Community Activist Michelle Walrond at CBC's Human LibraryWritten by Amira Elghawaby
“I had been calling myself Muslim since 1968 because it was cool. You know, Malcolm X, Black awareness in the United States..”
Michelle Walrond's tale about being Muslim in a different era and place is part of this great-grandmother's remarkable life story.
It's a story that Walrond, aka Um Nur, was happy to share with library borrowers at the CBC's third annual Human Library, in partnership with the Ottawa Public Library on January 25, 2014.
“It was a lot of fun,” she laughs as she reflects on the event a few days later, adding that she's the oldest convert in years since converting, not in age. “A lot of people wanted to know why I converted, and the next most common question: What's different nowadays compared to when I converted ”“ which is what I wanted to talk about.”
Walrond says that she explained to curious borrowers that the image about Islam was vastly different back when she took her shahada (the testimony of faith that makes a person Muslim).
“A lot of the books that we read in the 70's, the translations were very poor and their quality wasn't great, but they gave us a broader understanding of Islam. They exposed us to a diversity of opinions and the authors would explain why they took a position on a particular question, and show respect for opposing viewpoints,” she remembers. Walrond says that's different nowadays.
“Now one superficial, one-dimensional politically-motivated interpretation of Islam is flooding the digital and print media,” she says critically. “It's very hard to find information that is not coming through the ultra-conservative interpretation that has gained prominence through the petro-dollars of Saudi Arabia,” she says. “I just wanted people to know that it hasn't always been like that.”
Walrond says she adheres to the tolerance, intellectual maturity and idealism of Traditional Islam, which pre-dates extreme interpretations of Islam and to which the majority of Muslims adhere. Social justice in Islam has greatly informed her own activism, going strong for decades.
Walrond is currently the chair of the Ottawa South chapter of ACORN, an association which works to promote the rights of low and moderate income families.
“A lot of Muslims don't know about grass-roots organizing, or they think activists comprise a fringe, radical group that just wants to cause trouble. Wealthy Muslims and most people who live in comfort don't know that our social safety net and even aspects of immigration law started as a result of regular people petitioning the government to change things for the better,” she explains.
Walrond participates in one or two meetings or “actions” a month.
“A regular priority for ACORN is making the general public aware that there are people living in chronic poverty,” she says. “Poverty in Canada is not always easy to identify, especially among Muslims.”
A few years ago, Walrond founded an organization called the National Islamic Sisters' Association of Canada (NISA), because she felt that there were a high number of Muslim women who weren't being helped as they should be through mosques and the general community.
“One of the elders in our community went with me to a homeless shelter and found seven people living in one room and they said, well, in their country, it's eight to a room,” recalls Walrond. “They don't seem to understand it is not fair to apply the living standards of other countries here. Every Muslim has a right to live in dignity, and to dress and be housed decently. Even low-income Muslims have a right to hold their head up in society.”
Walrond decries the way some leaders will ask very insensitive questions about why a woman may have fallen on hard times. She says that having seen how the Catholic and Jewish family services provide help has taught her a lot about treating each needy case with dignity.
“We feel Muslim women shouldn't have to beg when they go to our community leaders for help. We verify that you need help but we don't care why. We might talk to your landlord, or we may ask for a bank statement. We won't tell you ahead of time what we will need for verification. No one has ever tried to defraud us. We look people in the eye and give practical aid with emergencies.”
Walrond knows about this because she herself has lived on a modest income for years. She says many people don't realize that government supports are hardly enough for families and individuals to meet their basic needs. For example, she explains a person on disability will be allotted just over $1100, which includes rent, basic needs, and any work-related expenses. Welfare is even less.
“Most people, including the disabled and “the working poor”, will live with a five hundred to one thousand dollar deficit each month,” she explains.
In the past three years, Walrond says an average of two local women per month have come to NISA, a registered non-profit, seeking help. At the moment, whatever dollar comes in is usually out fairly quickly, she explains. “If we could refer women with financial emergencies to those who collect Zakat and use the donations we receive to develop social enterprises for our sisters, we could provide practical solutions to the root causes of many of these emergencies.” She hopes to see the creation of a Muslim women's centre, an institution to actively address the causes of social, spiritual and economic stagnation of Muslim women.
There's more in this book, that's for sure.
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To learn more about ACORN visit:
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