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Building diversity

Building diversity: City pins big hopes on new mosque Add to ...

The hardscrabble northern British Columbia city of Prince George is getting its first mosque. And there's a feeling among Muslims and non-Muslims alike that the state-of-the art structure could breathe new life into the struggling city.

Civic leaders are hoping the multimillion-dollar Islamic cultural and educational centre will be a beacon that draws highly skilled professionals to a city that badly needs to diversify its forestry-dominated economy.

For years, the city has watched Muslim doctors, professors and engineers reject offers to settle in Prince George because the city had no mosque. A plastic surgeon from Africa checked out the city but moved to Ontario. An orthopedic surgeon from Pakistan chose the U.K. over Prince George.

For the city's roughly 200 Muslim families, the situation was dire. For years, they have worshipped in basements, empty college classrooms, a Christian church and even a sketchy motel.

The B.C. Muslim Association's tiny Prince George chapter decided to act. Its secretary, Ibrahim Karidio, approached the city six years ago with a pitch that could have come from a movie script, albeit with a Muslim twist: If you build a mosque, he told city council, desired professionals will come.



I see this as a component in diversifying the economy and diversifying our population City councillor Brian Skakun


City councillor Brian Skakun said officials needed little persuading. The city of 70,000 located nearly 800 kilometres northeast of Vancouver was struggling. Pulp mills were closing, unemployment was rising. The bright spots - a new university and college - were having problems recruiting academics. The Northern Health Authority had similar difficulties attracting medical professionals.

Many of the best applicants were Muslims unwilling to move to Prince George. The closest mosque was in Kelowna, a day's drive away.

"If you want to attract some of these professionals, and there isn't a place of worship for them, they're going to go to another community that's bigger or does have a place of worship," Mr. Skakun said.

The planned mosque and community centre, is a "win-win for the city and [the Muslim]community," he said. "I see this as a component in diversifying the economy and diversifying our population."

For Mr. Karidio, the mosque will give Muslims a home at last. When he and his wife moved to Prince George 16 years ago, they were among the first Muslim families in the city. Mr. Karidio, a forestry researcher, scoured the phone book searching for Muslim-sounding names, but there were none.

He and his wife prayed in their basement. A year later, two more Muslim families arrived when the University of Northern British Columbia opened. They used empty classrooms for Friday prayers. Later, Mr. Karidio rented a room at a $39-a-night motel where families gathered to pray. When the motel was torn down, the group moved to a downtown United Church.

Yet without a mosque, Mr. Karidio knew that Prince George was smothering its development. Time after time, Muslim professionals told him that the city's lack of a mosque was a deal breaker during recruitment negotiations.

"Most of them said they would like it, but their family would not like it," said Mr. Karidio, 44, who moved to Canada from Niger in 1984. "Spouses, children, they would not want to stay in a place where they would not be able to practise their faith in a setting that was appropriate for them."

In 2003, Mr. Karidio and other Muslims approached the city to buy and rezone a piece of land to build a mosque. The city unanimously approved the request.

A Vancouver architect was hired. The first phase, for which construction began last Sunday, will include a mosque and classrooms. Two more phases will include a library, recreational centre and a daycare, which non-Muslims will be encouraged to use. The projected cost is between $1.5-million and $2-million.

About $500,000 has been raised from private donors across the province, and Mr. Karidio hopes to get some public funding for rest of the project, which can be used by the general public.

He said the cultural centre will have a distinct northern Canadian feel and the plan is to use wood from trees killed by the pine beetle. "There is no point to import the Middle East to Prince George."

By welcoming non-Muslims to the centre, Mr. Karidio said organizers hope to inspire similar acts of inclusiveness and tolerance across the country.

"This can be a showcase for where Muslims, non-Muslims, and all creeds … can bridge the gap," he said. "We don't want to live in isolation. We are fully contributing to society and we want to be a part of society."

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