In the wake of the Fort McMurray fires, Peter Stockland reports on the ground in Edmonton on how religious communities are responding to the catastrophe.
The largest basement room of the Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton’s north end is almost empty now.
It’s down to four single beds from the 150 beds jammed in only days earlier to accommodate evacuees from Fort McMurray fleeing the May 3 wildfire that destroyed their town.
A table in a smaller room next door is still heaped with donated clothing, and the kitchen at the rear still has boxes of contributed food to be cooked for those with nowhere else to go for meals.
The priority, though, was getting the evacuees accommodation. In less than week, that was mission accomplished even though many who fled the fire knew no one in Edmonton, and were often relative newcomers to Fort McMurray itself.
But worshippers at Al Rashid – the original 1938 building was Canada’s first mosque – used their relationships and networks and connections to make sure rooves and beds were found for all.
And all, volunteer Yashmin Khan says, means all. While the majority who found safe harbour at Al Rashid were Muslims, doors were opened to non-Muslims as well. Muslims would not–cannot– have it any other way.
“It is God who asks us to give, so we do not give to this one but not that one. We cannot look and say ‘oh, this one deserves it but that one does not.’ That is not our faith. We never leave anyone empty. We never just walk away.”
She points out that those who found shelter at Al Rashid in the first week after the evacuation of more than 80,000 people from Fort McMurray were almost entirely working people with financial means. But a lot had to leave so quickly that they were ill-prepared to leave home. Some were forced to leave behind cars that ran out of gas on the trip south to Edmonton, meaning belongings were left behind, too.
What they found, coming to the mosque, was comfort and, far more importantly, community.
“It was important to serve them food because they needed to eat, but it was also to make them feel at home,” Yashmin says. “They needed to be able to say, in different ways, ‘help me’ and know that the community would pull together to help them.”
But for Muslims, as for adherents of the other Abrahamic monotheisms, what the community gives it also receives back magnified many times.
“They are doing a favour for us by being a person we can help,” she says. “God made the earth so we can help each other. To help, to feel the pain of others, to be able to see what they are going through, is to grow spiritually. Giving help is a gift to your own spiritual well-being.”
For Jaffar Pathan, a volunteer from the Islamic Circle of North America working with the Edmonton Emergency Relief Services Society, the evacuation of Fort McMurray required attention to the specific needs of Muslims that non-Muslims simply wouldn’t be aware of. It meant supplying prayer mats, acceptable clothing, copies of the Koran left behind in the rush to leave a city burning down, directions to a mosque for prayer.
“We’ve helped people who don’t know what has happened to their house but the first thing they ask for is a copy of (the) Koran. They still want to pray. They are saying ‘we are here; our faith is still here.’”
But Jaffar, underscoring Yashmin Khan’s remarks, stresses that attending to the particularities of Islam is just a part of giving to the wider community. As Muslims, he says, giving means giving to all.
“When there is a donation from the Muslim community, it is not a donation for the Muslim community. It is meant to help everyone who needs it. It means giving to the whole community.”