OMCS was founded by a group of Muslim professionals who work for mainstream organizations in the field of community development, social services and mental health and aims to find innovative ways to bridge the gap between mainstream and Muslim community services in order to meet the unique needs of the Muslims who need these services.
This Ramadan, they have partnered with the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa to provide support to Muslim children and youth in care and the staff and foster families who are supporting them.
Muslim Link interviewed Ottawa Muslim Community Services (OMCS) co-founder Shawana Shah about her hopes for the new organization, its current programming, its work with the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa, and their Ramadan Fundraiser selling Ramadan Calendars for Kids to support their programs.
Tell us about yourself
I am Pakistani-Canadian, born and raised right here in Ottawa. My parents came from Pakistan to Canada in the late 60’s-early 70’s and have resided in Ottawa for over 40 years. I studied Psychology and Sociology at the University of Ottawa. Then, I moved on to complete a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology at McGill University and another in Counselling at the University of Ottawa.
I have been involved with and have worked in the mental health field for over 10 years in varying capacities. I didn’t get into mental health and counselling until I started my Master’s. I actually was headed towards Health Care Management, which I thought I was good at and enjoyed until I had to take an accounting course! After that, I switched up completely and went back into the social sciences. From there I’ve been able to narrow down my professional “niche”.
When I was at McGill, I did a placement in a local high school and realized I liked working with youth and that education was something I valued. I returned to Ottawa and started working with Pathways to Education. Over the course of that position I learned a lot about barriers and disparities, mental health being one of them. I’ve always been actively involved with the Muslim community and worked with Muslim Family Services of Ottawa (MFSO) for several years, again supporting youth but it also came with a mental health support piece. From there my interest in mental health and how it affects a person, families, communities and overall well-being peaked.
I became a Mental Health First Aid trainer and currently, I am a registered Psychotherapist and work at the Roberts’ Smart Centre, a mental health treatment centre for youth experiencing complex, multi-level trauma and mental health.
Community wise, a lot of work has been done around bringing awareness about mental health issues, but there still needs to be a lot of work done. For me, as I learn more and grow both personally and professionally, I continue to see the importance of mental health, self-care, attachment, and how our experiences shape us.
I found my “calling” as a mental health professional and continue to answer it as best I can.
How did the idea for Ottawa Muslim Community Services (OMCS) develop?
Ottawa Muslim Community Services (OMCS) came about from a group of people, rather a team of people, all of who have been working in various areas of the Social Service sector and who saw visible gaps and needs in the community. We all shared a similar vision of what we would like to see in Ottawa for our Muslim community. We are all front-line staff that have been there and around the block and we are all active members of our community and we all want to help.
BUT, we aren’t about reinventing the wheel. There are a lot of programs and professionals out there who are qualified to do the work that is needed and there are a lot of people who can use the services but sometimes don’t know how to navigate the system or aren’t aware of the supports available. So, this is the foundation that OMCS is built on. Our mission is to build a stronger, healthier community and increase accessibility through mobile social services, education and collaboration. In the long run, we would like to foster a safe and healthy community where everyone is able to access religious and culturally appropriate services that meet their needs. We believe that if we can build partnerships and collaborate with mainstream organizations and professionals we can bring better supports to the community. That being said, we also work with the mainstream organizations and professionals to help them work better with the Muslim community and provide services that are more culturally/religiously appropriate. This is done through various means including collaboration, providing educational workshops, discussion and resources to non-Muslims that will help them better support their Muslim clients. Much like any relationship, it’s a two-way street. If we are doing something with the Muslim community, we need to be doing something with the mainstream and vice versa and with that inshallah (God Willing) we will have more success in supporting people. We also have opted out of investing in “space”. Again, from experience, not everyone can come to us, so we offer mobile services and will meet clients closer to them, helping reduce barriers to accessing any help or support they need.
What programs is OMCS currently running?
Prior to the COVID 19 outbreak, we had gained some good momentum and were looking to start several new initiatives and partnerships. However, all that has been put on hold until it is safe to resume activities. The few programs that we’re offering include consulting and counselling services. We had started running a social skills program at Tarbiyah Learning Academy and were working with the William Haye Detention Centre supporting incarcerated Muslim youth through focus groups, both of which we are hoping to resume when things go back to “normal”.
We also support the local food bank with Halal Meat donations, offering Mental Health First Aid training and were just about to start a Ramadan initiative with Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa. All of our in-person programs and projects are on hold for the moment due to the pandemic but we are finding creative ways to still reach out including videos for foster families who are fostering Muslim youth and providing them with Ramadan Calendars and activities. We are still able to support current clients via tele-counselling or virtual counselling, and we will hopefully expand that to new clients at some point inshallah (God Willing).
What are some of the struggles you are seeing Muslim clients you work with facing in Ottawa?
