Lina Bensaidane was sitting in her Montreal apartment when, two years ago, she heard the news that a shooting had happened at her family’s mosque in Quebec City.
She rushed to call her parents, who she knew visited the mosque on most days, and hoped for one of them to answer. Rumours were already spreading about what had taken place.
Luckily, she says, her parents answered. Her mother had been at the mosque earlier that day.
“You can ask anyone from the mosque where they were that night,” Bensaidane said, “and they’ll remember who they contacted and who they feared wouldn’t pick up their phone.”
Two years later, Bensaidane, 21, hosted a news conference Wednesday as the spokesperson for an idea that’s been a year in the making: a week of activities to help Quebecers learn more about the Muslim community.
Called Muslim Awareness Week, the event, which officially kicks off on Friday, will be marked by activities in churches, synagogues, mosques, cultural centres and universities, all in hopes of building bridges between communities and showing people “who the Muslim community is.”
The week is purposely built around the mosque attack anniversary, Bensaidane said, to ensure no one forgets what happened: six people were killed and 17 children have since been growing up without a father.
We need to hold on to that pain and remember that there’s always a risk if we don’t talk more, if we don’t raise awareness.”
“We always have to remember,” she said. “It’s a painful memory. It hurts to remember it. But I think the fact that it’s painful also reminds us that we need to hold on to that pain and remember that there’s always a risk if we don’t talk more, if we don’t raise awareness.”
The goal of the entire week, organizers said, is not so much to talk about Islam, but rather to humanize Quebecers of Muslim faith by sharing their stories, successes and ambitions.
“People fear what they don’t know, and what better way to get people to know us than reaching out ourselves?” said organizer Ehab Lotayef, an IT engineer at McGill University.
“To say, ‘We want to talk to you, be with you, want you to know us.’ ”
Imam Hassan Guillet, who spoke at the funerals for three Quebec mosque shooting victims, called on Quebecers to use the week as an opportunity to “work together, hand in hand, to make sure the victims are the last victims.
“We can’t rewrite the past, but today we’re writing the future,” he said. “Our enemy is ignorance: We live next to each other, but we don’t know each other.
Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hatred, and hatred, sometimes, leads to violence.”
“Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hatred, and hatred, sometimes, leads to violence.”
Following the grief and pain caused by the attack, Bensaidane said what she was left with were questions: “Have I not done enough? What if I need to be more open?”
Growing up in Quebec City, she had attended an all-girls Catholic school, where she was the only Muslim person in her year. Everyone accepted her, she said, and she never felt her faith was an issue.
Only as she grew older did she start realizing the stereotypes often directed toward Muslims communities. She noticed a gap between how she had always felt accepted and the realities of other Muslims in the province. The only conclusion she could come to, she said, is that for people to feel that way, “then they must not know Muslims.”
When the mosque attack happened, she felt the urge to do more to change that perception.
As part of the awareness week, on the anniversary of the attack, next Tuesday, Bensaidane will be taking part in a roundtable and vigil at St. James United Church in downtown Montreal. It will be open to people of all faiths, she said, to share their experiences and discuss how to become a more inclusive society.
“If I can change one person’s mind, or have them doubt that their negative perception of the Muslim community maybe isn’t true, that can go such a long way,” she said.
“If I can do something, I’m going to do it. Because six people died, and I can’t let that go.”
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story said a vigil will take place at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Montreal on Tuesday, Jan. 29. The vigil will be held, but Bensaidane will be attending another event at St. James United Church that day.