Westdale students create 'ring of peace' around school to promote inclusion

Students at Westdale Secondary School joined hands in a show of solidarity against Islamophobia and in favour of inclusivity for all.

Students gathered to show solidarity against Islamophobia

Students and staff at Westdale Secondary School form a "ring of peace" around the campus in a show of solidarity and inclusion for all. (Mahnoor Yawar/CBC)

Dozens of students circled the perimeter of the Westdale Secondary School campus during their lunch break on Monday, forming a "ring of peace" to send a message of safety and inclusivity within its community.

The event, organized by the Muslim Students Association at Westdale, follows a tense few weeks for Canadian Muslims.

Still reeling from the Quebec mosque shooting and the climate following travel restrictions imposed by the U.S., many sought solidarity from their communities.

We're just people - we want to be here as much as you do.- Sabreina Dahab, co-organizer

"I hope that everyone sees that, as a school community, we need to stand together as one," says Hanif Karim, 17.

"That's one of the issues that we've been seeing in our school lately. Not everyone is accepting of everyone at the school." 

For the Muslim students of Westdale, the "ring of peace" goes beyond community to show that the school is a safe and inclusive space for all.

Many expressed sorrow, fear and anger over recent events targeting their community, and say they hope for more equality within the student body.

"We had issues earlier this year about where the MSA students could pray," said Karim.

"We've had some incidents in our school involving some students who were a bit Islamophobic and they had some not-so-friendly things to say to us. We're also hoping to have a faith room so everyone can get involved," he said.

Concerns are real

Principal Michelle Visca recognized that the students feeling most insecure in the recent climate needed the acknowledgement that their concerns were real.

Students filed inside after forming a "ring of peace" in the cold weather, lining up for some free hot chocolate provided by the Muslim Students Association at Westdale Secondary School. (Mahnoor Yawar/CBC)

"It was sparked by an announcement we made as a board acknowledging what happened in Quebec. Three of my students came to see the vice principal and myself, concerned that the announcement didn't give a face to the issue. It didn't mention words like Muslim, Islamophobia and mosque," she says. 

"And they were right - if you don't name the violence or hate, it's not going to change."

Push for change

After meeting with board members and officials from the school board, the message was changed and reread to the school.

Visca directly credits the passion of the Muslim students who stood up for their concerns and effected change.

Monday's event attracted a large crowd of students even in freezing cold temperatures, followed by free hot chocolate inside as several members of the Muslim Students Association spoke about how to be allies to the community.

Students pause for a moment of silence for the victims of the Quebec shooting at Westdale Secondary School. (Mahnoor Yawar/CBC)

"I was happy with the turnout but at the same time, disappointed because some students walked away, saying they didn't want to be a part of this," said Sabreina Dahab, 17, one of the main organizers.

 "Our goal was to promote unity and peace, so it's saddening to see them walking away and dismissing the whole purpose."

'The message today isn't just about Islamophobia. It's about accepting and making everyone feel like they belong.'- Principal Michelle Visca 

The support of her peers, she says, is especially necessary in a time when being a visible minority is difficult.

"Honestly, some days, it's very difficult. You want to wake up and not even go out wearing the hijab, because you're afraid of all the eyes that stare at you, the scrutiny that you face. We're scared, but we do it everyday because it's part of who we are, it means the world to us, it's part of our identity."

"We're just people - we want to be here as much as you do," says the 12th-grader. 

And there's a fair bit of work to be done, Dehab says, for allies of Canadian Muslims.

Westdale Secondary School (Mahnoor Yawar/CBC)

"We need to own our voices, and we need the allyship to be beside us and not in front of us running our movements. It's important to come out to these events and support us so that we can eventually fight Islamophobia."

For Visca, and many of the school's staff and board members, the hope is that events like this encourage more discussions in the classroom and in students' homes.

"The message today isn't just about Islamophobia," says Visca. "It's about accepting and making everyone feel like they belong. Everybody belongs at Westdale, regardless of race, religion, colour, background, sexuality, academics... this is a safe, comfortable place to be."

The school has previously held events such as Islam Awareness Week, including workshops, guest speakers and positive messages about Islam.