El-Farouk Khaki has created an inclusive space for queer Muslims in Toronto to feel safe and welcome. In fact, everyone is welcome.
I was born in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. We had to leave when I was seven because my dad had been part of the independence movement. We lived in England for three years before we came to Canada. When we first arrived in Toronto, we were put up in a homestay. It was a Jewish family. And so my first religious service in Canada was actually Purim in a synagogue, and I went to a Jewish school with one of the kids for a week and a half. And that was an amazing experience for me because I have a fairly Semitic nose, and as a Muslim kid in London in the public school system, I was always being teased about it. And so being in a Jewish school, I had nobody teasing me about my nose.
After 10 days, we went on to Vancouver, and that’s where I finished my elementary school, went to high school, university, and law school, but I came back to Toronto in 1989. I came here for work. And I stayed. I was offered a job at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
I started Salaam, a social support group for lesbian and gay Muslims, in 1991. You see, in Vancouver, while intellectually I knew I was not the only queer Muslim in the world, that was not my social reality. It wasn’t until I came back to Toronto that I started meeting folks in the LGBT community who were also Muslim. That was the first time I realized I was not alone. So I started Salaam to bring people together around this mutual experience of these labels that we hold. It started as a social support group, became a queer support and advocacy organization with a board, and is now a queer Muslim community. Through my work as a refugee lawyer and my work in the community as an activist, I came to understand that spiritual trauma is very profound and universal, and so I started the Toronto Unity Mosque in 2009 with my husband and a friend. It is not limited to Muslims, and it is not limited to queers, but it is queer-affirming. It’s an inclusive prayer space open to everybody.
All of us involved in creating a more inclusive and a better society all have our work cut out for us in the next little while. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve had more hate messages than we’ve ever had. It’s a reflection of the anti-Muslim sentiment being articulated on social media, which is really hateful and ignorant. And it’s like, Wow, do you really move through life with this much hate? You want to talk to them about it. But how do you have that conversation when you’re dealing with people whose sense of the world doesn’t really go farther than their own nose bridge?
Immigrants of Toronto is a weekly feature celebrating Toronto’s diversity as a vibrant city of immigrants, refugees, and newcomers, as told to Stephen Thomas.