By: Ismael Mukhtar
The official opening of the new center was a historical moment of great significance for the Muslim community in Manitoba. The historical significance of this event can’t be fully appreciated without going back and looking at the years of hard work, planning, and relentless efforts by members of the community at large. Most of the early pioneers of the new center project didn’t have the opportunity to witness this historic moment; some of them passed away others moved to other locations. The beginnings of the new center project can be traced back to the late eighties when there was a growing sense among community members of the need to establish a larger center with a full time school, a community center and a mosque. Discussions on the feasibility of such a project and the community’s ability to sustain it were becoming increasingly more common. The Friday and Eid sermons, conference lectures and community forums were more than ever emphasizing the need for such a project, in particular a full time school. Outside speakers who visited Winnipeg were encouraging the community to undertake this project and were positively sharing their communities’ experiences with such projects. Some members of the community were actively searching, on their own initiative, for suitable piece of land and making various proposals to MIA Executives.
As the momentum for the project kept on growing the executives were obliged to take the first step towards making the project a reality. A regular annual General body meeting was held at the Hazelwood mosque in the late eighties. The agenda items of the meeting included: the formation of a land committee. The meeting ended with the establishment of a land committee with a mandate to purchase a piece of land as a future sight for the new centre. The new committee was to work in conjunction with MIA trustees. Included in the committee were Br. Gulam Kibrea as a chair person, Dr. Riaz Usmani as a treasurer, Dr. Mujeeb Al-Rahman as a senior trustee and other brothers. The committee started its mandate with out a penny in its account and had to begin the whole process from scratch. Regular meetings started in earnest, mostly held in Dr. R. Usmani’s residence. The committee struggled for some time, but gradually things started to fall in place and take shape. Brochures introducing the project were made available in English and Arabic. Letters of endorsement were secured from National organizations such as ISNA, ICNA and others. The land committee set its criteria for the ideal land as a 4 acre land, in a fully serviced area, with an estimated cost of $150,000. Fund raisings at small scale begun at various levels within the community. A major fundraising dinner was held where Shiekh Abdulah Idris (former ISNA President) was invited as a speaker and fundraiser. The event was a huge success; more than $80,000.00 was raised in cash and pledges, a record by the standards of those days. Members of the land committee along with other members of the community started to actively search for a suitable piece of land. All most every potential land in the south was considered and enquired upon. The search finally narrowed down to a 4 acre piece of land on Chevrier Blvd (off Waverly). The land was on residential area, fully serviced for an asking price of $200,000. Negotiations ensued with the vendor and offers went back and forth. As the negotiations were going on, a member of the community informed the land committee of the potential availability of a piece of land on Waverly through the provincial government. The land committee immediately applied for the purchase of the land. After some delays the offer was accepted by one level of government bureaucracy, but later rejected by another level. A relentless and exhaustive effort was made by the land committee, particularly its able chairman, Br. Gulam Kibrea in contacting politicians, department officials and ministers to reconsider the decision. The effort bore fruits the deal was approved.
The community finally took ownership of a 13.5 acre land on Waverly for a total cost of about $60,000. There was a great sense of excitement and jubilation at the community. The late Dr. Usmani was so elated, that he took pieces of stones from the land and kept it at his home. The excitement, however, was muted among some members of the community who questioned the suitability of the land; they felt it was too far, there was no development in the area, no services available and it was in agricultural zoning. The land committee, however, bought the land with the expectation that the area will develop in the future and if for some reason the land wasn’t suitable for our purposes, it would still be a worthwhile investment which can be sold at a much appreciated value. With the acquisition of land, the mandate of the land committee came to an end; MIA Trustees became fully responsible of the project. To ensure continuity of the project, at least two members of the land committee were elected as Trustee and Br. Gulam Kibrea continued as the lead person in the next phase of the project.
As preparations were under way to move to the second phase of the project, the community was hit with a major conflict that halted the whole project and pushed it to the side ways. A simmering and unfortunate conflict between the Imam of the day, Imam Mohammed Safi and MIA Executives became public and took center stage. All efforts to resolve this conflict reached a dead end. The community was polarized between supporters of the Imam and the Executives. Cynicism set in, mutual trust was lost, and the community fell into a terrible turmoil. The Muslim community of Winnipeg has never experienced a conflict that was so intense and polarizing such as this conflict. Finally, as the tension peaked, the Imam was abruptly dismissed by the Executives (1994). His dismissal brought some quite to the mosque, but the tension and split within the community continued for some time. The new center project became the victim of this conflict. There was a sub-conscious decision made by the Trustees to freeze the project until there was a positive change in the mood of the community.
Fortunately, with the passage of time, the rift created by the conflict started to fade away and a new spirit to move forward set in. A brain storming meeting initiated by the executives of the day, particularly Br. Iqbal Siddiqui, the secretary of MIA, was organized in the summer of 1996 at the University of Manitoba. Participants were divided into small focus groups to discuss a selected project. Out of this meeting came a new volunteer group to solely focus on the school project. As well, the new center committee was revitalized and a plan of action was put in place. The full time school group set an ambitious goal of establishing the school by the end of summer, to be temporarily housed in a rented facility until the new center project is finalized. The full time Islamic school, named Al-Hijrah school, became a reality and opened its doors in September 1996. The school was housed in a rented facility on Pembina Hwy with about 30 students. The new center committee directed its effort towards the development of an architectural design of the center, fundraising and creating a new momentum for the project. There were suggestions from some members of the community to buy an existing building and turning it into a new center instead of building on a distant, un-serviced Waverly land. The trustees were open to the idea and willing to look at what becomes available case by case, but the stated goal was to build on the Waverly land.
As the community started to grow, new comers started to take greater role and volunteer in community projects. Among them were the late Br. Haseeb and his wife Dr. Sabeeha. They were keenly interested in the new center project and wanted to share the experience they gained in volunteering for similar projects in other cities. Br. Haseeb later became a trustee and started taking a leading role in the second phase of the project. After years of hard work in various fronts, within and outside the community, with the leadership of the trustees of the day: Brs. Haseeb, Pirzada and Asim the first step towards building the new center took place with the ground breaking ceremony on June 2003. Three and half years later the center was finally opened for the community in January 2007.
One missing component from the new center structure as was envisioned originally is the full time Islamic school. When the project was initiated originally, the school was viewed as the most pressing and most central element of the project. However, the center project took longer than what was expected; as a result the Al-Hijrah full time school came into existence ten years earlier. Currently, Al-Hijrah is in a separate location, close to downtown. Perhaps it is time to start planning to move the school to the new center or, depending on the needs of the community, to establish a second branch of the school in the new center to serve community members in the south. That will bring the original vision to its full completion.
The beauty of the new center lies in the fact that it is the outcome of years of collective community wide effort. From penny drive by children, to brick sales, tree planting, fundraising sales and dinners etc; all done with a spirit of sharing in building of the community by across section of our community members: men, women; seniors, young; old timers, new comers; residents, foreign students; all ethnic groups etc. It is indeed a community success story that should make all members of the community proud. Going forward, the main challenge isn’t in maintaining the center physically, but in transforming it into a bastion of love, mutual respect, cooperation, care, empathy and understanding.
Note: this article is solely based on my re-collections as a member of the land committee and MIA trustee for 6 years. Its focus is mainly on the 1st phase of the project.