By CLARA HO, Calgary Herald
MOHAMED Sabual used to stand by silently as he heard classmates and other youths mocking Muslims, calling them terrorists and making fun of their dress.
Now, the 18-year-old Grade 12 student said he makes an effort to stop the spread of negative stereotypes and discrimination that he and other young Muslims face every day.
"Before, we went with the crowd, saying these jokes were funny and whatever," said the Western Canada High School student. "But then we started this youth program (at the Muslim Youth Centre), and we realized it was wrong. We should step up and try to solve these problems."
Sabual was part of a group of 12 Muslim youths who sat down with U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson on Tuesday at the newly opened youth centre in the northwest Ranchlands community to discuss issues faced by young Muslims.
The event was facilitated by the Muslim Council of Calgary, which represents the city's 60,000 Muslims.
Meeting with Jacobson was inspirational and motivational, said Sabual, who is also involved with the Calgary Muslim Media and interviews locals about issues and events in the Calgary Muslim community.
"We discussed mostly political questions and human rights and the U.S.," he said, "but we also asked him about Muslim youths and how we can help to build the community, and how to solve problems such as racism."
Jacobson was in town for a number of events, including the Gas and Oil Expo, but specifically requested a meeting with Calgary's young Muslims as part of U.S. President Barack Obama's outreach to Muslim communities worldwide.
"Meeting with young people is so great because it gives me hope," Jacobson said.
"I listen to these folks and they are far smarter than I ever was at their age and far more involved than I was at their age," he said following his meeting with the group, which was held in private.
Joined by Alberta Culture and Community Spirit Minister Lindsay Blackett, Calgary MLA Moe Amery, and local Muslim elders and community members, Jacobson said he spoke of the challenges that young Muslims deal with.
"There are so many challenges that every young person has today, and when you overlay on top of that some of the stereotypes that exist about Muslims, and particularly Muslim youths, it makes it that much more difficult for them," he said.
"I think it's just very important to make it clear to them that we don't believe those stereotypes, that we share far more values than we disagree about, and that we care."
Jamal Ahmed, another Grade 12 student at Western Canada High School who also attended the meeting, said it bothers him to hear racial jokes and "Islamaphobic" comments about terrorism and extremism.
But it's even more troubling, he said, to see Muslims hiding their background and religion for fear that others won't accept them.
"You see people who are afraid to be who they are because they'll get teased about it," Ahmed said. "You see people that don't have pride in who they are and what they believe in because of how others react and how others will treat them.
"Personally, for me, that is something I want to help change."
He said he enjoyed speaking with Jacobson on everything from U.S. policies regarding the Middle East to human rights issues and Florida pastor Terry Jones, whose burning of the Qur'an sparked deadly attacks in Afghanistan.
The 18-year-old said he was inspired by their meeting and hopes to work toward becoming a youth leader in the community.
Mahdi Qasqas, a certified counsellor and youth leader, said he was excited to introduce Jacobson to the Muslim Youth Centre's Smooth Transitions Outreach Project, aimed at helping young people move positively between new school and social situations.
"I think the youths are most vulnerable when in transition," he said, adding that includes young people transitioning to junior high, high school, university and even into the workforce.