Muslim Social Services Supporting Those in Need

Social service organizations are important to the Muslim community

By Rabiyah Syed

March/April 2023

This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of Muslim Social Services (MSS), an incredibly important organization that provides essential services to the people of Ontario’s Waterloo region.

Idrisa Pandit, Ph.D., a native Kashmiri activist who moved from the U.S. to Canada 17 years ago, founded it in response to the community’s needs and out of the desire for change. As the masjids and religious spaces only catered to the people’s spiritual needs, she took it upon herself to “[see] what was missing in the community” and invest in those areas. Out of this came MSS. 

This organization primarily provides services and support to those in need. Despite the word “Muslim” in its name, MSS is open to everyone. This word also indicates that being Muslim “is part of our identity.” Pandit explains that MSS keeps a Muslim identity for those seeking services that specifically “cater to them from a [specific] faith and [cultural] perspective.”

As a social service organization, MSS provides services and promotes social welfare for individuals, families and the overall community via helping refugees settle and integrate into Canadian society. Pandit says she has worked with refugees from Palestine, Myanmar, Syria and elsewhere. 

When speaking about MSS’s successes, Pandit mentions that the most successful ones were the “ones that were aimed at settling newcomer children and youth in Canada.” MSS holds group counseling sessions to help youth process and heal from their trauma. One particularly successful program stemmed from a counseling program for Rohingya youth who had suffered enormously. To deal with their trauma, the youth made a play, “I am from India [Occupied Kashmir],” that became an international hit. They used art as a release. In addition, her organization’s art programs have been used for therapeutic purposes. MSS intends to use activity-based programs, such as music, to allow youth to process and work through their traumas. 

MSS also offers counseling programs for individuals of all ages, couples, families and groups in English, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi and other languages. The topics of discussion may include grief, loss, depression, addiction and recovery, family violence, abuse, confidence issues and couple relationships. Those being counseled are allowed to pay based on their income. 

Women-specific programs, such as language and cultural integration, are available. The organization trains them in the skills necessary for employment, such as becoming computer literate and achieving basic English literacy.

MSS’s community outreach programs also help the community’s poor and needy people by preparing meals for the homeless and offering meals at soup kitchens.

This organization, which began as a volunteer organization with a zero-based budget, used all its money — there was no surplus or deficit. Using provincial and local grants, it was able to hire more staff and fund more programs. In 2011, MSS became an official public charity. 

One milestone in its expansion was being accredited by Imagine Canada, a nonprofit organization that accredits charities and nonprofits according to strict guidelines based on their board governance, financial accountability and transparency, fundraising, staff management and volunteer involvement. Each newly accredited organization receives the “Canton certificate.” 

After being certified, MSS created a board consisting of a full-time executive director, several staff members and counselors. The organization now receives many student volunteers through the Canada Summer Jobs Program. The types of programs offered have also expanded, due to the increased funding, support and growth. MSS currently rents space in the Family Center but hopes to find its own place one day. Pandit explains that “operating in a community center makes it [our services] fairly accessible.” 

Pandit (associate faculty, Luther University College, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada) has received the University of Waterloo’s first-ever Community Impact Award; the Ontario Ministry of Status of Women Leading Women, Leading Girls award; the Oktoberfest Woman of the Year Award; and the Kitchener Volunteer Action Centre, Innovative Involvement Volunteer Award. In 2007, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women named her as one of the top twenty Muslimas who inspire.

Naturally, with growth comes challenges. One of the biggest challenges is getting the Muslim community to understand the importance of social services. Pandit explains that social service work requires a level of confidentiality when dealing with very sensitive issues. Masjids simply can’t provide such confidentiality. Part of the challenge is convincing Muslims that their youth and adults aren’t immune to mental illness. Community members face many challenges, whether it be at work or in school, and thus “[MSS] is a huge resource.” The biggest challenge has been getting “the community to realize that such a resource is important.”

Of course, money is always a challenge for an organization. “Even without money, I think [MSS could] continue to do its work as a volunteer organization,” Pandit comments. Additionally, she mentions that having to ask for funding and donations takes time away from focusing solely on helping people; however, “it’s part of a growing organization.”

Like all other organizations, Covid had a large negative impact. Many of the counseling sessions and other programs, which were one-on-one in person, were forced online. The subsequent lack of personal interaction made it hard to maintain a community connection. Having to adapt and do its best under difficult circumstances, things at MSS are now picking up where they left off because its in-person programs have resumed.

Working in social services can be very rewarding. One of the most rewarding feelings is knowing that you’ve had a positive impact on someone’s life. Pandit says that being able to help even one person is so rewarding. Even if one MSS program has a low turnout, it isn’t discouraging because “the whole point is to be able to offer [a service] and someone is able to benefit [from it].” Teaching clients something new, providing them with services to heal and with support or just making a small improvement in their lives is extremely rewarding. Helping those in need is at the core of MSS and its offered services.

Rabiyah Syed, a student at Naperville Central, loves photography and aspires to be a speech pathologist.

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