There are some struggles that are the same across ethnicities and religions such as depression, anxiety, substance use, relationship issues, domestic violence. Having mostly worked with youth, inter-generational conflict is an ongoing challenge. Trauma is another area of struggle that is coming to the forefront, especially among new immigrants/refugees, many of whom identify as Muslim. But I don’t think it’s a matter of “what struggles” we are seeing among Muslim clients. To be honest a lot of them are the same struggles as anyone else, the challenge is what is being done about it/with it and how much awareness and/or denying that these issues exist in our community. The real struggle is overcoming the stigma attached to speaking openly about mental health and the challenges that people in the Muslim community face currently or trauma that members of our community have faced in the past but felt they could not address.
How does your team ensure that it reflects the diversity of Muslims needing services in Ottawa? What gaps still exist and how are you addressing them?
Our current team is made of Muslims of various ethnic backgrounds including South Asian, Arab and Black African decent. Between all of us we speak around 6-7 languages including English, French, Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, and Somali. We have a good mix of men/women and adults/youth. Inshallah, we are looking to expand our team to continue to address diversity both culturally/ethnically as well as within the “Muslim” community. Meaning, we are a social service organization and will service anyone, Muslim/non-Muslim. Our concentration is of course the Muslim community, but we aren’t limiting ourselves to just the Sunni Muslim community. If you identify as Muslim, we want to and should be able to serve you. So we are looking to work with all Muslim communities, including Shia, Sufi, Ahmadiyya, etc. Social services shouldn’t present barriers because you belong to a certain “sect”.
Although we are a very small organization, we are pretty well connected so we hope to recruit professionals and build partnerships with various communities so that if we have a client that needs specific supports, we are able to help service them the best we can. We will also continue to outreach to community groups, like cultural associations, in order to ensure we have networks within the diversity of Muslim communities in Ottawa.
Tell us about your launch event in March 2020
Subhanallah and Alhamdullilah (Thank God) we were able to host our soft launch of OMCS aimed at introducing our programs to service providers on March 10, 2020. It took place two days before things started going into lockdown due to COVID 19! Overall it was a success. We had around 50 + attendees from various organizations and professions, both Muslim and Non-Muslim.
From the Muslim community, it was a great starting point to begin addressing the diversity question you posed earlier as we had Muslims from both the Sunni and Shia community attend including Berak Hussein, an Ottawa-based mental health professional, and social media influencer under the handle “The Muslim Counsellor”. She “instagrammed” the launch and did a short interview with me at the end. We had representatives from mosques like the Ottawa Muslim Association (OMA), local Islamic Schools like Abraar Elementary School and Tarbiyah Learning Academy, and Muslim community organizations like Islam Care Centre.
From outside the Muslim community, we had representatives from community health centres, settlement agencies, Collège La Cité, City of Ottawa’s Public Health Unit, Ottawa Community Housing, Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa, Youth Services Bureau, and Beechwood Cemetery. Alhamdullillah, it was a well-attended event and we hope to do another official community launch in the near future. I think it showed the interest and need for an organization like OMCS in the community that will help to build bridges between mainstream and Muslim community services.
Tell us about your Ramadan Fundraiser
We recently launched our Ramadan Fundraiser selling Ramadan “Advent” calendars. Like the Advent Calendars you see in grocery stores at Christmas, this Calendar can be used to help children count down the days of Ramadan. We were planning to do workshops in the community with families showing them how to use this Ramadan Calendar as an activity to get kids involved and excited about Ramadan. For now, because of the pandemic, that’s cancelled.
As an alternative, we are selling our calendars as a Do It Yourself (DIY) activity for families given that most of us are home nowadays and looking for activities to for our children. In order to support OMCS’s Ramadan Fundraiser, Ramadan Calendars can be purchased as DIY (Cost $30), or as fully assembled and ready to paint (Cost $45), or you can purchase a fully assembled, painted, and customized calendar (Cost $75). We will deliver the calendars to your door while making sure to practice social distancing.
The Ramadan Calendars are pretty easy to assemble and paint; it’s something to do for families together to help them prep and get excited about Ramadan. You can fill them with little treats or trinkets, or a little activity for kids to do (e.g. help set the table, smile it’s Sunnah) for every day of Ramadan and help them count down to Eid. My kids were so excited after I assembled one of the calendars back in January they immediately started stuffing it with mini-chocolates in preparation for Ramadan!
We are also supporting Muslim children and youth in care by partnering with Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa and providing them with these calendars. In addition, we were able to partner with MyDeen Magazine based in London, Ontario and will have Ramadan/Eid Activity books available for Muslim children and youth in care as a means to keep them in touch with their culture/religion. MyDeen Magazine Ramadan Activity Packages (Cost $45, for Grades 3-5, 6-8, 9-12) can also be purchased from Shawana Shah to support OMCS as part of their Ramadan Fundraiser.