First Muslim youth council launches in Waterloo Region

The Record

Mariam Nouser Waterloo Region Record Wed., June 8, 2022

WATERLOO REGION — Abdul Haseeb believes Islamophobia and racism have played a huge part in the mental health struggles of Muslim youth.

The Cambridge high school student hopes to tackle this challenge with seven other local Muslim high school and university students as part of the region’s first Muslim Youth Council.

The council, part of the Coalition of Muslim Women of KW’s Youth Leaders 4 Change program, will explore how racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia might create a need for mental health supports, but also look at Muslim youth’s access to mental health services.

Muslim youth not only can have mental health concerns due to Islamophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination, but they also often have the added burden of dealing with the stigma that mental health carries in their communities, Haseeb said.

The youth council aims to identify and address ways on how mental health supports can be more accessible to Muslim youth.

They will explore existing research and as engage Muslim youth in the community to further understand how forms of discrimination and misunderstanding in their own community lead to gaps in mental health care.

“Living in a racialized Muslim household allowed me to see how (our community) views mental health,” said Haseeb, a Grade 12 student at Southwood Secondary School in Cambridge. “It’s something that we don’t see a lot of support toward, which is why the council wants to work toward identifying gaps that exist.”

Haseeb joined the council because of his passion for community work and a desire to understand the research that could make changes in his community.

The coalition received a $20,000 grant from the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation, the Ted and Andrea Witzel Family Fund and the Astley Family Foundation to run the youth council through 2022 as well as fund its study on access to mental health.

The youth council is part of a larger push by the coalition to help foster leadership among young Muslims and allow them to tackle issues that they themselves have faced or witnessed, said Fauzia Mazhar, the coalition’s executive director.

The June 2021 attack in London, Ont., that killed three generations of the Afzaal family has been a catalyst in challenging Islamophobia, but Mazhar says anti-Muslim hate has long existed in Canada, not just in the community but in broader systemic ways, such as Quebec’s Bill 21. That reality makes the council that much more relevant in 2022.

“We have been doing work toward Islamophobia for over a decade but now we have seen Islamophobia come out in the most violent of ways in the past five years,” said Mazhar, citing the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting as an example.