A young woman looks directly into the camera and says in a soft accent: "I was told to go back to my country."
A young man with a light beard follows: "In my profession, relationships are built at the bar. What am I supposed to do about that?" he asks.
And then, the more complicated issues: "My parents forced me to take off my hijab," says another student, referring to the head scarf.
The anecdotes, told from the point of view of Muslim students at the University of Toronto, are gripping, complex and, as many youth can attest to, all too real. They are also part of a promotional video intended to show the urgent need behind the Muslim Chaplaincy Program at U of T, the first program of its kind in Canada that would see the community fund a full-time chaplain at a university to support the spiritual needs of Muslim students.
"Many Muslim youth don't have a place to turn to, and they feel challenged on issues of faith and identity," says Ruqqayyah Ahdab, chair of the board for the chaplaincy program, who was instrumental in creating the student-led initiative.
"Adults can turn to the mosque for support, but youth often can't because of cultural issues or the age gap," said Ahdab. "So the chaplain will be there to provide this safe space for youth to turn to."
In Canada, Muslim chaplains have been utilized primarily in military and prison settings to help with issues of religious accommodation. Universities, including U of T, have been most often served by volunteer chaplains, often imams from the community struggling to juggle numerous commitments. But over the past five year, dozens of universities in the United States have hired Muslim chaplains to offer Muslim students support in the tension-filled aftermath of 9/11.
"Many universities found students were under an enormous amount of stress because of the negative media coverage around Muslims," said Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islamic studies and founder of the first Islamic Chaplaincy Program at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. "The Muslim chaplains took a lot of pressure off the students and gave them crucial support they needed, and from that, the program really gained support across campuses."
Chaplains in the U.S have also been crucial in diffusing tensions between campus religious groups, she said.
Interfaith work is one of the key requirements here as well, said Ahdab. The job requirements are many, and differ significantly from the role of a traditional leader or imam, she said. Unlike imams who are men, a chaplain can be a man or woman, should be trained in pastoral counselling, be able to identify the needs of students, be trained in interfaith work and be open to working with other sects and ideologies.
"It's not about shoving religion down people's throat or telling them who to be," said Ahdab. "It's about helping them form an identity that is meaningful to them and healthy for them."
So far, Ahdab said, candidates who have been interviewed have been diverse in age, experience and gender, and have included imams, social workers and graduates of the Hartford chaplaincy program. The goal is to hire a chaplain on a one-year contract by the end of the summer.
That's good news for all U of T students and staff, said Richard Chambers, director of the Multi-Faith Centre. He said many Christian and Jewish communities have paid to have full-time staff on campus for years, which often creates an "imbalance" when it comes to having a voice.
"This will help ensure that voices of Muslim students are heard as well," he said.
But for the program to be successful, it must still pass a crucial hurdle: monetary support from the community. The goal is to raise $70,000 by September. So far, only $700 has been raised.
"Our hope is that this can be the start of a Muslim chaplaincy movement in Canada," said Ahdab, who is optimistic they will meet their goal. "And a similar program can spread to other campuses over time."