by Diane Dent
I had the pleasure of speaking with Shaykh Murtaza Bachoo, a scholar and teacher at the Al-Mustafa School, located on 125A Street and 54 Ave. in West Panorama Ridge. A soft-spoken man who cares passionately about the Muslim community and faith that he serves, he also exudes a deep caring and commitment to our broader community of West Panorama Ridge and the world as a whole. He was happy to share with me the story of how Al-Mustafa came to be a part of the West Panorama Ridge community, a little about important events in their calendar, the benefits and challenges of residing in West Panorama Ridge, and why community is so important to them.
It began in 2006/2007 as more Muslim families were moving into the Surrey / Delta area and gathering to share their faith and educate their children around this faith. They began in another area of Surrey where they had purchased a building with the intention of having community gatherings and exploring opportunities to have a school. Over time, it was determined that there was a growing need to provide courses and classes for parents, youth and, eventually, an elementary school. As numbers grew and more families started coming, they migrated the educational programs to LA Matheson Secondary School in Surrey where they began holding weekend schools from K – 10. They had several other programs as well and a vibrant youth group. Students were taught about how to live like a Muslim, along with important life skills to be a productive member of society. They found a strong need from their youth for a place of belonging, support, and a sense of community. This evolved into summer and winter camps, team sports like soccer, and campfire gatherings. The success of these programs meant that the space they had was no longer adequate for the kinds of programs and support they wanted to offer to the families and communities who had come to rely on them.
Then, about four or five years ago, something transpired that was out of their hands, but which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Their original building suffered structural damage after a heavy rainfall and it was no longer useable without extensive renovations, so they made the decision to begin looking elsewhere. When they assessed the demographics of their members, they saw that many lived in the Surrey, Delta, Langley area. They felt that these areas offered a safe and peaceful environment within which to establish their vision of a place of worship and education and, ultimately, a place where they could build a congregation.
Their vision all seemed to come together when they came across the United Church property being offered for sale in West Panorama Ridge. Already zoned for a school, with classroom space, prayer space, neighboured by Colebrook Elementary School, abundant outdoor space, and a peaceful and quiet neighbourhood, it was the perfect place to make their new home. It has been three years since they purchased the property and, despite the hindrances of Covid, they are now beginning to get established and to grow. The resiliency of the families meant that they continued to meet under provincial guidelines so they could operate to some degree and keep the momentum going.
They have begun to adapt the building and property to meet their needs. One very visible change is the fence around the property. With their elementary school getting established and weekend programs expanding, they recognized a need to ensure the safety and security of the children, as all schools do. They chose the wire mesh style to keep it as open and welcoming as possible as opposed to a barrier to keep people out.
Important Events in the Muslim Calendar
Personally, I have had Muslim friends over the years who helped me to understand a little about their faith and traditions, like Ramadan, but I asked Shaykh Murtaza to share with us the importance of this time in the Muslim calendar as I thought many of you would find it interesting.
In the Islamic tradition, the month of Ramadan is the 9th month of the lunar hijri calendar. This year, the month of Ramadan occurred in April. Ramadan is a sacred month, associated with fasting from dawn to dusk. It is not just about the struggle of the physical self, but a much deeper spiritual struggle. The concept is that if you want to experience spiritual benefits, you must be prepared to give up physical benefits like food and drink. Through fasting, they remind themselves of the hunger and pain of people in our community and around the world and feel gratitude for God’s blessings and a sense of responsibility to share it with others. Think of it as “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes…”.
In the evenings during Ramadan, the day’s fast is broken and they share community through food and drink. They also have programs where they pray, recite the Qur’an, and conduct classes. Members of the community come together starting around the 2nd week of April, peaking in the 3rd week when they tend to meet later, sometimes into the early morning hours. One of the things that is very important to Muslims about Ramadan is to worship God, learn from the Qur’an and develop piety and character..
The next most important program after this is the Day of Eid Al-Fitr, a day of celebration, prayer and gathering at the end of Ramadan. Shaykh Murtaza expressed to me how thankful they are for the support they have received from neighbours during this time.
