By Valerie Fortney, Calgary Herald
As he counts down the days before the start of Grade 10 at a new school, Saad Hussein couldn`t be more excited.
"I`m really pumped. I already have a bunch of friends waiting for me," says the 14-year-old who came to Canada from Pakistan at age five. "If it weren`t for them, I would be nervous, maybe even a little scared."
Hussein`s new-found friends aren`t just a happy coincidence. He met them through a newly launched program to help Muslim youths in our city make connections with others like them. Called Smooth Transitions, the six-month-old program is offered by the Muslim Council of Calgary through its Muslim Youth Services.
But it isn`t just about helping kids make friends in real-time, says Mahdi Qasqas, director of the program -- when it comes right down to it, it`s about no less than saving lives.
Being a kid in a new school is never easy. If you think that`s hard, though, try being a Muslim kid in a post-9/11 world.
"Other kids ask them if Osama bin Laden`s their dad," says Qasqas of some of the things he`s heard from kids in the program. "The girls wearing their hijabs have had horrible things said to them."
Put a kid in that kind of situation, with no one to lean on or talk to, and you`ve got a prime candidate for gang initiation.
"Marginalize a kid, make them feel like they don`t belong, and you`ll end up with someone who has no self-esteem and is desperate for someone to like them," he says.
"Gang members know how to spot these kids . . . and give them what they need to feel accepted."
Qasqas, who has a master`s degree in counselling psychology, also has some real-world understanding of this all-too-common phenomenon. Born to Palestinian parents, he spent his first 12 years of life in Calgary before going back to his parents` homeland for the four most formative years of adolescence.
"The Palestinian kids didn`t think I was Palestinian enough, and I was bullied at the American school I went to there," says the now 30-year-old. "So I joined a gang of American kids. If that doesn`t say `messed up identity,` I don`t know what would."
After a few years on the wrong side of the law, he cleaned up his act and went back to school, and also started speaking to kids at schools about how to cope with life`s challenges.
"I lived in a wartorn country and I know what it is like to be different," he says. "And I know how that kind of alienation can lead people down the wrong path."
David Liepert, a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Calgary, says in a few short months the program has made a lasting impact on the lives of more than a thousand Muslim youths in the city.
"Hiring Mahdi is the thing we`ve ever done," says Liepert, who is also the author of the book Muslim, Christian and Jew: Finding a Path to Peace Our Faiths Can Share. "So many problems start at the feeling of alienation, and Mahdi knows how to reach these kids."
Even though our city boasts more than 75,000 citizens who identify as Muslim, and Qasqas says, "Calgary is a great city to be a Muslim in," it hasn`t been insulated from the racism fuelled by the acts of terrorists claiming to be following the tenets of Islam.
"It`s ridiculous and ignorant," says Qasqas of the widespread misconception that such acts have anything to do with his faith.
"But that doesn`t make it any easier when you`re a kid being hassled in school."
This fall, the program connecting Muslim children with children of the same faith will, says Qasqas, expand to include such activities as soccer, basketball and, hopefully in the future, cricket.
The organization has secured an empty warehouse next to the Muslim Centre in northwest Calgary, where Qasqas and about 70 volunteers are based, to handle the growing number of young clients.
"We hope that Muslim youth in the city will be able to reach out to us, and take their fear to a manageable level of anxiety," says Qasqas, "and we hope to inspire other communities to offer this to their youth."
If kids like Saad Hussein are any indication, the program is already reaping benefits.
"It`s good knowing that when I`m at school, that I have friends who are watching my back," he says. "My little brother Asad is going into Grade 8, and he also has met kids his age. It makes school not such a scary thing."