It happens on the bus, it happens in the mall.
Aminah Ibrahim, 17, has been spit on, called names and yelled at because of the way she dresses. Her mother has faced the same hate.
Ibrahim, who wears a hijab, is a proud Muslim who was born in Richmond. Her mother, who wears the face-covering niqab, arrived in Canada when she was five years old.
They are Canadians.
“When things are said to me, I’m fine — I don’t really care that much,” said Ibrahim, sitting in the shade of a tree in a park outside the co-op where she and her family live near Boundary and Kingsway. “But if they say something to my mom, I’m going to be much more upset about it.”
The story she tells on a warm, hazy afternoon in August is a continuation of the one she began at a Vancouver Police Board meeting in June while speaking at the Al Jamia mosque on West Eighth Avenue.
That’s where she and her 15-year-old friend, Samira Sallow, who is sitting next to her in the park, told board members, police officers and members of the mosque about their experiences as young Muslims.
The girls weren’t there as victims but as ambassadors of an innovative program created four years ago by the Vancouver Police Department to equip high school students with leadership skills, boost their confidence and teach them the importance of teamwork.
Ibrahim and Sallow completed one year of the VPD’s cadet program in May and will enter their second year in September. They joined because of an interest in crime television
shows and to learn about policing and the law.
They didn’t expect their participation would cause Muslim leaders to praise them for their courage and dedication to the program, or ask them to speak to a youth group at the mosque.
They are the first Muslim girls to join cadets.
“It’s kind of cool when people take an interest in you,” said Sallow, who was born and raised in Vancouver to parents from Kenya and Somalia and will begin Grade 11 at Windermere secondary in September. Ibrahim, whose parents are from Ethiopia and the Caribbean, is transferring from a school in Surrey to Windermere to complete her Grade 12 year.
‘Nothing will stop me’
They both admit to being nervous while speaking at the police board meeting, which was attended by Police Chief Adam Palmer and Mayor Gregor Robertson, who doubles as chairperson of the board.
They practised their speeches in a police car during the ride to the mosque. Sallow spoke first and told the audience, which included the president of the B.C. Muslim Association, how she wanted to be a leader in her community.
“Being a VPD cadet is something I take great pride in, it’s something I’m very proud of and something that I’ve accomplished despite the criticisms and uncertainties from other people,” she said. “It is the proof I have that nothing will stop me, not even my gender, my beliefs in religion or my skills and abilities.”
Haroon Khan, a trustee at the mosque, said it was a proud moment for him when he heard the girls speak. He was inspired, he said, by their resilience to stand up for their
religion and proudly wear their Islamic attire, despite being targets of hate.
“They’re role models for other young girls, and for the whole community — and that’s a terrific thing,” Khan said. “It’s inspiring to see them doing what they do. They have our unconditional support and we look forward to hearing great things about them in the future.”
The police chief and the mayor were equally impressed with Ibrahim and Sallow. Their enthusiasm for the girls’ membership in the cadet program is based on a couple of factors. First, they like to see teenagers do well; second, the VPD has “a small number” of Muslim officers, none of whom wear a hijab.
There is also the fact that Muslims, First Nations and other minority groups in Canada continue to have strained relationships with police. Some of that tension is based on perception and stereotype. And some of it is related to cultural differences, or a person’s past dealings with police in other countries or the history in Canada of racism and violence against Indigenous people.
It’s a gap that persists between police and those communities.
Insp. Howard Tran, who oversees the VPD cadet program, commented on that division when noting the participation of the girls. Ibrahim and Sallow are not alone as minorities, he said, with program supervisors having accepted teenagers from diverse backgrounds that reflect the multicultural makeup of Vancouver. The ranks, however, have only included one other Muslim — a boy, in the second and third rotation of the program.
“We try to represent the community that we police, and if you looked at a group shot of these kids, you’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s Vancouver,’’’ said Tran, noting the inclusion of Vietnamese, South Asian and First Nations teenagers. “But I’d be lying if I didn’t say we are encouraged that there are Muslim women and First Nations kids in these programs because we do have challenges with perception in some of these communities… and it’s an added bonus that they can help us with that kind of work as well.”
