Giving Peace A Chance In Muslim Suburbia

Giving Peace a chance in Muslim suburbia

Peter Kuitenbrouwer
National Post
Saturday, October 06, 2007

VAUGHAN -Before dawn in this sprawl north of Toronto, McDonald's is locked and Tim Hortons is empty. The fake mountain of Canada's Wonderland, the amusement park, peeks from the gloom. Across the street looms the white minaret of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama'at mosque.

A speaker in the parking lot crackles and broadcasts the Arabic call to prayer. Suddenly, silent life fills the dark streets. Men dressed in the long white shalwar camise of their native Pakistan and women in head scarfs emerge from their brick homes.

The only sound is the squeak of hundreds of soles on the asphalt. At the mosque, couples separate: women to their basement prayer hall, men headed upstairs. Before sunrise on this day of Ramadan, they are coming to pray.

Welcome to Peace Village, Canada's first Islamic subdivision, where all 260 homes belong to members the Ahmadiyya sect, who flooded to Canada in the 1980s after persecution in Pakistan. It looks ordinary, with basketball nets and minivans in the driveways, until you notice the street signs: Mahmood Crescent, Ahmadiyya Avenue and Noor-Ud-Din Court.

“There is nothing like this in North America,” boasts Naseer Ahmad, a real estate agent from Pakistan who dreamed up this community of Islamic dream homes (including oak stairs and central air conditioning) on the edge of Toronto. “You have a mosque, and people are walking to enjoy their faith.”

The houses, with some modifications, such as increased ventilation (for spicy food) and separate living rooms for women and men, are so successful that, six years after Peace Village opened, Mr. Ahmad plans to double the mosque's size and is now selling 55 townhomes, 1,700 square feet each, for around $350,000 with a garage and a yard, as “Peace Village Phase II.”

Settlers have gathered around churches since Europeans first came to Canada. Newer immigrants took over downtowns vacated by earlier ethnicities, giving Montreal a Chinatown and Toronto a Little Portugal. This is different: it is a new development for one ethnic group.

To the dismay of some locals, a demolition crew last year took down a United Church next to where Peace Village is growing. The changes have inspired Christians to reassert themselves: Across the highway, Italian-Canadians built “Vellore Woods” with a large Catholic church at its centre, mimicking Peace Village.

“The Peace Village is a profitable proposition based on faith, and on profit and loss,” Mr. Ahmad says, sitting in his office in his spacious home here. “A lot of people have come to me for advice afterwards, how to put it together.” The Ahmadiyya plan a similar faith-based suburb near a mosque they are building in Calgary.

The Ahmadiyya say they don't mean to isolate themselves, and they send their children to public school. Still, the nation's “cultural mosaic” is fairly monochrome in this spot: Teston Road Public School, which opened last month next to the mosque, is about 80% Muslim, and the school provides its gym on Fridays at lunchtime so the kids can kick off their running shoes, bow low toward Mecca and pray.

“Even though they are born in Canada,” says Teston Road's principal, David Nimmo, “their first language is Urdu.”

Naseer Ahmad came to Canada from Pakistan in 1975 and received a masters' in public administration from Ottawa's Carleton University. He worked years in advertising before helping his community build a mosque on 25 acres of tomato fields the Ahmadiyya bought by the tiny village of Teston. The mosque opened in 1992.

Mr. Ahmad, by then a real estate agent with Royal Le-Page, learned that Italian-Canadian developer Benny Marotta had approval to build homes on about 60 acres adjacent to the new mosque.

Mr. Ahmad, whose mosque was empty — being too far from the faithful — suggested a faith-based marketing scheme. “I provided my skills and my knowledge and my contacts.”

Although Muslims bought all the houses, he insists he does not sell only to adherents of Islam. “There is no exclusion here,” he says. “You come and buy the house, no problem. You want to live beside the mosque, you want to live in a predominantly Muslim community, no problem at all.”

In his Toyota Sequoia V8, Mr. Ahmad gives a tour of the place. We take Bashir Street (named for his father) and Abdus Salam Street, named for the first Muslim Nobel laureate, as he speaks of his big plans: an Islamic reference library and doubling the mosque's size, to 40,000 square feet.