Benefits and Challenges of Residing in West Panorama Ridge
Perhaps their favorite thing about making their home in West Panorama Ridge is that it is a very peaceful environment, both the people and the physical space. Shaykh Murtaza put it as “being close to God’s creation – the beautiful nature in the urban forest”. Sometimes after classes, teachers take students for walks out past the stables or hold Sunday school and youth classes in the open area in Joe Brown Park. They also appreciate the fact that the location is close for most families to get to, whether they are coming from Langley, Surrey, Delta, or White Rock.
When asked about any challenges they have found residing in this location, Shaykh Murtaza said that they are few. He noted that it is very important to them to be neighbourly; not to bother their neighbours and to work towards caring for them. They are very cognizant that sometimes they have programs that are held in the evening. As this is also the time of rest for many people, they try to be very mindful not to disturb neighbours with any noise from people or parking. Especially during Covid, they held many more activities outside in the evening and were concerned about disturbing nearby neighbours. To manage this mindfully, their team went to the neighbours one by one to let them know and, after the function ended, they went back to thank them for their understanding. They are working hard to make sure they have a good relationship with all their neighbours, and they are very open to feedback should there be any concerns.
He acknowledged that their young people are beginning to really enjoy gathering and using the inside and outside space. They hope that this is not bothersome to the community but, rather, demonstrates how their youth are being productive, engaging and helping each other, providing a supportive community of friends and mentors as they go through many different challenges in life.
Especially during Covid, Shaykh Murtaza has found that he has been called on to support students and parents with difficult struggles associated with these past few years. I know many of us can relate. To this end, Al-Mustafa provides a mental health program from the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) with trained members working with their youth and young parents. Some of it is about offering classes and some of it is about putting people together, letting them find friendship – brotherhood and sisterhood – to find the support they need in life.
Another well known challenge for Muslim communities living in BC, and the world, is the issue of Islamophobia. This is a very real, lived experience for many Muslims and Shaykh Murtaza told me that, sadly, it is increasing. Sometimes it takes the form of vandalism within the school or place of worship, sometimes individuals experience verbal or physical abuse. Our Muslim neighbours in West Panorama Ridge are no exception. They are always concerned for their congregation and students, especially as they are running a school. Safety and security of their families is a top priority for them. Therefore, they work closely with the people around them to take care of each other.
One of their traditional sayings is “People have animosity towards those things that they don’t understand”. An important part of their work within a community is to educate and remove the lack of awareness or understanding of the Muslim faith. To this end, Shaykh Murtaza extended to all of us here in West Panorama Ridge an invitation to come and learn about them, see their space, even join them for a program so that we can learn for ourselves.
Importance of Community
When asked what is important to them in a community, Shaykh Murtaza mused that the way that industrialization and urbanization has occurred in our modern world is not always conducive to the idea of community itself. In the past, people lived, shopped, and worshipped in the same community as their neighbours. In urban spaces, we often don’t have this same opportunity to connect. He stressed that community is not just about having programs and services, it’s about people’s relationship to each other and the level of care and empathy they have for each other. He likes to think that the reason they have acquired this space is to provide a platform for this to occur.
They understand that the church building was previously a gathering place for groups in the community and respect the role it played in bringing people in the community together. They want to recognize this and carry it forward if they can, continuing to provide this support. If anyone in the community wishes to discuss use of the space for meetings, etc. they can contact them by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shaykh Murtaza was very appreciative of the opportunity to share Al-Mustafa’s story with us. I came away with a deeper appreciation and admiration for what they are creating for their members and the subtle, constructive role they play in our community of West Panorama Ridge.
Within West Panorama Ridge we are so lucky to have a community made up of many diverse and vibrant cultures. We have seen many changes over the years as we’ve welcomed new people, new thoughts, and new forms of celebration of cultures and religions. The joining of the Al-Mustafa School is yet another dimension that makes this community so amazing.