Vancouver's oldest mosque is operating as an overnight shelter for anyone in need of refuge from the streets during the winter cold.

Members of the Al Jamia Masjid congregation opened the mosque on Dec. 18 when temperatures fell below freezing. The plan was to close the space, located at Eighth Avenue near Cambie, after a week, but if the demand remains, that deadline is flexible.

"If the need is there, we will be open," said Haroon Khan, president of the Pakistan Canada Association and trustee of the Al Jamia Masjid.

"This year, the emergency was really acute and the interfaith community has been mobilized. We really felt like this was the right thing to do, especially at this time of year," he said.

Youth helping youth

Mosque volunteers

Jessy Rai (left) and Bhavraj Saran are two of the dedicated youth volunteers helping out at the Al Jamia Masjid mosque while it provides meals, clothing and shelter to those in need. (Erin Sandhu)

On average, the mosque has sheltered 10 to 15 people per night, including many youth. They are kept company overnight by volunteers, mobilized by Haroon's nephew, 22-year-old Abubakar Khan.

Volunteers are primarily youth themselves, many of them Abubakar's friends, whom he said "wanted to help because they had been hearing about the homeless crisis and fentanyl deaths."

"We just started brainstorming and we said, let's open the mosque for a week and it just started flowing, more and more [volunteers] started joining," said Abubakar, who has spent nearly every night since then sleeping at the mosque.

The volunteers have been working to deliver meals, blankets and care packages to residents in the Downtown Eastside, as well as sitting and sharing stories at the mosque overnight.

Some people who have sought shelter have cell phones and have remained in touch with the volunteers they connected with at the mosque. Two volunteers are planning to reconnect with a man they met at the mosque to help him create a resume.

Humbling to serve

Haroon said it has been humbling to serve neighbours in need and that sometimes, it is just one bad decision, or one paycheque, that separates people from each other.

Al Jamia Masjid was founded in 1963 by Haroon's father, Riasat Ali Khan. It is located at 655 West 8th Ave.

Anyone in need is welcome to seek shelter between 7 p.m. PT and 9 a.m. PT. Food and clothing is also provided.