Added Tran: “They are trailblazers. We don’t have a lot of Muslim women in policing, especially ones that are wearing hijabs. I know nothing would make the chief prouder than the day we hire the first woman with a hijab. He wants us to do everything we can to diversify the police force.”
Downtown Eastside visit
The program, which is only open to Vancouver residents, has become popular, with organizers receiving close to 200 applications each year. Only 60 teenagers were chosen this year, and they will join Ibrahim, Sallow and another 38 students returning from last year’s class.
The cadets learn about the roles of various police squads, march in parades, attend Remembrance Day ceremonies, go on hikes, go dragon boating, learn public speaking, conduct skits related to peer pressure, pick up garbage, paint over graffiti and make visits to the Downtown Eastside to hand out blankets and food tokens — a trip both Ibrahim and Sallow found eye-opening.
“I liked that the best because you got to talk to the people,” Ibrahim said of the drug-addicted people she met. “They’re not bad people. If you listen to what they say, the majority of them will tell you not to do what they did.”
Sallow: “That was the first time I’ve ever seen someone smoking a crack pipe. I never knew what it looked like. The officer was like, ‘Put that crack pipe down. I’m not going to arrest you today.’”
The cadets also have access to tutors and a youth worker, who specializes in mental health. She’s there to listen to any concerns cadets may have about their lives. It’s meant to be a low-key service and Tran said it is an important dimension to the program.
Tran noted the cadets selected for the program are not chosen for academic or athletic success — the “high flyers,” as he called them, who already have access to after-school programs, expensive sports leagues and money. Some of the cadets are in the government’s care.
“We don’t go into our schools looking for the top students, or top athletes,” he said, noting the cadets’ participation is fully funded by the Vancouver Police Foundation. “That’s not who this program is designed for. It’s looking for kids who could use that extra leg up in life.”
‘My voice was validated’
For Ibrahim and Sallow, the first year in the program has had a measured effect. Both say they feel like they’re part of “the VPD family” and are no longer afraid to approach officers on the street.
Sallow’s anxiety has lessened — she used to worry about getting lost in public — and Ibrahim said she has a real sense of safety when she’s with her fellow cadets and the officers who lead the program, constables Barb Bates and David Jakeway.
She elaborated on that in her speech to the board.
“The wall and the barrier that I built and learned to hold up in front of myself comes down,” Ibrahim said of the Saturdays she spends with fellow cadets. “All the thoughts and opinions I kept to myself in fear that they would be misconstrued or misinterpreted, I let them out because my voice was validated, and what I had to say was accepted — and my hijab, the scarf on my head, and the religion that I believe in was no longer a filter to the words that I had to say.”
Their exposure to the VPD has helped them narrow down their career choices. Ibrahim has included “police officer” as a possible career pursuit. Social work, becoming a surgeon or a career in forensic sciences also interests her.
Sallow is focused on forensic sciences. Being a criminal psychologist would be interesting, too, and maybe even a prosecutor, she said. She’s not sold on being a cop, yet.
“I admire police officers, I admire the police work, but I’m just more into science,” she said.
The pair goes on to talk about how police and Muslims both carry their own stereotypes. Now, they point out, they have to defend two stereotypes but welcome the challenge to educate the curious and the ignorant.
Ibrahim wanted to make it clear that her stories about being spit on while riding the bus, or people yelling “Allahu Akbar” at her in the mall, or calling her mom “disgusting” are not daily occurrences.
She went on to tell a story about her mother’s trip to the Superstore grocery market, the day after six men were gunned down at a mosque in Quebec City in January.
“Someone was being really nice to her and they apologized for what happened — obviously they didn’t do it, but they still felt the need to apologize,” she said. “So you get those people, but you also get the people who glare. You get the good and the bad.”
The conversation turns again to them being role models. They learned recently that four Muslim teens were accepted to the program, all of whom are recent Syrian refugees.
Were the new recruits influenced by Ibrahim and Sallow?
They don’t know.
Do they feel like they’re breaking down barriers?
They answered simultaneously: “Yes.”
Ibrahim: “When I first started, I thought I just wanted to be a cadet. Now it’s like…”
Sallow finished her friend’s thought: “…it’s like we’re an ally to the Muslim community, if not our own families. We’re not perfect Muslims…”
Ibrahim: “…we’re not perfect anything, but if we influence people to do good things, then I’ll be happy.”