Around the Jewish World in Ottawa, Program Helps Build Ties Between Jews and Somalis

Ottawa’s Jewish Family Services is helping improve Muslim-Jewish relations in Canada’s capital by mentoring a Somali community organization.

The partnership — which recently won an award from the Canadian Race Relations Foundation — also is helping shape Ottawa’s emerging ethnic mosaic.

“North America is changing rapidly,” says Mark Zarecki, director of JFS. “It’s becoming more multiethnic, and one of the most important and fastest growing groups is Muslims.”

Zarecki says Jewish communities are uniquely positioned to assist immigrants in their integration and community building.

“We were immigrants once, too. Our experiences and knowledge are very valuable to newcomers,” he says. “We can play the role of the bridge between new and established communities.”

Ottawa’s 18,000 Somalis constitute the city’s largest Muslim group from a single country. There are about 60,000 Muslims in Ottawa, roughly one-tenth of the country’s total Muslim population, according to the Ottawa Muslim Network, a non-profit information center.

The Somalis also are among the city’s newest and poorest immigrant communities, since most arrived between 1992 and 1994 from their war-ravaged national home.

They faced daunting challenges upon arrival. Most didn’t speak either of Canada’s official languages, and they struggled to find even menial jobs in a city hit hard by recession.

They also found themselves under the scrutiny of police and the media, with the community often depicted as a hotbed for idle youth drifting into gang-type violence, a relatively new phenomenon in Canada’s sleepy capital.

The cooperation between JFS and Ottawa’s Somali community dates back to 1994. That’s when Abdi Karod, who immigrated to Canada in 1993 and today heads the Somali Center for Family Services, or SCFS, persuaded some of his community’s leaders to meet with Eileen Rabin, the JFS director at the time.

Rabin already had some contacts with individual Somali immigrants who had turned to JFS — which receives funding from the city of Ottawa and assists immigrants of any ethnic background — for help settling into their new home.

“It was an important meeting in terms of breaking down some initial barriers,” Karod recalled. “Imagine: a Jewish woman sitting down with very traditional-minded Muslim males to discuss community building.”

Zarecki replaced Rabin in 1996, and the partnership between the two community organizations shifted into high gear.

In 1997, Zarecki helped SCFS craft a 10-year strategic plan. JFS today handles the Somali center’s finances, assists with grant applications and channels charitable donations to SCFS through its own administrative framework.

The JFS name lends credibility to funding applications and new programs, and the organization’s experience means SCFS didn’t have to reinvent the wheel to lay its own foundations.

Both Karod and Zarecki say their collaboration has symbolic value that transcends specific programs.

A few years ago, Somali youth shouted anti-Semitic insults at a Jewish man on his way home from synagogue.

Now, however — with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict raging and the aftershocks of Sept. 11 making many non-Muslims suspicious of immigrants from the Islamic world — the collaboration between JFS and SCFS has won over skeptics in both communities.

“We exemplify that there is no innate conflict between Jews and Muslims,” says Zarecki, an Orthodox Jew. “Some people tend to forget this.”

“Jewish communities also tend to be somewhat insular, or at least viewed as such, and our work sends a different message on both accounts,” he says.

Karod agrees, noting that Zarecki always comes to SCFS’ annual Youth Night event.

“Imagine him in his skullcap surrounded by 200 Muslim Somalis, laughing and having a great time,” Karod says. “The majority of Somalis today look at Jews very differently than do other Muslim groups.”

The difference is nowhere more important than among the young, who are considered more vulnerable to extremist ideas. Farah Aw Osman, SCFS’ youth coordinator, says that while suspicion toward Jews still exists among young Somalis, it’s mostly confined to a small group who embrace a more politicized view of their Muslim identity.

Riad Saloojee, executive director of the Canadian chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, agrees that the community-to-community partnership is very significant.

“There have been some important contacts between the Muslim and Jewish communities on the leadership level,” says Saloojee, referring to the regular meetings between Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Ottawa and the city’s main imam. “This cooperation, however, is possibly even more important as it operates on the community level, directly benefiting members.”

The Ottawa Jewish community’s official leadership also has shown enthusiasm for the initiative.

Mitchell Bellman, executive director of the Ottawa Jewish Community Council, says misperceptions often prevent Jews and Muslims from cooperating.

“This is the case of an established and self-supportive community assisting another community, and people involved are aware that this benefits both sides,” says Bellman, who says the project could serve as an example not only for other Jewish communities, but also to show the Canadian government how to promote intercommunity relations.

Indeed, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, an organization funded largely by the Canadian government, presented JFS with one of its annual $10,000 Excellence Awards earlier this year. The foundation stressed the “positive international ramifications” of the Jewish-Somali cooperation.

“This collaboration is a great model for others. It’s a true partnership, without any patronizing overtones,” says Karen Mock, executive director of the foundation and a former national director of B’nai Brith Canada.

But unease and mistrust do linger. One new JFS program — run by a Somali woman named Zahra — supports parents of autistic children. While JFS has ample room for meetings, some Muslim parents have expressed their discomfort about meeting in a “Jewish building.”

Most people might be offended by such a blatant expression of prejudice, but Zarecki is empathetic.

“This is an issue of trust,” he says. “It will be resolved in time, as these people put their suspicions and fears to rest.”

Zarecki says he hopes the partnership will serve as a model for other Jewish communities looking to establish ties with other ethnic and religious groups, especially Muslims.

In March, Zarecki will speak about his work with the Somalis at the North American Jewish Family Services Conference in Cincinnati.

“I think Jewish communities can sensitize the broader society to be more responsive to minority needs, be it Jewish or other,” he says.

Karod also believes the collaboration can have a ripple effect.

Zarecki “is a great ambassador for the Jewish community,” Karod says. “Through his involvement, a large segment of Ottawa’s Muslim population now has a very positive view of Jews.”

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