The Assunnah Muslims Association (AMA) manages both the Masjid ar-Rahmah (Mosque of Mercy), which promotes spiritual development and Islamic awareness, and a centre which focuses on community development and caters to all faiths and backgrounds. The AMA is located on Hunt Club Road, in the southern part of the city. When COVID-19 fiendishly slipped into the city in March 2020, the AMA quickly found creative new ways to manifest its mission and meet the changing and unprecedented needs of the community.
It starts with the most essential need: food security
The early pandemic days brought concerns about food security, shortages and related hysteria (think toilet paper hording). In response, the AMA’s first response efforts included providing food packages and hygiene kits. This involved enlisting many new volunteers to source and prepare the packages and to deliver them across the city. This relief work was done in collaboration with the United Muslim Organizations of Ottawa-Gatineau (UMO-OG) as well as other partners. This service continues today because the need continues.
Transforming into a COVID-19 testing site and vaccination clinic
The AMA also saw the need for COVID-19 testing early on and with the mosque and community centre buildings closed for their usual operations, the AMA offered the centre as a test site. In March 2020 they contacted the Eastern Ontario Resource Centre (EORC) and Ottawa Public Health and, with assistance from The Ottawa Hospital and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), a testing clinic was opened a few weeks later. The site served their usual community as well as clients from all over the city who were willing to make the trip to be tested in a familiar setting. In such unsettled times, this extra level of comfort – whether for geographic, cultural, faith-based or language reasons – can make all the difference.
When vaccines became available, the AMA saw a natural progression to also offer their facility for pop-up vaccination clinics. The first one opened in early March 2021. As Imam Ismail Albatnuni explains, it was their ‘civic duty’ to provide this support and for him to get vaccinated. He became an Ottawa Public Health ‘Vaccine Ambassador’, appearing in a June 2021 video in English, French and Arabic.
In addition to offering a building for clinics, the AMA offered its communication channels to get people into the clinics. In the Imam’s announcements after prayers, he regularly encouraged worshippers to get vaccinated. It was very effective: the clinic staff knew right after prayers they’d get a rush of clients. The AMA also reached out on their social media channels, a WhatsApp group and through a weekly e-newsletter with 6,000 subscribers. They also encouraged non-Muslim neighbours to come into the clinic, as it is conveniently located within walking distance for many. Karim Mekki, Supervisor of Community Engagement at Ottawa Public Health, comments, “The AMA has done an amazing job of getting the word out. We have administered more than 8,600 vaccinations at the AMA clinics.”
Education as another essential
The AMA saw the need for education right from the start. They surveyed their clients to understand their misconceptions, hesitancy and the misinformation circulating about the virus and the vaccines. There were concerns arising from bad vaccine experiences in the home countries of some newcomers. There were also concerns about the religious appropriateness of vaccination: Is getting vaccinated during Ramadan breaking the fast? Are the vaccines certified as halal? The AMA collaborated with other mosques and Muslim-serving community centres in these educational efforts.
The new normal for worship – for now
In a situation repeated in almost every business and place of worship in the city, the AMA had to adapt their operations to evolving public health guidelines. “We’re huggy people,” notes the AMA President, Jalil Marhnouj, “But we explained that this had to change for a while.” Besides discouraging hugging and handshakes once the mosque resumed indoor services, worshippers had to bring their own prayer mats, had to place them safely distanced from each other, and the mosque recorded visitors for contact-tracing purposes.
Getting there together
The magnitude of the AMA’s pandemic relief efforts went well beyond anything it previously attempted, with a massive food distribution program, staffing a phone hotline and, together with the UMO-OG, engaging 350 volunteers. “It was a great learning experience,” comments Mr. Marhnouj. “We found a new level of innovation and intend to retain this ingenuity as the city emerges from the pandemic.” He echoes the sentiments of many as he sums up the situation, “We’re in this together and will only be successful if we collaborate.”
Aiming for #CommunityImmunity
The AMA Community Centre, at 1216 Hunt Club Road, is one of Ottawa's neighbourhood vaccine hubs, open Monday to Thursday from 1pm to 7pm. The OttawaPublicHealth.ca website has the latest hub locations and operating hours.
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