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Representatives of the United Muslim Organizations of Ottawa-Gatineau (UMO-OG). Photo courtesy of United Way Ottawa.

Community Builder: Ottawa’s Muslim organizations are breaking down barriers and strengthening communities

By Samantha Pope and United Way East Ontario on August 19, 2019


Samantha Pope is one of Apt613’s correspondents at United Way Ottawa. With its Community Builder Award program, United Way Ottawa honours Ottawa’s outstanding volunteers: the organizations, partnerships, agencies, neighbourhood groups and individuals who work tirelessly to make our city a better place for everyone.

Strong communities are based in harmony, peace and prosperity, and that is exactly what the United Muslim Organizations of Ottawa-Gatineau (UMO-OG) strives to achieve for Ottawa and Gatineau.

“With harmony, we are safe, we are stronger [and] we care for one another,” UMO-OG’s Jalil Marhnouj said. “This can only be done when we break the barriers–when we build bridges.”

UMO-OG is a dedicated group of 12 Islamic organizations that collaborate around education, social services, charitable work and other areas of importance to the community. The group includes the nine largest mosques in the National Capital Region.

UMO-OG’s priority, according to Jalil, is to make Ottawa and Gatineau great places for everyone to thrive. They do so, Jalil explained, by contributing to charitable fundraising efforts, community outreach, volunteerism and more.

Representatives of the United Muslim Organizations of Ottawa-Gatineau (UMO-OG). Photo courtesy of United Way Ottawa.

“Our mission is to unite the Muslim community through cooperation and also to work with local and national partners to create a vibrant and strong community,” he said.

Looking at all they have accomplished in breaking down barriers for residents in Ottawa and Gatineau, it is fitting that UMO-OG received United Way Ottawa’s 2019 Healthy People, Strong Communities award. This award, given to UMO-OG on May 16 at the Community Builder of the Year Awards Gala, celebrates a person or group who works to improve the lives of vulnerable people such as those facing mental health challenges, people living in poverty, or isolated seniors.

Over the years, UMO-OG has demonstrated their commitment to improving the health of their community. They continue to raise money for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) – notably, through the massive CHEO Telethon fundraiser. During this annual event, UMO-OG fundraises in their mosques and recruits volunteers to run the phone lines.

“The Muslim community in Ottawa has been one of our most engaged partners in fundraising to improve the quality of care here at CHEO,” CHEO’s chief executive officer Alex Munter said.

One of the things about UMO-OG that’s really striking, Alex added, is the degree and speed to which they help those in their community who need it most, especially during community-wide emergencies. “When the call comes, they respond,” Alex said.

Ottawa has experienced challenges during and after many natural disasters, and UMO-OG has always been present on the front-lines to provide on-the ground support, fundraising power, and logistical resources. This was the case during spring flooding in 2017 and 2019, and after the September 2018 tornadoes.

Outside of Ottawa, the 2016 wildfires that devastated Fort McMurray prompted a swift response from UMO-OG. The group raised significant funds for fire, tornado and flood victims in recent years.

Our mission is to unite the Muslim community through cooperation and also to work with local and national partners to create a vibrant and strong community.

For those affected by the tornadoes locally, Jalil said the group responded quickly. One of the first things UMO-OG did was prepare hot meals for thousands of Ottawa residents. When the electricity went out in many parts of Ottawa, volunteers went door-to-door handing out meals.

“We understood that this would not be enough, so we started raising funds [too],” Jalil said, adding that they also helped with cleanup efforts around the city and offered shelter stations where residents could eat their meals.

“We are all affected [and] we are all one community. No matter what background we are from, we are one community,” he said. “We want to live in harmony together.”

Whether it be through helping their neighbours recover from traumatic events or improving health conditions of people in Ottawa, UMO-OG are leading the way in building a healthier and stronger community for everyone.

“We have a greater goal,” Jalil said. “Not only for personal gains, but for the greater good. For the larger community. When I see our collective efforts, it makes me very happy and very proud and hopeful for the future.”

Through research, evaluation and partnerships with community experts, United Way Ottawa identifies the root causes of the biggest social challenges facing our community, and helps find solutions that change tens of thousands of lives for the better. One hundred percent of donations stay in Ottawa to help those most in need.