Manitoba Islamic Association celebrates 50th anniversary, honours founding members

By | November 10, 2019

A half century ago, there were just a handful of Muslims in Winnipeg, a city where they didn’t have a place to pray or for the community to grow.

But, now with seven mosques, and through the diligence of elders in the community, the Manitoba Islamic Association is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary with a community in the tens of thousands. The first step to the growth was the Pioneer Mosque, built in 1976.

“It has achieved the friendship it has, it became part of the fabric of the community of the larger community and they are respected as far as I know all wherever I go. I feel the respect and the regards for us as a community,” said Laila Chebib, who first came to Winnipeg in in 1958 with her husband, Farouk.

The Chebibs were honoured at the Manitoba Islamic Association’s 50th anniversary luncheon, which took place Sunday at the RBC Convention Centre.

The couple, who is originally from Syria, were among the first Muslims in Manitoba. In the beginning, they stayed for 11 months when Farouk received a sponsorship from the United Nations to complete his Masters degree.

They eventually returned in 1964 when Farouk was given the opportunity to travel to any part of the world to complete his PhD and chose Winnipeg.

“They asked us, ‘where do you want to go? Europe? Anywhere in the world?,’ they gave us a scholarship, [and] Laila said Winnipeg,” Farouk told CBC Manitoba’s Weekend Morning Show host Nadia Kidwai.

The Chebibs said their first real friends from Winnipeg’s Middle Eastern community weren’t Muslim, but Christians, who become close to their heart.

“The Christians stayed with us and they worked with us, very good friends. One of them is a student of mine from the University of Aleppo, where I taught him and he had his wife and they became just like one of the community,” said Farouk.

They said they were happy to have a slice of their community back home replicated in Winnipeg, where they saw inclusion, not division. 

“There was no problem no differences never, just like when we were back home, we had no differences back home,” said Laila.

The only big difference was the lack of available prayer space, and a place for the community to gather weekly.

“We didn’t have a place to pray, we went from church to church to church,” Farouk said.

Pioneer Mosque, Winnipeg’s first gathering place for the Muslim community, is located on Hazelwood Ave in Winnipeg’s south end. (Chris Read/CBC)

In the early 70s, as the number of Muslims in Winnipeg began to increase, the Chebibs said it was time for a place of their own.

“We wanted some place of our own to teach our children our ways, our language, our religion and our way of acting as a community,” said Chebib.

As the men were working, the task of trying to build the mosque was spearheaded by the women in the community. 

“It was mostly by the women they were the ones who were doing the work to be done…they were the lifeline of the community,” said Laila.  

Eventually, after years of fundraising, the Manitoba Islamic Association was able to put together enough money to build the Pioneer Mosque in 1976. 

The origins of the Winnipeg Muslim community and the building of the first mosque in Manitoba have been documented by local filmmaker Nilufer Rahman in a film by ‘Prairie Mosque’ about its origins.

Rahman said she wanted to encapsulate the history of Muslims in Winnipeg for future generations.