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Shams and Qamar Ahmad share their experiences of Islamophobia with OMNI Television.

by Reham Al-Azem, Eden Debebe and Denise Wong

Shams and Qamar Ahmad are two Muslim sisters who moved to Canada from Iraq as refugees in 2010 but even after surviving a war, the pair tell OMNI Television they were not able to escape bigotry in their new homes.

“They would either call me a terrorist, they would call me ignorant, they would call me Osama’s cousin,” said Shams, who attended school in St. Albert, a small town just a 30 minute drive from Edmonton, Alberta.

Shams remembers being approached by an aggressive man at a local bus stop in 2019.

“He was just straight up saying derogatory words, swearing at me, saying that I shouldn’t be here, that I’m stealing jobs and stealing his kids’ class time — just the randomest things — accusing me of just robbing him of his life, basically,” she said.

“He included a lot of racism. I looked down and I was like, ‘you know, I have just as much of a right to be here as you do. We’re all here together to just build a good life’, ” Sham said.

“Next thing I know, I feel a slap across the face. And at the moment I couldn’t really process what was going on. I was just very shocked by the whole situation and I remember sitting there — it could have been 10 minutes, could have been an hour, I don’t remember any of it — after that, I just kind of went blank. I couldn’t hear anything anymore and everything went quiet.”

Although Shams filed a complaint with local police, she feels officers did not take her case seriously.

“A lot of people have that saying. They say ‘at least we’re not like the U.S.’,” she said.

“But we are. Maybe not as intense or as open, but it’s there. The racism is there, the hate incidents are there.”

 

 

Activists in Alberta’s Muslim community in are calling for immediate actions to protect the rights of visible minorities.

Trent Daley, vice president of integration and program development with the National Council of Canadian Muslims Alberta (formerly the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council), said his “heart bleeds” for his community.

“We need systemic change and for that to happen, we need to address the root causes of intolerance, of racism, of Islamophobia,” Daley said.

“That comes through not only education but it comes through social action and supporting social support of these vulnerable communities. It comes through normalizing different identities within Canada.”

According to Daley, change will not be easy but must start with a concrete plan of action around education and vocal support from government officials.

“It needs to go beyond performative actions, or sending a tweet, or kneeling with protesters,” he siad.

“It needs to be met with swiftness, it needs to be met with sincerity, in the spirit of authenticity. We need our leaders to truly represent meaningful change and part of that comes through legislation.”

Shams’ older sister, Qamar, was also subjected to racial comments while living in Montreal in 2011.

“It was on my birthday and me, my mom and my sister were walking down the street and someone just drove right in front of us,” she said.

“He’s like, ‘if you want to be a Canadian, then you should dress like one. If you want to live here, you should be just like us’. Right before we could finish telling him that you don’t have the right to tell us that, he just drove off,” she said, adding that the man’s wife and daughter appeared to be in the car with him.

“What kind of example is he setting for the daughter? She’s gonna grow up to think the same thing, just because their parents are telling her this is the right way and this is what you need to believe.”

Unfortunately, these aren’t the only times both sisters have heard hurtful comments because of their religious attire and according to Statistics Canada, they are not alone.

Data shows that hate crimes against religion accounted for 41% of all hate crimes in 2017 with those against the Muslim population reporting the greatest rise. After a brief dip in 2016, numbers more than doubled in the next year alone, with hate crimes targeting the Muslim population accounting for 17% of all hate crimes in Canada.

From 2010 to 2018, 45% of victims of violent hate crimes targeting the Muslim population were female, compared with 32% of all hate crime victims.

Both sisters admit many of their friends — other Hijabi women of colour — have all experienced similar incidents of racism.

“You can ask any Hijabi woman in Edmonton,” Qamar said.

“She will have a story. She will have something to tell you. She’ll have something that changed her life or made her worry more.”

Qamar said many who see her with her Hijab use it as a way to judge her as a person and makes her a target for bigoted attacks.

“I’m a good Canadian citizen,” she said.

“I don’t harm anyone. I don’t break the law. It doesn’t make sense to me why something that I wear — just like everyone else that wears whatever they want to wear, they have the freedom to — would make me look uncivilized. I put on the Hijab because it’s the symbol of my religion, which is Islam.”

“It definitely has nothing to do with limiting your freedom,” Shams said.

“A lot of people see it as a sign of oppression. But if they just come to have a conversation with a person who does wear the Hijab, literally, 99.9% [will say] ‘I picked it and I’m comfortable with it.’

“After 11 years, it’s a part of my identity. I literally identify with it,” she added.

Related article: Canada marks National Day against Islamophobia on anniversary of Quebec mosque attack