Play, Grow, Repeat

The Al Rashid Youth Club is turning play into a firm foundation

It’s difficult to trace the history of the Al Rashid Mosque’s Friday Night Lights program, which is a testament to how deep its roots run in Edmonton’s Muslim community.

The Al Rashid Youth Club was founded in 1995 and since then has been operated by a board of eight to 12 elected youths. Somewhere along the way, the idea of boys’ Friday night ball hockey sprung up and soon enough it was a weekly staple. As the ball hockey nights grew in popularity, they also outgrew the gym at the mosque and had to be moved to the larger gyms at the Edmonton Islamic Academy. The program’s popularity further meant that in 2011, the organizers decided to create a program specifically for girls. They needed a name to distinguish the boys’ program from the girls’, and given the program’s time and ambitions beyond being just a ball hockey night, the name Friday Night Lights seemed like a perfect fit.

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“If you call it ‘Friday Hockey’ you limit yourself to just hockey. So we decided to find a name that would work,” says Mohammed Younes, a medical student and former president of the Al Rashid Youth Club. “I’m not sure if [the Youth Club member who suggested the name] had recently seen the movie and was inspired by that, but that’s how the name came up.”

Despite sharing a name, the similarities between the Youth Club’s weekly gym night and the sports movie franchise all but end there. For the long-running youth program, the objectives are a lot more intrinsic than state championships and gridiron glory. When the lights turn on and the crowd of excited boys floods into the gymnasium, winning and losing doesn’t matter as much as having fun and learning a few lessons along the way.

“We always try to schedule a talk for the youth,” Younes says, reflecting on the educational element the Youth Club began integrating into the gym nights. “So that talk would be something inspirational, whether it’s sharing a story or going over an Islamic lesson on the importance of not wasting food, for example.

“That was one of the big benefits a lot of parents wanted when they would send their kids. They loved that their kids were being active and playing sports, but they also really wanted to make sure that their kids were praying and taking away some kind of Islamic benefit.”

Recent years have seen the Youth Club take on more responsibilities in addition to the gym night, including organizing socials and outings and overseeing the Al Rashid Hockey League. This past April also saw the Youth Club mark the end of Ramadan with an Eid Carnival that attracted over 3,000 guests for an evening featuring bouncy castles, carnival games, fireworks and a petting zoo. The carnival was the result of weeks of planning, and just the latest outgrowth from the Friday Night Lights program.

“Friday Night Lights has always been our foundational program,” says Younes. “The thing that makes me the most proud is that Friday Night Lights was the engine to create so many of the other programs at the Al Rashid Youth Club.”

Part of what makes Friday Night Lights so foundational is the sense of responsibility it instills in the program’s participants. As the participants get older and age out of the games and activities, they’re often encouraged to assume mentorship and coaching roles for the program’s younger attendees. It was that steady progression that eventually led Younes to assume a leadership role within the Youth Club and it is a tradition that continues to this day.

“I encourage high schoolers to come, but I give them some responsibility,” says Imran Qureshi, current Youth Director at the Al Rashid Mosque. “I’ll tell them to go and collect the drop-in fees, make sure everybody is paired up, make sure everybody is picking up after themselves. So even as young as the 10th Grade we’re trying to give them experience as well.”

The success of the program also comes with added costs, particularly with regard to renting gym time, replacing sports equipment, paying for additional supervision and ensuring that youth in need of transportation have a safe ride to and from the gym nights. Support in the form of an Edmonton Community Foundation grant has helped cover some of those expenses and ensure that the gym nights are delivered at little to no cost for the program participants. The grant also helped kick start Generation of Change, the Youth Club’s weekly girls program focused on sports and mentorship.

Although it started off as a weekly gym night, the hope is for Friday Night Lights to continue to expand beyond its regular time slot. This past year saw the Youth Club organize a hike up the Coliseum Mountain and a Pigeon Lake winter camp. Aside from giving the youth a chance to be in nature, the outings also taught them important lessons about teamwork, community and respect — in short, everything Friday Night Lights is all about.

“It’s a very multicultural community,” Qureshi says, speaking of the array of youth he has seen participating in the program. “We have Lebanese kids, Pakistani kids, Somali kids, Eritrean kids … we’re not targeting any specific nationality or any culture. It’s a very mixed group.”

“So kids are welcome to bring their own neighborhood friends out as long as they know the three rules, which are respect the property, respect each other and respect the environment. That’s all they have to follow.”

This story comes from the Fall 2023 edition of Legacy in Action. Read the full issue.