SYDNEY // Muslim volunteers in Australia are leading efforts to clean up one of the most polluted areas of Sydney, highlighting the Islamic community’s growing involvement in environmental issues.
The Mizaan project, meaning balance in Arabic, aims to provide eco-warriors a spiritual experience as as well practical guidance in helping to regenerate native flora and fauna.
On a warm morning, eager hands tear at weeds that have infested the banks of the Cooks River, which snakes through Sydney’s suburban sprawl and where plastic bottles and other waste slowly drift past in the murky water.
These “caretakers of Mother Earth” are led by Nelley Youssef, who is studying nursing at university, and is on a mission to clean up a stretch of one of Australia’s dirtiest and most contaminated rivers.
“Islam encourages us to look after our environment because it is like the lungs of our body. Our responsibility and duty as Muslims is to look after the Earth,” said Ms Youssef, a member of the Al Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences and Human Development, a Sydney-based community organisation.
“The reason why we are doing this is because there is a tradition of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, where he has told us that we should be looking after … one of God’s creations and by looking after it you get rewarded for it and you have a closer connection with God almighty. It helps strengthen your faith as well. Taking care of our surroundings gives us all a real sense of belonging.”
“You have got to do the hard yakka [work], get into the weeds and get a bit dirty,” said Bilal Obeid, his face dripping with sweat and his breath heavy from the exertion of another day of trying to subdue the invasive vegetation.
Like many of his colleagues, Mr Obeid was motivated by environmental concerns and the tenets of his Islamic faith. “It is definitely a form of worship what we are doing, every weed we pull and every seedling we plant. Religion is not just on the tongues or within the hearts and we need to follow our knowledge with action. I like to come and give back to the land. A lot of the world is suffering at the moment and this is a positive and sustainable way of helping the environment.”
The Mizaan ecology scheme has been running for three years and its dedicated band of enthusiasts has planted more 4,500 native trees, including dozens of different species, which have helped to fortify a crumbling riverbank, creating a lush sanctuary for animals and insects.
“It’s like a mini-forest. It is a good feeling and we are making a difference step by step,” said Murisa Hasanovic, 20, who arrived in Australia from Bosnia nine years after her father was killed in the civil war, and was eager to do her bit to spruce up a small corner of her adopted homeland.
“Basically whatever God has created, including the environment, is placed in our trust, so we have to take care of it. If we don’t we will be questioned about it. We are trying to play a part, as little as it seems.”
The endeavours of these weekend conservationists has also caught the attention of non-Muslims, among them Jews and Christians, who have been keen to help nature thrive in the middle of Australia’s largest city. Kristin Kolodziej, 26, has volunteered as part of her rehabilitation following the amputation of her right hand, lost to a blood disorder.
“It is good to be out because I was in hospital recently for quite a while,” said Ms Kolodziej, who was right-handed before the ravages of a staphylococcal infection. “It is my reality now. I either deal with it or I choose to lie in bed every day and cry,” she added as she clutched a trowel and gardening glove during a morning’s hard labour.
The Mizaan volunteers have other decaying urban areas in their sights once the ambitious Cooks River initiative is finally completed in the months ahead.
Their indefatigable efforts, which have drawn praise from across the local community, have presented a positive impression of Australia’s Islamic minority that is far removed from the tired stereotypes that persist of Muslims as closeted, religiously fundamentalist and anti-western. “This is a great way to introduce a new image of Muslims, particularly Muslim women,” said Norhan Youssef, 32, one of the volunteers.
“It is also a great way of introducing a new culture, a new religion or a new thought among society as a whole.”