As the Class of 2013 begins its final year of high school, one Winnipeg couple wants to reward those who've built some bridges along the way.
Farouk and Laila Chebib have a $500 bursary for one grad in each of Winnipeg's six school divisions.
The Chebibs, from Syria, started the Bridge Builder Award to recognize students who help connect people and build understanding between faiths and cultures.
Farouk Chebib said he got the idea after learning 52 per cent of Canadians surveyed don't trust Muslims. When the retired professor started teaching at the University of Manitoba nearly a half century ago, he didn't experience Islamophobia or racism.
"People didn't think about harmony between people and religions," said Chebib. Middle East politics, Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the 9/11 terror attacks changed attitudes: "Now everybody's a terrorist."
He wanted to do something positive to counter negative preconceptions.
They hope young adults will plant the seeds of goodwill for generations to come. The groundwork, he says, has already been laid out by the Manitoba Multiculturalism Act: "The diversity of Manitobans as it regards culture, religion and racial background is a fundamental characteristic of Manitoba society which benefits all Manitobans economically, socially and culturally."
Farouk worries that characteristic of Manitoba society could erode. A survey conducted for the Association for Canadian Studies and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation in March found more than half of all Canadians distrust Muslims. As many as 52 per cent of Canadians feel Muslims can be trusted "a little" or "not trusted at all," according to the online poll that surveyed 1,522 Canadians on attitudes toward religions, multiculturalism and sources of racism.
The Chebibs said their sons grew up in Fort Garry long before Islamophobia was a word. Laila said the worst experience they had was their youngest son being called a "paki" by some neighbourhood kids.
"I said, 'What's wrong with you? You're not a paki and, besides, there's nothing wrong with being from Pakistan. It's OK.' " She set the kids straight and got to know the neighbours. "My house was always open to all the kids in the neighbourhood."
Getting to know people is key to building bridges, said Shahina Siddiqui. The executive director of the Islamic Social Services Association is hosting a forum on Shariah on Sept. 20 where people can get answers to questions about Islamic law. Prejudice usually come from a lack of information, said Siddiqui.
"We can sit back and whine about how people don't know us, but how much effort do we put into opening doors and extending our hands?" Siddiqui said. "It requires taking a step out of your comfort zone."
She hopes people with questions about Shariah show up at the Millennium Library forum to get informed.
They don't have to agree, she said. "But by getting to know each other, we're broadening our own horizons. That's the spirit of multiculturalism."
The Chebibs' Bridge Builder Award is for Grade 12 students "who have demonstrated, in their high school years, significant achievements towards the goal of building multi-ethnic, multi-faith and multi-cultural bridges." High schools in the Winnipeg area can submit nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org.