R'11 Day Fourteen: The Gift of Time

A group of us yesterday had the fortunate chance of volunteering at the Mustard Seed to prepare and serve lunch to a group of individuals who are struggling with homelessness. We had all been exposed to volunteering prior to this, but for me personally, this was perhaps only the second or third time at a shelter. As with any volunteer opportunity, it truly places your own piddly-life problems into perspective, and makes you realize the harsh reality that many individuals are forced to live with. And the fact that those who had accessed the lunch service could openly thank US for preparing and serving lunch (which was totally not needed) shows the humbleness and gratitude that exists regardless of any extreme circumstance an individual who is homeless goes through. If that doesn't break through stereotypes, I'm not sure what will.

After the day was over, I truly started to think about our own Muslim community, and how volunteering is set-up, and I think it's far too insular for its own good. Especially with regards to our youth. While volunteerism and charity is encouraged among Muslims, it often remains targeted to our own community, and therefore we are not truly exposing youth to the harsh realities of society overall. If the leaders of tomorrow are being trained today, they are going to NEED to see the bigger picture, regardless of how hard it is to fathom. They need to understand that the duties of Muslims are not only with their brethren but also with society overall.

I think that the reason why volunteerism is so effective among disenchanted and disconnected youth is because it provides a sense of empathy, a trait not often spoken about but has been researched to be critical. Empathy, or the 'ability to put oneself in another person's shoes', is what allows people to become less self-centrered and more collectivist in their thinking. With youth specifically, it allows them to becomes less ego centrical (common among teenagers and developmentally expected!) and to start thinking more globally. And it also gets their smart phone outta their hands and puts their energy into something that is more productive and skill-building.

And perhaps just as important is the fact that YES we are a strong and growing Muslim community and we're very self-sufficient and talented! But the harsh reality is that if you live in the West, you need to be able to integrate and live here among non-Muslims. The sad part is that if a child is raised with an isolated and strictly Islamic-way of life (i.e. school and extra--curricular endeavours), outcomes indicate that they are more likely to struggle when they transition into high school and beyond. And I've seen it myself when youth leave a sheltered environment and attend a public high school for example. They do flounder and some never truly find their footing. And for girls especially, they don't get the chance to develop a sense of identity, leadership, and social justice, all of which are critical to empower girls to DO SOMETHING with their life!

Lastly, there are FAR too many stigmas associated with homelessness, and this is evident if you ask youth what may contribute to it. Most will say drug and alcohol addiction, but they treat this is as the CAUSE and not as a SYMPTOM. I remember reading a well-known study on homelessness and approximately 50% of those who do live on the streets struggle with some form of mental illness. I can guarantee that to a large extent many people, let alone Muslim youth, don't know this fact. And then you have stigmas to fight when you mention diagnoses of Schizophrenia, Depression, Anxiety, etc. There's so much work to be done in breaking these barriers down.

Ok, so I did ramble a little in this entry, but I hope my point comes across! Youth NEED to be exposed to the issues that are in society overall and not those solely among Muslims. They require education about social issues and opportunities to view the world through a different lens, and they need to be afforded the chance to contribute in a meaningful way. And imagine what this would also do for those who have negative stereotypes about Muslims, it's a win-win scenario!

Gandhi said it best when he stated "be the change you want to see in this world". The state of our own Ummah cannot change until we change what is within ourselves.

And I personally think that our youth is a good place to start.

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