O’Leary: Esks support Edson, Alberta after crimes of hate

It’s in the face-to-face conversations, Ahmed Ali says, that you really see people, where the thousand words that rest in a person’s eyes and face can say the unsaid.

“How you and I are taking right now, we can’t see each other, right? There’s an element that’s missing in this conversation,” he says over the phone from Edson, Alta.

“That element is what’s being witnessed at the mosque.”

Ali, the imam at the Edson mosque, is happy to see the faces and the outpouring of support from the community over the last week and a half.

It was around 11 p.m. on June 16 when three people had finished their prayers and made their way out of the mosque and into what was left of the soft, pink northern Alberta sky.

They were in the parking lot when the fire started.

“It took I guess an act of arson to really help us establish a sound and very good relationship with our fellow Canadians here in Edson. I guess a bad situation has turned into something really, really good for our community.”

Ahmed Ali on the Edson mosque fire

Security cameras caught a person in a black hoodie leaving the building, appearing to have a red jerrycan in hand. Fifteen minutes later, firefighters put the small blaze out, leaving soot and burn marks on the building. What’s happened since then, Ali says, has shown him the true sense of what the town, the province and the country is about.

People in the town of 8,400 have come in waves to the small mosque to check in, to see if everyone’s OK, to let them know they’re welcome. Edson’s mayor, Kevin Zahara, came to the mosque’s defence, as did Alberta’s premier, Rachel Notley. News of the small fire went across the country.

Last Friday, the mosque held a gathering and the place had about 100 people in it, Ali says. Standing room only. A poster board full of well wishes was left behind them.

“One small incident has really created such a magnitude of friendship in Edson,” he says. “We could never have done anything that would generate such friendship on our own.

“It took I guess an act of arson to really help us establish a sound and very good relationship with our fellow Canadians here in Edson. I guess a bad situation has turned into something really, really good for our community.”

On Tuesday, the Edmonton Eskimos got involved. The organization invited 25 youths from the Islamic Society of Edson to their Friday night game against the BC Lions. It’ll be the first football game the kids, aged 6-15, have ever been to.

“The kids are excited because they have never attended a football game, ever,” Ali says. “We explained to the kids, how this is happening, we explained to them that something happened to the mosque. They knew to a certain extent, but we said there are a lot of Canadians who are (supportive of us) for what has happened and this is one way of Canadians showing their support for us. The kids…you can tell how happy they are to receive this gift.”

“I saw (the story of the mosque on the news) and I thought, ‘That sucks,’ frankly,’” says Rose Mary Phillip, the Esks VP of comms and marketing.

“That’s not who we want to be as Canadians. I went to Len (Rhodes, the Eskimos’ president and CEO) and said ‘I’d love to invite these people.’ Len has a massive heart and he said, ‘absolutely, run with it.’ So we reached out to them and they were really receptive, which to be honest is probably more exciting for us than it is for them.”

From one hateful act, Ali has seen first-hand how good it felt to be included. When the Esks extended the invite, he asked the organization if he could bring a couple of children who went out of their way for the mosque this past week.

Two children put a sign on the lawn of the mosque that reads: Never forget that the most powerful force on Earth is love.

They’ll join the Islamic Society of Edson at Friday’s game as well. The group will sit in the Save on Foods Family Huddle section. The Esks plan on recognizing the group during the pre-game on Friday.

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“When people talk about how sorry they were and how supportive they are, you can see it in their faces and their eyes,” Ali says. “You could see the feelings that are inside of them.

“We should never allow one person to kind of cast a shadow over the goodness of people. Because the majority of people are good; it’s just one or two individuals in our midst for some reason who are the ones to create disharmony.

“I can tell you the overwhelming support that we’ve received, it just speaks about how beautiful Canadians are. It shows that when there’s a time of adversity, that Canadians will come together and band together and support one another through times of difficulties.”