“Over here is going to be a TV station,” he says. (Already a special cable to each home feeds Muslim television from an audio-visual room at the base of the minaret). “Then over here we're going to have a big huge guest house.”

In his office, Mr. Ahmad points to other projects: “This is my Brampton mosque. This is in Cornwall. I have architects and engineers working for me freelance. This is the Calgary mosque.”

Peace Village has had one dramatic impact on this area –bringing pedestrian traffic to a place known as a driver's domain. People walk to mosque, and to school. When the final bell rang at Teston Road Public School, a stream, mainly of women, arrived on foot, pushing strollers, and walked their children across the new city park, recently namedAhmadiyya Park, toward the mosque, and home. Some youngsters as young as nine walked with friends, no parents in sight.

“It's back to the way it was when we were kids,” says David Nimmo, the principal, who opened this new York District School Board school in September. “Everybody is walking home. Our goal is to make this school part of the centre of the [Muslim] community.” (Most kids go home; a daycare on site has just six children.)

The children's lack of English is a hurdle. “Our academic scores are low in these schools,” Mr. Nimmo says, leading a tour of his shiny school, filled with children. He is helping to change that.

Two years ago, he called a meeting at the mosque. “I wanted to tell them how poorly their children were doing.” When he got there, he found only a handful of parents.

“I was very discouraged, so I asked Naseer Ahmad, he got on the phone and within 20 minutes there were 300 people there. That's how organized they were.” Now, he says, “they've rallied around us,” and grades are going up.

Accommodating Islam is second nature at the school. Some students are fasting during Ramadan, which ends with the feast of Eid'l Fitr on Oct. 12. “Some try to fast, they get weak and headaches, we let them rest on the health bed,” the principal says. “We haven't had meet-the-teacher night and we're not going to have it until after Ramadan, out of respect for the parents.”

Near the mosque towers a new Beer Store, its huge facade built to mimic a foaming glass of suds. A worker there said he welcomes the Muslims. “Here it was all Italian, and other people are arriving,” says Peter Drago, 22, a smiling man with a mane of hair. He moved here four years ago; since then, out of 20 houses on his block, 12 have changed into Muslim hands.

“You ask, 'Why did you move?' they say, 'I wanted to be near the mosque.' It's good. Multiculturalism is amazing.”

Still, all the change in the area has rattled Frank and Rita Alonzi, who for 38 years have lived just up the road. Their farm, where they keep chickens, goats and carrier pigeons, and grow a bountiful garden with gourds, tomatoes and grapes, is now crowded by suburbia. They don't mind that their neighbours are Muslim — they just miss their peace and quiet. Mrs. Alonzi resents that Canada Post ended delivery to her mailbox. Now she has to walk over a kilometre to pick up her mail at a box in front of the mosque.

The Alonzis also miss Teston United Church, demolished as the region expands a nearby road and developers expand Peace Village. “I was standing there and crying,” Mrs. Alonzi says. “I said, 'God, are you not listening?' But nobody listened, and they tore it down.” Their son built them a wooden model of the church, to keep the memory alive. She also bought a knotted rag rug from the church at auction, for $75.

The appeal of faith-based suburbs is simple: People feel more comfortable among their own kind. Maqbool Bajwa immigrated to Toronto from Pakistan in 1987 with his four brothers, his mother and father. Immigration Canada let in his father under the business investor category. The family's first home was in Toronto's troubled Jane-Finch area. In 1997, Maqbool Bajwa bought a house in Brampton in Toronto's western suburbs. A year later he sold it and bought in Peace Village. Family bought adjoining houses.

“The mosque was nearby, the street names were all from our community,” he says, sitting in an office at MB Computer Depot, a new store his brothers started in an Ahmadiyyaowned plaza near Peace Village. “I love it. When I see Ahmadiyya Avenue, it makes me proud, no question about it. Plus we've got the Vaughan Mills [a new mall], we've got the Wonderland and hopefully the subway coming. I can wear my shalwar camise and walk from home to the mosque without someone looking at me funny for what I'm wearing. It just gives me the absolute comfort of being home.”

National Post 2007