When nine-year-old Zia Khan arrived in Halifax in the late 1970s, the boy was something of a novelty to newfound friends who knew little about his Muslim heritage or his distant homeland.
Khan and his family immigrated to Canada’s east coast from Pakistan, answering a call for families and well-educated foreigners interested in settling in less populated parts of the country under then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
For the Khans in 1978, that meant finding their way in a province that was predominantly Christian, anglophone, and more than 90 per cent white.
“I was an oddball,” Khan, the imam and director of the Centre for Islamic Development, says with a laugh. “I had very good friends and they were mostly all Christians. We had a very small pocket of Muslim communities and an even a smaller pocket of Arab communities.”
Khan, who co-founded the mosque about 17 years ago, has watched that change over the last few decades, and has been part of a demographic shift that is slowly changing the complexion of a largely uniform province to include a richer mix of languages, religions and cultural practices.
The numbers appear to bear that out.
The most recent census in 2011 listed Arabic as the third most commonly spoken language or mother tongue in Nova Scotia — at roughly 6,700 people — and second in Halifax, ahead of Mi’kmaq and Chinese.
Many of the Arabic speakers are part of the province’s Lebanese population, much of which is Christian, but a rising number are from other countries like Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait.
About 1,500 Syrian refugees also arrived in the province this year, boosting the number of Muslims and Arabic-speaking people in communities that many say are responding to the unique demands of a changing population when it comes to language, food and religion.
Gerry Mills, executive director of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, has overseen the arrival of many of the Syrian refugees in Nova Scotia since late last year, and says there have been visible gestures aimed at accommodating the growing Arabic-speaking population, which peaked in the 1990s as people fled conflict in the Middle East.
“In Halifax, I’m starting to see welcome signs and instruction signs and organizations … doing their pamphlets in Arabic, especially this year when we’ve seen a lot of people at one time speaking one language coming into the province,” she said, adding that some sports facilities, libraries and banks are now posting signs in Arabic.
“If you go into the banks and the grocery stores, you’ll begin to see people who clearly don’t have English as their first language. I don’t think you used to see that 15 years ago, but you do see that now and that’s wonderful.”
Hijabs are no longer an uncommon sight in the city’s core. And most Nova Scotians are learning to see immigrants as a solution to the aging province’s demographic crisis.
When Khan arrived there was one mosque in Halifax. Now, there are at least five, along with several halal grocery stores, markets and restaurants.
The rise in the number of people who speak Arabic in the city attracted the attention of Montreal-based radio station, Radio Middle East, an all-Arabic channel which began broadcasting remotely in Halifax in April, with plans to open offices this spring.
Oudai Altabbaa, who came to New Brunswick from Syria in 2009, is overseeing the development of the Halifax station, which features a mix of local, national and international news, along with weather, horoscopes and music in Arabic. His focus is to connect Canadian businesses with the Arabic-speaking population, something he says local companies like a well-known resort and car dealership have twigged to as they recognize the community’s spending potential.
“The reason we started in Halifax is because we got a lot of calls from here to Montreal telling us, ‘It’s time for you guys to open up shop and become part of the community,”‘ he said.
“We are filling a need — people requested it. There’s a big community here that was worth us investing in … And it means Canadian businesses are able to target a completely new audience that they’ve heard about, but were never able to reach.”
Still, there are growing pains for many in the Arab and Muslim communities, who say acceptance in the province has been marred by a lack of understanding and outright racism.
Mohamad El Attar, a Palestinian who grew up in Halifax, says he has experienced subtle and overt displays of “ignorance” that he chalks up to a lack of exposure to his Muslim faith. Both he and his sister have faced abuse from strangers, who have called her a terrorist and told both to “go back to where you came from.”
El Attar tries to laugh it off, usually responding with a smile and a question — “I’m from here, so do you want me to go back to Halifax or Dartmouth?”
“Some people think, ‘Oh this is the guy I saw on the news,’ and it is misreported that we’re violent crazy terrorists who have come to take over and I’m just like, ‘Man, I’m just looking for a job. I’m just paying off tuition fees and just here working and trying to pay rent,”‘ says the 22-year-old accountant.
“Not everyone has encountered an Arab or Muslim, especially in Nova Scotia, and some people may not have ever had a friend who wasn’t white.”
His frustration over the way Muslims are portrayed in the news and in his own encounters grew to the point that El Attar decided to challenge the stereotypes in satirical and irreverent videos he posts on YouTube under the name, That Muslim Guy. In one episode, he explains Arabs are not necessarily Muslim and vice versa as he points to a man wearing a turban.
“If you think all Muslims look like that guy, then I got news for you — you’re a racist,” he says in a tongue-in-cheek post. “This man is not even Muslim. This man is India’s prime minister and he’s Hindu.”
Khan too says he and his congregants have endured their fair share of racism, citing incidences of bus drivers closing their doors to passengers wearing the hijab, a man throwing hot coffee on a woman wearing a hijab and some being told they won’t be served in certain stores.
Khan’s mosque was itself subjected to hateful online comments in October after it filed a noise and litter complaint against a neighbouring brew pub, a dispute centred on public urination and trash, not faith.
But Khan says acceptance is growing and Nova Scotia is catching up to larger, more ethnically diverse cities like Toronto.
Others say Nova Scotians’ overwhelming response to the plight of Syrian refugee families fleeing their war-torn country highlights a more typical attitude to the province’s growing diversity.
Immigration Minister Lena Diab said she was stunned by the generosity of residents who dropped off thousands of bags of clothes, furniture and other items when the call was put out to help arriving Syrians late last year.
“I tell you, the last three years in my Immigration portfolio I have never seen Nova Scotians so welcoming and so open-minded and kind-hearted in all of my life — they get it, they really get it,” said Diab, whose father immigrated to Canada from Lebanon.
“Diversity brings strength and we welcome that.”