition, can include no religious symbols, but other than that, much of their work looked very similar to any other grade school. 

The new Ontario sex-ed curriculum is critically received. The Quran is clear that marriage is between a man and a woman, and when it comes to sex education, Muslim parents are concerned about what is taught and at what age. “Kids learn lots from beyond the classroom, though,” said Mr. Abdool. “We teach them to be respectful and kind to those of different views and experiences. It’s OK to differ respectfully.”

I noticed they had had track and field day, a French Day, a Valuing Families Day, a culture fair, a science fair as well as an “author fair.” An author fair requires three students to read three different books by an author and, after discussing the writing style of the author, to write a fresh story in that style. 

Authors this year included Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lemony Snicket and Rick Riordan. I knew that Riordan was the author of the Percy Jackson series, which had been banned by some Christian school libraries because it features Greek gods and the part-divinity of some of the characters. Mrs. Sayyed recognized these tensions with the Muslim faith, and said that they prefer to guide the students in understanding the material from an Islamic perspective rather than ban the books. “The imam will take the opportunity to compare the Greek gods with the one God in Islam,” she explained, “and contrast the Greek and Islamic creation stories, among other things.”

Another example she shared with me was an exercise in which the students wrote out the lyrics to their favourite pop songs. The class then discussed the words in light of their faith and the virtues it teaches. “It’s useless to deny these things exist,” the principal explained. “It’s better to talk about it and discuss the issues. We talked about body image, expectations created by the songs, and we asked, ‘How does that make you feel?’”

When I asked about the philosophy of education, Mrs. Sayyed pointed me to the quote on their brochure: “Acquire knowledge and impart it to the people.” The quote comes from Tirmidhi, one of the main compliers of the sayings of Muhammad. She added, “I believe the Prophet said, ‘Even if you have to go to China to acquire knowledge, go there.’”

The principal was stressing that Muslims value education highly, and immigrant Muslims maybe even more so. “When you come as immigrants, you want your children to do well,” said Mrs. Sayyed. “As children, you see that your parents have given up their home country and families in order for you to improve, and when you see them struggle, you know you owe it to them to do well.” Then she smiled. “Thinking of my own family, the next generation after that seems more laid back, though. They feel more secure already, and need to learn the value of work and money.”

Teaching the faith
The imams instruct the students in their Islamic Studies, which includes stories of Muhammad, the prophets and the companions of the prophet, as well as training in character, prayer and the etiquette of the mosque. They also teach the reading and reciting of the Quran, with the goal of memorizing the entire Quran (which is about the length of the New Testament). A special “Quran Recitation Open House” features each year in which students display to parents and others their progress in memorizing the Quran.

Students also take Arabic classes, and the Arabic alphabet graces some classroom walls. “They learn the Arabic of the Quran – not conversational Arabic,” said the principal. “It’s more like learning Shakespearian English. We want them to understand what they are memorizing.”

The imams are trained in special “seminaries” overseas or in the USA. They are taught on the job about such things as classroom management and unit planning. As with all education today, there is lots of material on Islamic studies available on the internet. Online Islamic home schooling curriculums are especially helpful resources for the imams.

The Canadian public can be suspicious of Muslim schools, and a minority may worry whether young people can be radicalized in the setting of a Muslim school. An alarmist report was released by journalist Saied Shoaaib and former security analyst Thomas Quiggin in 2016 claiming that Muslim school libraries in Canada are rife with “extremist literature.” The report has been heavily criticized for its method and intent to vilify. Furthermore, the charge seems odd given that the conservative think tank The Fraser Institute gave Muslim schools in Ontario the highest ranking in academic excellence just a year earlier.

Everything I saw, including the Meezan library, indicated a vision for a healthy, acculturated religious identity. “We want people to be well-grounded in their faith,” said Mr. Abdool, “and we are sure to teach that there are good people with good values in all communities.” Their primary concern, however, is not preventing Islamic extremism. “We want them first and foremost to find meaning in their religion and our shared values so that when they go to high school they don’t hang out with the wrong groups, and end up feeling disconnected and disenfranchised from Canadian society – getting involved in drugs or other trouble. We want our students to know they have a role to play in Canadian culture, and then hopefully they don’t even think of going down a darker path.” School leaders are more wary of alienation and delinquency than radicalization.
    
Funding and governance
I noticed their tuition fees were only $3,000 for the first child in a family, and decreased from there for subsequent children. The school is subsidized by the rent they charge for a portion of the building used by the Montessori Academy Learning Centre, a daycare with students mostly from non-Muslim backgrounds. And while it receives no government funding nor any other outside funding, the Muslim Society of Guelph is generous in its donations to the project.

