A place of refuge: Vancouver's Al Jamia Masjid mosque is committed to community

Jan 31 2017, 7:36 pm

Vancouver’s Al Jamia Masjid mosque has recently become a site for candlelight vigils in memory of those who lost their lives in the tragic shooting in Quebec this past weekend.

Around 11:30 pm on Sunday evening, Haroon Khan, the president of the Pakistan Canada Association and a trustee at Al Jamia Masjid, said he received a call notifying him that there was a small crowd of 20 to 30 people gathered outside the mosque with candles, paying their respects to those who lost their lives in the Quebec attack.

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People felt compelled to show some solidarity and to come to a mosque,” Khan told Daily Hive. 

He was not expecting such support to come so quickly after the brutal attack.

Khan was at a gathering celebrating 50 years of the BC Muslim Association when he got the news that someone entered the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec mosque in Quebec City, shooting and killing six and injuring at least eight people. The suspect, identified as Alexandre Bissonnette, is facing six charges of first-degree murder, and five charges of attempted murder.

We were shocked we were in disbelief. We couldn’t believe it happened in Canada,” said Khan. “What can you do? You want to lash out, but all you can do is pray. And that is what we did.”

‘I opened the doors to the mosque’

Image: ketzelpretzel / Instagram,

Khan arrived at Al Jamia Masjid to take part in the vigil. “I got there with my son …and all these other people from different backgrounds and ages (were there) and it was just a mixed group of people. I stood with them and thanked them and then I opened the doors to the mosque,” he said. 

People that Khan had never met entered the mosque that evening to stand in unity against violence.

“For many of them, they had never been to a mosque before either. So they came in and they felt some sense of belonging and this is really a key distinction. It’s not really us or them, or Muslim, or Jew, or Christian. We are the same, we are all human beings and I think everybody felt that.”

Another vigil took place on Monday, where an even bigger crowd gathered outside Al Jamia Masjid, bringing flowers and prayers.

Once again, Khan invited attendees into the mosque and ordinary people were welcomed into the place of worship.

“They all cycled through the mosque and it was a very special time,” said Khan. 

A place of refuge

Nestled on West 8th Avenue, Al Jamia Masjid was established in 1963 by Khan’s father.

It is the oldest mosque in BC and the second-oldest in Canada.

“I literally grew up there,” said Khan, noting that it is not only a place of worship but a place to give back to the community.

This winter, the mosque served as a temporary shelter and a place of refuge for the homeless during the coldest days in December.

“(I was asked) to open the doors for the mosque and we did so without hesitation,” said Khan.

As temperatures dipped, the mosque provided those in need with a warm place to sleep, clothing, and meals. Khan says this would not have been possible without the help from a diverse set of volunteers.

“What really set this particular initiative apart was the volunteerism of youth and how it was exemplified by a very multi-ethnic interfaith group of young people,” said Khan.

Throughout the years, Al Jamia Masjid has been committed to giving back to the community through various initiatives including food drives, and fundraisers.

For Khan, the mosque is not only a place for prayer but also a place to protect those in need.

“You have the spiritual need but you also have the physical needs. Mosques, churches, synagogues, and temples have been utilized as places of refuge in the event of a calamity,” said Khan. 

‘I have no fear’

Haroon Khan (centre right) stands with congregation at Al Jamia Masjid Mosque (Image: Haroon Khan)

At a time of so much ignorance and bigotry against Muslim communities, Khan says that having an open dialogue is crucial.

Education is really important and it is important for people to realize it is not us or them, we are all in this together,” he said.

But it is also hard to remain hopeful when the hateful rhetoric towards Muslims becomes prominent given the current situation in the United States.

For Khan, keeping that hope that things will get better, is what he is holding on to. For him, Canada is still a place that represents diversity, multiculturalism, and acceptance.

“I have no fear. I never will,” he said. “My children never will, I taught them that, I was taught that by my father. We will never give into fear or intimidation.”

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