Muslims find their place in Gatineau

A growing number of Muslims are making their home in Gatineau, and many say they feel comfortable in this part of Quebec.

A growing number of Muslims are making their home in Gatineau, and many say they feel comfortable in this part of Quebec.

"You can feel yourself at home," said Soumaïa Allal, an Aylmer resident who is originally from Morocco and wears a hijab, or Muslim headscarf. "You can be as anyone who is walking down the street, and feel yourself a normal person."

Gatineau's first mosque, the Outaouais Islamic Center, opened in November 2008. Its leaders estimate that there are now 4,000 Muslims in the city.

They are increasingly settling in the Outaouais at a time when the treatment of Muslims in Quebec has come under scrutiny. On Tuesday, Quebec's human rights commission ruled that the province's health insurance board has no obligation to satisfy religious or cultural preferences.

Earlier in March, Premier Jean Charest defended a government-funded school's decision to expel a Muslim woman from a language class for immigrants after she refused to take off her niqab veil.

Allal came to Canada a decade ago with her family, when she was 15. Her parents wanted a better education for their children. Being French-speaking, they originally settled in Quebec City, eventually moving to Gatineau, partly because of the difficulties they faced in Quebec City after 9-11.

"It was more difficult to have friends, to be accepted in society," Allal said. "People are more suspicious. They will look at you in a different way."

Things improved after the family moved to Gatineau, she added.

Now Allal, who works at the Senate, has chosen independently to settle down in the community — she bought a brand new semi-detached house with her husband in the Aylmer area and moved in at the beginning of March.

There is little sign of her Moroccan heritage in her home, except for the "real Moroccan living room" she is putting together. It is furnished with seats that run along the walls, stacked with matching cushions in velvety teal-coloured damask — a gift from her mother.

The new mosque in her community has also made her feel at home.

"There's a kind of energy in that mosque," she said. "There's something you can't explain about that."

About 500 people crowd into the bright, gold brick building on Lois Street in Hull for Friday prayers each week. The mosque is so full that men spill out into the hallway, and pray beside the shoeracks, while others follow the new imam on a big screen set up in the basement.

Omar Sayarh was among the worshippers last Friday. He agreed that most Muslims in Gatineau rarely encounter problems.

"La perception, it's a bit different from one culture to another," he said. "But as an immigrant, it's our task to be integrated in the new society, and I think most of the Muslim people are doing it well."

Salah Bassalamah, who is on the board of the mosque, pointed out that the word mosque isn't even in the building's name.

People of 'any faiths' welcome

"As the centre islamique  — as the Muslim centre — it is a place where people gather, either from just the Muslim community or the larger community," he said. "That means that it should be able to welcome people from any faiths and for different purposes."

The centre offers public Arabic language classes and held a book reading during a recent Gatineau book fair. But Bassalamah said it will take time for the centre to be a true community hub. He added, "There is a lot of reservation towards the Muslim community in general."

On the flip side, Allal feels no such reservation toward her community. She said since her arrival in Canada, she has worked hard to be involved in community activities such as Scouts and volunteering to help children with their homework.

"When you do stuff like that, it's very easy to feel as an entire part of the community," she said. "So I can definitely say, yeah … I felt myself as a Quebec when I used to be there, and as a Gatinois when I'm here."