Q&A: Amina Hussain and Mishal Javed provide an update on their research and work with the Muslim Human Service AllianceCategories: A. Ka Tat Tsang, Alumni + Friends, Faculty, Q & A, Research, Students
Last year, we featured PhD Candidate Amina Hussain and MSW graduate Mishal Javed in a story about research that aims to fill a wide gap in knowledge on the social service needs of Ontario’s Muslim communities. Initiated by students frustrated with the lack of culturally appropriate services for Muslims, the foundational project received a four-year SSHRC Partnership Development Grant in 2021, and is now co-led by an incredibly diverse group of community partners and academics from U of T and beyond.
We caught up with Amina and Mishal for an update on the research project and the student group they helped launch to support it: the Muslim Human Service Alliance.
Could you share an update on your SSHRC-funded research on the social service needs of Ontario’s Muslim communities?
Amina: We have made incredible progress. Currently we’re on stage two of data collection. We’ve completed 13 focus groups: 11 with services users and two with service providers. One of the focus groups was conducted in Arabic, another in Dari, and the rest in English. Two of the 13 focus groups were with service providers, while the others were with service users. We are now moving on to individual interviews. We’re aiming for 12 to 16. We’ve completed three so far, and hoping to finish the rest in the next month. We have finished transcribing, translating and coding the first batch of data, and have identified five main themes. As a student driven and largely volunteer based project – this is incredible progress.
Our research emerged from engaging in critical reflexivity and understanding our diverse intersecting identities and how these might shape our world views. Critical reflexivity was embedded in all phases of the project. We really had to identify how we can engage in this research in a way that is truly aligned with CBPAR (Community Based Participatory Action Research) principles, and I believe we have so far.
Mishal: We recently added Dr. Aamir Jamal from the University of Calgary to our team as a co-investigator. This was a really big thing for us, because part of the purpose of the project was to build opportunities and skills within the community, so we were always constantly looking for Muslim academics who could assist us. FIFSW Professor Ka Tat Tsang, who has been supporting the project as Principal Investigator was really big on this. He’s a wonderful, wonderful ally, and has wanted to give leadership to someone from within the community, and that’s why it was such a huge thing when we were able to add Dr. Jamal to our grant.
We have also recruited a lot of Research Assistants, or RAs, who represent diverse members of the community. We have two MSW graduates and two new, current MSW students from FIFSW. Four additional Research Assistants are Muslims from within the community. They don’t have a particular research background, but we really wanted to stay true to our community-based research and build skills within the community.
Amina: A lot of the RAs that don’t have a social work research background have really fundamental lived experience, which includes navigating different systems, overcoming barriers to service use, and the impact of migration and refugee status on access to care.
Mishal: Everyone received a lot of different training workshops on how to conduct focus groups and interviews and how to analyze data. We also provided workshops on Community Based Participatory Action Research (CBPAR).
Amina: CBPAR is rooted in active collaboration between researchers and community members and really building the capacity of community members. It’s acknowledging that when we look at research from just an academic or “ivory tower” standpoint, we miss a lot of rich knowledge and diversity of thought that comes from communities with lived experience. All of the decision making in this project has been collaborative and the research design has been co-created with research assistants, partners, and community members. We’re really working with the community, for the community.
Although you are still in the thick of your research, is there anything you could share about what you have learned from this work over the past year?
Amina: For me it has been about the value of centering this work on active engagement and ongoing collaboration. We’ve recruited RAs that are of diverse intersecting identities. We are collaborating with different academic and community partners and are receiving active feedback along the way. The community has provided us with a different perspective on how we see or how we discuss things like Islamophobia, anti-Muslim racism, and access to care. For example, often researchers and the public discuss topics like Islamophobia in a very narrow way. It’s typically talked about in the context of the post 9-11 world and media sensationalism — but we don’t often have critical conversations of how experiences of islamophobia and perceived threats impact access to health or social services particularly for those experiencing grief, anger, divorce, family conflict, and immigration concerns. We don’t see how this operates on a day-to-day level to impact one’s access and navigation to safe spaces. We don’t discuss the impact of islamophobia in the context of racial trauma enough.
Mishal: In terms of research dissemination, Amina has presented at the SSWR (Society for Social Work Research) conference and will be presenting at the Councilsel on Social Work Education (CSWE) in Atlanta, Georgia later this month. One of our RAs is also leading work on a publication based on our focus group data.
Amina: The publication is focused on masjids, so mosques, as centres for social service — how they can connect people to existing social services that may not necessarily be run by Muslims and how they are already centres of social service themselves. It looks at the utility of using these existing centers for religious gatherings, but also for community gatherings as a useful tool for connecting with the Muslim population.
One of your goals has been to build more support from for Muslim students. Could you share how the student organization that you started, the Muslim Human Service Alliance, has evolved over the past year or so?
Amina: Since the MHSA was created and recognized as a student group, I’ve gotten a lot of emails from interested members of the community. For instance, someone who worked in sexual health and sexual assault prevention, reached out because they were wanting to support Muslims’ experiences around that. I also heard from different folks from different departments at U of T. A lot of Master of Social Work students also reached out about getting involved in the project in a research capacity. Currently, the group is largely focused on research, but there are also opportunities for the group to become involved in other student initiatives.
Mishal: Many of us who were involved in starting MHSA have since graduated. We are still involved, but mostly focused on research. It would be great to get more people involved.
How have you seen support for Muslim students evolve since you began this project?
Amina: Last year students advocated for a prayer space at the faculty, which is now available on the fourth floor. While MHSA wasn’t involved in this, I think it really speaks to the importance of having that representation at the faculty. As part of Islamic Heritage Month, I will be joining Emad Alarashi, who is an alumni of FIFSW and a researcher on our SSHRC partnership development grant, to present a talk for students on addressing Islamophobia, anti-Muslim hate and the social service needs of Muslims. This is relevant now more than ever, especially after the hate crime killing of a 6-year-old Muslim boy (Wadea Al-Fayoume) in Chicago on October 15th. The first time we presented on this topic at the faculty was in the wake of the 2021 hate crime murder of a Muslim family in London, Ontario.
Mishal: To continue with this work and advocacy, we are always looking to build a social platform for students. There are executive positions available at MHSA and if people are interested in joinging the team and taking on a leadership role on student engagement, I encourage them to reach out to us.
FIFSW students interested in becoming involved in the MHSA are invited to contact Amina at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Islamic Heritage Month
The Parliament of Canada proclaimed October Canadian Islamic History Month in 2007 in recognition of significant contributions Muslims have made to Canadian society. View our page listing upcoming events and stories from FIFSW’s community. This page also includes resources shared by Amina Hussain and Emad Alarashi as part of their EDI presentation to students on October 17.