Walking it off

Syed Soharwardy's multi-faith walk across Canada

One man's statement against violence and stereotype

"Walking is a very good exercise, and that is exactly what I am doing for my physical and spiritual well-being."

With those words, Syed Soharwardy began his Multi-Faith Walk Against Violence in April 2008. What makes this walk different is that it is 6,800 kilometres long and stretches five time zones across Canada — from Halifax, N.S., to Victoria, B.C.

Syed Soharwardy in June 2008 during the Ontario leg of his 6,800 km journey across Canada. ((Photo courtesy of Syed Soharwardy))

It also appears to be a deeply personal journey. An active member of Calgary's interfaith community, Soharwardy is not soliciting support or donations for any particular cause as he makes his way across the country.

A married father of two teenagers, he has remortgaged his Calgary home to help pay for this adventure, and all he seems to be seeking out along the way are like-minded people with whom to share his views and talk about their commonalities.

"My grandfather was a mufti (high priest) in Kashmir, and my father was a religious leader in Pakistan," Soharwardy says. "Though I have never faced persecution, I have personally witnessed so much violence in these two regions, and I have made it my mission to stop violence everywhere, be it in school, bullying, gangs, child abuse, elder abuse, domestic violence or terrorism.

"This walk is my physical and spiritual journey in an attempt at uniting Canadians against all forms of violence."

As of July 27, he had crossed the Ontario-Manitoba border and was closing in on Winnipeg.

Walking for change

The seeds of this journey began about 14 years ago. Having settled in Calgary, Soharwardy says, he gradually grew "upset at the way the Islamic world was publicized by the media, just as one monolithic mass. The diversity in Islam was not recognized simply because people did not know enough about us to form an opinion.

"So, I realized the best way to go about it is to start a group and talk about the similarities that all religions have instead of the differences."

A volunteer imam at Al-Madinah Calgary Islamic Centre, where he often helps organize celebrations of Jewish holidays, Soharwardy was the driving force behind the group Muslims Against Terrorism, which was conceived in 1998 and now has 13 chapters all over the world.

A key factor in Soharwardy's decision to organize the walk, according to long-time friend Linda Zachri, was the December 2007 slaying of a 16-year-old Mississauga girl, allegedly by her father and brother, following what was said to be a dispute over wearing traditional Muslim headdress.

"Syed went on a long fast as a protest not only against what had happened but how the entire Muslim community was being painted with the same brush," said Zachri, who helps Soharwardy with his website.

"He wanted to highlight the fact that people within his community do not seek outside help. It was an intergenerational problem gone awfully wrong, and it was then that he decided to bring an end to all violence front and centre, and what better way than to walk against it."

Remortgaged his house

Holding two master's degrees in the field of information technology and project management, Soharwardy did not wait to raise money from donors.

Instead, he remortgaged his house and used the money to buy an RV so that he could rest in the night while he walked in the day.

"My job in IT feeds me and my family in a physical way, and my walking nurtures me in a profoundly spiritual way," Soharwardy said. "It took me one year to convince my wife that it was a good idea."

As he walks for approximately 40 km a day, his RV is driven by volunteers who fly in from Calgary on a three-week rotation.

"Most of my volunteer drivers are from Calgary. They fly into the city with the nearest airport from where I have stopped to take over from the current driver. As for my walk, a rabbi, a pastor from the Anglican church, a Catholic priest [and] an RCMP [officer] in civilian clothes are among several [people] who have joined me and walked with me," he said.

Warm welcome in Kingston

"The reception I received in Kingston seemed the high point of the walk so far," Soharwardy says. "As I walk, I do not represent any religion. I represent the multi-faith community, so when I reached Kingston, the mayor of Kingston, members of the Jewish, Anglican and Bahai communities all came out to greet me.

"We had a brief ceremony, after which I feel more stronger than ever that together we can fight violence."

The walk commenced in Halifax on April 20, 2008, with Soharwardy dipping his feet into the Atlantic Ocean at Lower Water Street and is to end sometime in October 2008 in Victoria, B.C., when he reaches the Mile Zero marker in Beacon Hill Park in Victoria.

Over the summer, his son is going to join him somewhere in Manitoba. By the time he is scheduled to reach Winnipeg on Aug. 5, he will have covered a distance of 4,000 kilometres.

A close encounter with a grizzly bear, a breakdown of his RV and a case of sunstroke that landed him in the emergency room are some of the setbacks he has encountered so far. Still, he trudges on.