WikiLeaks has revealed that Saudi money, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, has been donated to Muslim schools in Ottawa and Mississauga (The Globe and Mail, 2015). There is nothing illegal about this, and the schools deny that any strings were attached to the funds. Meezan School knows about these opportunities. “We could apply, but we don’t want funding from overseas,” said Mrs. Sayyed. “We want to be grounded in North America, and that kind of money always comes with controversy and politics. The prophet says that all rizq (providence, sustenance) must be clean money, and we don’t know where those funds really come from. Besides, our community migrated from all over the globe, and money from any particular country could cause internal trouble.”

There are two larger bodies that Meezan could associate with: the Islamic Society of North America and the Muslim Association of Canada. Meezan has chosen to remain independent, as membership in each requires additional fees that would increase tuition, and it includes numerous standards regarding food, calendars and prayers that they would rather establish locally.     

They are governed by a local board that consists of five people, four men and one woman: a businessman, a retired principal, a retired teacher, a parent and a representative of the Muslim Society. This body meets once a month to set the goals and direction of the school.

They are still working at making more connections with the broader Guelph community. They have had a public school Grade 2 class visit their Grade 2 class, and some Catholic High School world religions classes have come by for a tour. “We have a food drive for the Guelph Hope House every Ramadan,” she added with a smile. “We fill in the gap between the Christmas and Easter drives.”

They have school trips just like any other school: local trips this year included the Fire Station, John McCrae House, Zehrs Cooking class, the Butterfly Conservatory, Kitchener Museum, Doon Village, the Royal Ontario Museum, the African Lion Safari and a number of picnics and nature walks.

New neighbours: Meezan Muslim School is aross the street from a Christian Reformed Church.

Hopes and fears
When the school first opened, it was subject to some vandalism, mostly spray-painted graffiti on their outside walls consisting of various expletives and racial and religious slurs with swastikas. The graffiti has been painted over, but they haven’t yet given the whole school a paint job, so you can see exactly where it was. 

When Islam appears large in the daily news, how do teachers respond? She said that after the Paris shootings and the Quebec mosque shootings they talked freely with the older classes, listening to conversations and answering any questions. They have a trauma counselor available in case there are families with relatives involved, which in the case of the Quebec mosque shooting, there were none. “The message we give the children is that these things happen in the world, but we’re in a good community in Guelph with lots of support. There are more good people than bad people in the world, and when wrong is done, we do not respond in kind.”

A vigil was hastily organized by the Muslim Society after the Quebec shootings in February 2017, and some of the families of the school attended. It was inspiring for the students to see upwards of 700 neighbours come out to show support for their Muslim community. Cards have been sent to the Society from neighbours expressing solidarity, and they were put on a poster in the hallway. “My heart breaks for your community at this sad time,” said one note. “You have our support and love and prayers!” said another.

“It was surreal,” said Mr. Abdool. “It shows we are connected in so many unexpected ways. It was very touching to see that so many people really care, and I hope we are responding in kind. It will not be forgotten.”

I tested the level of acculturation in the school by asking if they encourage the students to play hockey. In fact, one of the first dreams for the school is to build a small gym. “We have hockey sticks, pucks and nets all ready to go,” said the principal with a laugh. “But we have no gym to use them in yet.”

What do the parents hope for their children, sending them to this school? Mrs. Sayyed answered: “My son attends here, and I can say personally I want a well-rounded son – not a genius, but someone who is confident, with good social skills, able to thrive in a job that he enjoys. I hope we can give him a work ethic that can help him achieve that.”

As I left, the intercom sounded the call to prayer in Arabic. The students had a few minutes to play before they had to gather in the prayer room for their mid-afternoon prayer time. These dark-haired children laughed, ran and chased each other just like the mostly light-haired students I had seen on the same playground a few years earlier. These neighbours, too, were the sons and daughters of immigrant parents concerned about the religious identity and economic well-being of their children. Arabic may be a strange language to my ears, but it wasn’t just the school building that carried the sense of something familiar. 

Mission of Meezan School
"Meezan School is committed to each student’s learning needs and well-being as it furthers an inclusive, respectful and diverse place to promote creativity, critical thinking and social responsibility. Our committed staff of professionally-trained teachers work hard to create a welcoming and enriching learning environment that encourage your child’s intellectual and moral development.
Our goal is to foster strong academic and interpersonal skills, along with a sense of responsibility and positive self-esteem, in all our learners. Our school adheres to core values of honesty, inclusivity, respect, creativity, compassion and integrity."

 

About the Author
A bridge and window to a Muslim school

Peter Schuurman

Peter Schuurman has a Ph.D. in Religious Diversity in North America from the University of Waterloo. He is currently chair of the Guelph Community Christian School board. Guelph Community Christian School outgrew its space near the church and moved to a larger building.

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