Sameh EL-Batroukh is my neighbour and part of the Muslim community of northwest Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. We met Saturday morning for coffee on one of the few days each week that he is not commuting to his job as a P. Eng-accredited project manager in the power generating industry. Our mutual friend, Lauren Weinberg, introduced us last week when I told her I was keen to talk with anyone from the community who had a rational perspective on the rezoning request of 510 Erbsville Road.
Some Muslim folks up here on the west side would like to gather to pray at this property, and they’re hitting some resistance from some vocal elements of the neighbourhood. Happily, many have also stepped forward and expressed their support for the rezoning. See my earlier Medium post on this, calling for respectful discussion and a factual review of the request. The proposed rezoning is perfectly reasonable and I support it.
“I would just like to gather here for about 30 minutes each day with friends”, sighed Sameh. He flipped through photos on his phone of the inside of the farmhouse that currently stands on the property. The rooms are almost completely empty, save for carpet, a microphone, a flatscreen and the Quran. “That’s it. That’s all there is.” he said, as if dispelling a mystery.
A couple of weeks ago, Sameh started a petition in support of the rezoning. His goals were twofold: to offer a place for supporters to have their say, and to provide factual information to the community so people can form a fact-based understanding of the request. And so he created the Support Diversity petition. I signed it. It completely jives with everything I read about this application on the City’s web site. As always, have a look for yourself and make up your own mind. More importantly, I think, is to reach out to our City Council. I did. Seven councillors and the mayor are the decision makers.
I grew up in a small village where, for better or worse, we all knew each other through generations of families. Something that troubles me amid this challenge to peaceful coexistence is the anonymity of it. That’s mainly the reason I wanted to chat with Sameh. To shake hands. To know something about someone else involved in this. In real life.
He lives no more than two kilometres from my house. We are almost the same age. He smiles when I try to correctly pronounce his name, though I’m lacking some vocal sounds of Arabic. Two of his five kids are the same ages as my kids and they all go to the same high school. He has the “busy Dad on Saturday” countenance that I know myself from looking in the mirror. We chatted about where we went to school and where we have worked and places we have lived. We are both distressed by the anonymous opposition that can be found online concerning this rezoning request. And we are both committed to our community. I mentioned I had recently done some stories for The Food Bank and Sameh recounted his work with MAC’s entry into The Food Bank’s CANstruction fund raiser. Small world, indeed.
To Sameh, I said “I’ve taught my kids that we can shape the community in which we want to live.” A lesson I didn’t learn until I was 40 years old.
Sameh, noting some substantial paraphrasing from a saying in Arabic, said: “Paradise is not Paradise if it doesn’t have people in it.” And so we, here in the neighbourhood, must work to sort this out. Together.
He glances at his watch to make sure he’ll be on time for his next meeting. He’s helping coordinate a spring cleanup of Old Oak Park in our neighbourhood later in April. “Join us” he invites me. “There will be a barbeque afterward.” I ask if I may photograph him and he agrees, “Of course.”
There’s a formal public meeting to be scheduled in May on this rezoning. I’ve asked if I may speak as a delegation. While I don’t like conflict, it is what we do in the most difficult circumstances that counts the most.