Anwar Alhjooj is the co-ordinator of Maa’n/Ensemble, an interfaith-intercultural program at the United Church’s Montreal City Mission. Also a social worker and the mission’s new assistant director, he works to build bridges between communities of faith and newcomers to Canada.
On life as a Palestinian Bedouin in Israel:
I grew up in an unrecognized village with 11 brothers and sisters. There wasn’t water, streets, or infrastructure. We had to walk about four kilometres to school each day. The physical conditions were really difficult, but I think my parents gave us everything other than that: respect, love, compassion. I have good memories from those times.
On coming to Canada:
In 2012, my wife got a scholarship to do her PhD at McGill. We thought we would go back after. But when you walk in the street here, you have this feeling, this sense of belonging. You see that, wow, I’m equal to everyone. I can do things that I love; I can do things that I want to do.
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On his work:
I think I’m lucky that I work at the Montreal City Mission. I’m a Muslim, and I work at a Christian church. We’ve established a relationship with the Muslim and Jewish communities, and I think we were the first organization in Montreal to start to create a partnership between organizations, not just individuals. Since I started as a volunteer in 2015, we’ve seen more and more collaboration between Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other groups.
If we want to make real change for everybody, we need to work in parallel. When we started the interfaith-intercultural events, everybody said, “You are crazy. You want to make an Iftar in St. James Square in the middle of downtown Montreal, outside?” But we did it. We were more than 200 people breaking the Ramadan fast at sunset, with the Islamic call to prayer and the church bells ringing at the same time.
I think when people see that, they see it’s not just a dialogue. Because with a dialogue, we sit, we can have a coffee and then we disappear. But if we work on concrete projects, I will think twice if I do or say something to hurt you, because we have something to share.
People sometimes think that refugees come to Canada because they want to benefit from the situation here, to steal our jobs, to have free welfare from the government. But we forget that nobody would leave their house, their home, just like that. They leave it because they’re forced to leave. Imagine being a refugee: they are crossing the border and coming here; they are strong people. They are not weak. If we don’t welcome their positive energy and strength, it’s not good for society.
On what newcomers need to thrive:
They want to contribute. Just give them the opportunity. Give them the minimum thing: a sense of belonging. If you feel a sense of belonging in a place, you will take care of it and contribute. When people come to the Montreal City Mission and start to complain, I give them half an hour to get it out. Then I ask them, “What do you know how to do?” And they say, “What?” “Well, yeah,” I say. “What can you do? We need your contribution.” This can sometimes change life for people. We need to feel that we are important.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Glynis Ratcliffe is a freelance writer in Whitby, Ont.
This interview first appeared in Broadview’s June 2021 issue with the title “We Need to Work Together.”
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