Waqqas Syed. Traversing through Ajax during the recent Municipal Elections, people saw among the umpteen campaign signs along roadways and on lawns, the strange name, Waqqas Syed.
Syed, a stand-out Muslim leader in Durham Region with a distinguishing beard, quiet demeanour and humble way of speaking, tossed his hat in the ring to become Trustee for the Durham District School Board.
The Millionaire Mindset magazine met Syed at his tiny, cramped office at a Mosque on Harwood Avenue, just south of Taunton, for this interview. As a steady stream of male worshippers came into the building, shedding their shoes at the door to go on the carpeted floor to pray, Syed talked about why he chose to run as a School Board Trustee.
Next door to the Mosque, a bustling Christian Church prepared for an event. Syed noted the close relations between the Mosque and the Church, neighbours who share parking lot when needed, who exchange food at festival times, and who look out for each other – despite the wire-fence separating the properties.
Canada is transforming its national character, and the Town of Ajax is a picture of the diversity, tolerance and cooperation that is emerging in the new Canadian society, even as groups carve out their unique space.
Syed symbolizes this new era.
He is 55 years old, and spends his days mostly at the Mosque. He said that he worked for the School Board as an Information Technology specialist, playing a key role in building the Board’s website and setting up its online presence.
Syed migrated to Canada from Delhi, India, 18 years ago, with a background in Computers. He upgraded at Centennial College, and got a steady job at the School Board. He studied School Board Administration at Guelph University.
In 2002, Syed became a new resident in the Town of Ajax, and immediately found that no Muslim Mosque existed in the community. So he formed an organization, the Islamic Society of Ajax, to correct the anomaly.
The Islamic Society developed fast. “Because of this project, everything changed in this area; the project had a big impact on the area. I started this project in my basement as a little thing, with people coming to my house to pray. Today, it has grown to a net worth of $9 million,” he said.
Syed said the Islamic Society of Ajax bought the property north of the Christian Church for $1.2M, and plans are in train to build a plaza on the vacant lot.
The Society bought the property where the Mosque is, for $1.4M, and spent a further $2M on renovations.
With the vision to create projects that drive jobs to Ajax, Syed said the Mosque now hosts top politicians and community leaders, and saw 7,000 visitors for the last Muslim festival, Eid.
“I believe in commitment, dedication and ownership. We believe that if we live here, we should invest in and care for the community,” he said. Now, he is seeing “lots of Muslim families moving to this area, bringing businesses with them”. In fact, 1,200 people show up for prayers every Friday, Syed said.
“I want to be a Trustee on the School Board because Trustees implement policies and execute governance of the Board,” Syed said, noting that he feels deep “passion for education”.
In fact, he studies the future of education, and sees a future where students would learn and be educated remotely, “not in classrooms. I think the future of education is what we see with Khan Academy, the online learning platform,” he said.
Syed backed this up with telling stats, noting that “80% of all Ontario’s School Board Administration is online, and of the 73 School Boards in Ontario, 43 are closing because of low enrollment”.
He backs a system wherethe Board gives parents the right to decide on such controversial issues as sex-ed in the education curriculum.
Modest, with an engaging personality and a quiet demeanour, Syed said he loves Canada, and wants to contribute to the future of the nation. “Canada is a place where the Rule of Law applies, and I love that. Canadians are disciplined and work hard, and literacy here is high”.
But he said the backlash against Muslims after 9/11 in the US caused him to dedicate his energy to change the public perception towards Muslims. “Now, I am seeing great progress. We see 99% of politicians visiting us at the Mosque. At all levels, politicians are now our good friends,” he said.
And on the question of terrorism? “Only people who are illiterate, and affected gross poverty and with bad leaders resort to terrorism. Terrorism is not related to any religion. Literacy is the key thing for any human being. Knowledge is the key. We have to push education to everybody, and that eradicates terrorism,” he said.
Syed said he believes in communication, cooperation and collaboration. “People just want to survive and take care of their family. We must foster understanding of these things. Humans are same anywhere, of any background. My role is to educate society about Islam and to create an atmosphere of trust and friendship. Human values are important, not our differences,” Syed said, emphasizing that “we should show respect and love to each other, and that’s how I set out to live my life”.
Syed ranked among a plethora of Muslim and new immigrant candidates in the recent Municipal elections, looking to contribute to the leadership and governance of their community. Many adopt strong Canadian values – such things as free speech and accountability and democratic values – and show tremendous commitment to Canada, rather than their country of origin. In Ajax, new immigrants are asserting the new Canada, while fully embracing core Canadian values.
Waqqas Syed serves this new Canadian society with futuristic vision.