Students pin suggestions to create inclusion on a board at Chilliwack middle school. (Jessica Peters/ The Progress)

Abbotsford Muslim women speak to students about their faith, hijabs and dealing with harassment

Chilliwack school’s acceptance club hosts day of cross-cultural learning

“Muslims aren’t the only ones who wear something on their head,” Sahir Moosvi tells a group of middle school students.

He’s moving through slides of photographs, showing different cultures with religious headdress. They run the gamut from Muslim women to Christian nuns to Orthodox patriarchs and more.

“Many religions have some sort of head covering,” he continues, “and you will see I’m not wearing one. There is a hijab for both Muslim men and women, but this is a choice between a person and their god.”

Moosvi, along with a pair of young Muslim women from Abbotsford, Mirela Gigovic and Swaleyha Islam, were invited to speak to students at Chilliwack middle school, as part of a presentation put together by the CMS Acceptance Club. The idea, teacher and club leader Jennifer Nip says, is to get all the information out there to the students. She encourages them to open up and ask every question of their guests, even ones that may be embarrassing or awkward.

“Ask away!” she tells her students.

Xenophobia is nothing new to society, Moosvi said. Through the years, racism and prejudice has played a role against First Nations, Japanese, Irish, and Jewish people, to name a few. Even different sects of the same main religion have been at crossroads, he notes, with the Catholics and the Protestants.

He teaches history at the Az-Zahraa Islamic Centre, and is a director of the Connect Global Youth Association that hosts a Model UN conference for high school students.

Gigovic was born in Bosnia but emigrated to Alberta as a baby and then to Abbotsford in 1998, while Islam was born in Canada. Both are 19 years old, both look and sound just like any Canadian teenager. And they both are new to wearing the hijab.

And even in the short time they’ve been outwardly showing their Muslim faith, they’ve been subjected to racial hatred, even violence.

“When I first started wearing the hijab, I was running a little bit late for class and I walking down an empty hallway,” Islam says.

There was a group of boys in the hallway with her, and they began calling her “horrible” names.

“I don’t want to repeat them,” she says. “One of them grabbed my hijab. I was really scared, I didn’t know what to do.”

But what she ended up doing turned the tables on her tormenters.

“I had thought, this is a new year, new me, and they really ruined my vibe,” she says, laughing at the memory. “I thought ‘I can’t let this happen to me,’ so I yelled ‘Wait you guys!’”

Yes, she decided to tear a strip off them. To her delight, they scuttled off and never bothered her again.

“I didn’t want to be this meek creature,” she said. From then on, when she encountered those boys in the hallways at school, they would quickly turn away sheepishly.

Gigovic has also faced racism. She just began wearing the hijab last November.

“I remember the very first week, there was someone throwing ice at my car and calling me a terrorist,” she says. In another instance, she noticed younger boys giggling and taking photos of her at work with their cell phones, presumbly for SnapChat. She confronted the mother, who became angry with Gigovic instead of the boys, and then complained to Mirela’s boss that she was harassing them.

“That was such a tough day for me,” she recalls. “I’d like to think I have a strong character. It’s scary stuff and I am okay, I can handle it, but others might not be.”

And it’s for those who feel they can’t speak up about racism that both the young women are so vocal. They’ve even had to argue with their own parents about their choice to wear the hijab.

“My dad said I should see a psychologist,” Gigovic says, laughing loudly. He’s a non-practicing Muslim and her mother is not a Muslim.

“My parents are so against it,” Islam adds, despite both parents being Muslim. She even fought with her father for the right to wear her hijab in her passport photo.

“I said ‘this is my right as a Canadian!’”

What they really want people to know is that they are no different than any other person you may encounter on the street. They have been vocal by visiting schools and open mosque days in Chilliwack and Abbotsford, and speaking to people about what it really means to be Muslim.

It’s that kind of sharing of information that could have helped keep Brad Galloway out of trouble in his early life. He was another presenter at CMS, but with a story from the other side of racism. Galloway was a skinhead, deeply involved in the right wing movement that breeds hate and promotes racial violence.

He’s turned his life around now, and is studying criminology as a research assistant at the University of the Fraser Valley.

Galloway told his story as a way of trying to dissuade young students from adopting that hateful message. And it’s a message that’s prevalent in all communities, he warns. It began with a disconnection from his family, and feeling like an outcast in school. He had gone to a school where many of the rich students happened to be Jewish, and feeling left out was enough to plant that seed of hatred.

He said the right wing movement uses music, literature and a feeling of brotherhood to create a gang culture. Many of his friends from those days have been killed, he said, pointing to slides from his days within the movement. It took getting stabbed in the side of the head, and being saved by an Orthodox Jewish doctor, that began his journey back out of that lifestyle.

“Do you fear for your life?” a student asks.

“You can’t live in fear,” he says, but he does avoid certain places. And he has no worries that he would fall back into that lifestyle.

“Their message doesn’t resonate with me anymore,” he says. He’s set positive goals, gives back to the community through Life After Hate, a counter extremism group, and keeps his family’s needs close to his heart.

Parents and students need to know that these movements are out there, and get out ahead of them by communicating with others.

“There are people you can talk to,” Galloway says. “Talk to someone.”