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In Prairie city built by Mennonites, a growing Muslim community connects through weekly prayers

When Fezan Hasham kneels on a prayer mat in the gym of a local seniors’ centre and closes his eyes, the newcomer to Canada feels at peace.

“I come here, close my eyes, and I see children playing,” he recalls.

“I turn around, I think my dad will be there. That’s how good it feels. It feels like I’m at home exactly.”

It’s a sentiment Hasham, who moved from Kenya two years ago, didn’t imagine feeling in Steinbach, Man., a small faith-based city of 18,000 people with more than 20 churches serving the community.

There was a belief among local Muslims there weren’t enough of them in this fast-growing southeastern Manitoba city to host regular prayers. They’d have to travel to Winnipeg, about 50 km to the northwest, for the closest mosque. 

But in February, they set up their own prayers anyway — and not only are people showing up, they’re renting a bigger room to accommodate everyone. 

Mosque fosters belonging 

“It feels really good,” Hasham marvelled after a recent prayer, the first Friday on which they rented the gym of the Pat Porter Active Living Centre, rather than a room in the facility.

A pilot in training, he thought of moving to Winnipeg to be closer to a place of worship. He doesn’t think about that anymore.

“Usually you feel lost when there’s no mosque around, but with the mosque you feel really good,” he said. “I hope it becomes a big thing.”

Serious discussions around starting prayers began in 2019, but were derailed by the pandemic, said Saif Asi, 28, who moved to Steinbach five years ago as a Syrian refugee.

A man, standing on his feet, bows his head in prayer, while other people are either seated or on their knees.
Saif Asi, who moved to Steinbach, Man., five years ago as a Syrian refugee, thought he knew most of the Muslims in the city, but he’s been pleasantly surprised to meet new people at these weekly prayers. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Asi organized the start of Friday prayers at the seniors’ centre. The Jumu’ah prayer, the weekly sermon and congregational prayer every Friday afternoon, is obligatory for all Muslim men to attend. Women and children are welcome to attend, but it’s not obligatory for them.

“The first time we did it, we saw so many new people. We didn’t know each other before,” Asi said.

Around 30 to 35 people attended the first two prayers. The third prayer was open to women and children and more than 60 people showed up.

At the beginning, Fahim Din expected to see maybe 10 Muslims — that’s the number of Muslims he knew in Steinbach, all of whom he met through soccer.

He used to travel to Winnipeg for Jumu’ah, but he could rarely make it. He worked full-time in accounting, and would need to take three hours off to attend the prayer and commute both ways.

“I’ve talked to Saif a couple of times and we have bounced around with an idea of [starting prayers], but there was not enough Muslims in the Steinbach community to actually have a thing,” he said.

“I’ve been coming for the last three weeks or so during my lunch hour. It works pretty well.”

Muaaz Jutt, who volunteers with the Manitoba Islamic Association, came in from Winnipeg to give the sermon and lead the prayer on a recent Friday.

People seated on prayer mats, including children, listen to the speaker.
Weekly prayers now occupy the gym at the Pat Porter Active Living Centre in Steinbach. (Ian Froese/CBC)

In 2014, he travelled to Steinbach daily for work. He couldn’t always make it back to Winnipeg in time for Jumu’ah. 

“It was a real struggle to find people in this town to connect with,” he told the congregation during his address.

One day, he happened to hear the Jumu’ah was being performed in someone’s basement. He was welcomed with open arms. 

It made him think, even back then, that there could be more Muslims in rural Manitoba than he realized. The 2021 census listed Muslim as the religion of 45 people in Steinbach.

The fact this traditionally Mennonite community now has weekly Muslim prayers might be shaking perceptions of the city, said Ed Neufeld, a retired educator whose Mennonite church sponsored the Asi family’s arrival to Canada.

“In Steinbach, we are diverse — much more so than people like to think, and I think it’s amazing,” he said.

A few youth look out from the stage, before the jumah gets started.
By the third week of the Jumu’ah being held in a public venue in Steinbach, a bigger room was booked to accommodate more men and allow women and children to take part as well. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Asi’s arrival in Canada, and that of his parents and siblings the year before, were sponsored by Neufeld’s church, Grace Mennonite. The church was among many groups in Canada that acted to bring Syrian refugees to the country after the unsettling photograph of a drowned boy circulated around the world. 

The church’s efforts to resettle a Syrian family proved to be an example of Mennonites helping Muslims, and now one of those Muslims — Saif Asi — is bringing people of his faith tradition together. 

“We made a decision that we were choosing a Muslim family [to sponsor] and that we were going to learn together with them and respect them,” said Neufeld, who was a guest of the first Jumu’ah in Steinbach.

“We’ve had nothing but wonderfully respectful conversations with them.”

Asi commends the Mennonites for being a support. 

“Sometimes they help us, sometimes we help them,” he said. “I think that’s a very good thing and it’s a very nice place to live here with these kind people.”

A married couple, Kamal Asi and Faten Asi, speaks to a reporter.
Kamal Assi, left, and Faten Assi arrived in Steinbach in 2016, along with some of their children, as Syrian refugees whose arrival was sponsored by a Mennonite church. Their eldest son is now the one trying to make Muslims in the city feel at home. (Ian Froese/CBC)

His parents beam as they speak of Saif living out their faith in their new home.

“When I have Saif, I pray for God, ‘Please, my God, I need this son for you,'” Faten Assi, his mother, said.

“My son, he is helping Muslims, helping Islam,” she added, her voice trailing off while she holds back tears. “I am very excited, I feel like crying.”

“Alhamdulillah,” she adds, an Arabic phrase that means “praise be to God.” 

Audrey Harder, executive director of the Pat Porter Active Living Centre, said their facility has been thrilled to help the Muslim group find the space they need.

Harder knows their facility may not be big enough for long. The Muslims hope to operate a mosque of their own one day.

“That would be great for them; they would be able to do what they need to do without us,” she said. “It’ll be fantastic when they get to that point.”

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