How many times a day would you like to take the shuttle and go to Lot O, one of the most remote parts of campus? Once? Maybe three times? Certainly not five, right?
That is what faced the McMaster Muslim Students Association in March of 2013.
Before the demolition of Wentworth House, the MSA had prayer, storage and office space in the building.
“The prior MSA office had a room for brothers and sisters, and it was connected with a door in the middle,” said Zarak Aslam, the MSA’s public relations representative.
“The Wentworth space was great—very central, and the room set up was such that you could very easily interact between brothers and sisters.”
When news of the building’s impending demolition reached the MSA and other tenants of Wentworth House, like MACycle and the Photo Club, they were told that an adequate replacement would be found.
Initially, a temporary structure near Lot O was suggested as a space for the MSA. Lot O is one of the most far-reaching points on campus—accessed via shuttle, taking passengers over the bridge behind Mary Keyes Hall. Because space can be hard to come by, this was seen to be the only option for the University.
The problem is that many Muslim students pray five times each day—a ritual made incredibly inconvenient if one needs to shuttle to prayer every time.
Once word got out about the troubles facing the MSA’s acquisition of new space, McMaster and Facility Services began to reach out and look for more feasible solutions.
“After the article was written in The Silhouette last year, things got moving… It brought attention to the problem. Not only our problem, but also the other organizations in that building,” said Aslam.
He continued: “[McMaster] was willing to do whatever it took to get our accommodations set up.”
Between April and August of 2013, while the school was less crowded, Facility Services worked to ensure that a new space would be ready for September’s arrival of students.
Now, two former classrooms in T13—the bunker-type building next to the Engineering Technology Building—are devoted to the MSA, to be used for storage, meetings and daily prayer.
The University even paid for changes to be made with the aim of accommodating the club. Carpeting was installed (necessary for men and women who spend their prayer time kneeling) and other adjustments made.
“[Facility Services] let us choose what kind of carpeting, we were able to get that in—they installed that over the summer,” said Aslam. “Since we are in two rooms now, they even offered to set up an intercom in-between. So now we have the speakers and the microphone going between rooms.”
When the Fall term of 2013 began, the room was prepared for occupancy.
Of the transition, Aslam said, “We are pretty much settled in and things are going well. Honestly, it’s been a great blessing.”
When Amina Khan and Yusra Munawar were told last year that their on-campus prayer room would be torn down, they didn’t hit the panic button.
Khan and Munawar, executive members of the McMaster Muslim Students Association, were assured by the university that they would be relocated before Wentworth House, home of their space, was demolished.
Now, with a few weeks left until eviction, the MSA and other student groups in Wentworth House are still looking for answers.
“Everybody’s scrambling. They’re trying to find spots for us in random places on campus, trying to find temporary solutions. We don’t know how long we’ll be in those spaces and it’s just really frustrating,” said Khan.
The MSA has more than 1,000 Muslim student members at McMaster and has two rooms in Wentworth House that allow up to 100 students to pray at a time.
“We were clear about our requirements – that the [new] space needs to be carpeted. It needs to be a large, accommodating area that’s accessible to campus in order for Muslim students to pray there. Surprisingly, the space we were given is anything but that,” said Khan.
Recently, several tenants including the MSA were told they would likely be moving to a portable unit in Lot O. The lot is about 1.5 km from campus, located past the bridge behind the Mary E. Keyes building. Shuttle buses run from campus to Lot O between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. Monday to Friday.
“Muslim students pray five times a day between classes,” said Khan. “A place that needs a shuttle bus to reach is completely unacceptable to the Muslim community.”
Khan and Munawar said if the MSA had to temporarily move to Lot O, students would end up praying in various nooks on campus.
“You can’t fit a thousand Muslim students in hallways of libraries and little corners across campus,” said Khan.
About two weeks ago, representatives from four groups located in the Wentworth House came together in hopes of getting their individual needs across with more impact.
“We’re deeply concerned there hasn’t been uniformity in the communication between McMaster and the tenants,” said Norm Pase, vice-president (external) of CUPE 3906.
Pase started an open Facebook group Monday called “Save Our Space: Wentworth House Shutting Down” to create a forum for the parties involved.
The MACycle bike co-op, owned and operated by the McMaster Students Union, finds itself in the same position as the MSA and CUPE 3906.
MACycle director Connor Bennett knew that relocating would be a big project. He did some research on his own last summer, feeling a “slight sense of urgency.” Even so, he assumed a space would be secured by March.
“When you’re told not to worry, it’s nice to hear, especially when you’re dealing with school. I feel silly at this point, seeing how unprepared they are. Now we’re getting to the end of March and they’re saying, ‘we need your help,’” he said.
Bennett said MACycle having to move twice is the worst-case scenario because it has so many pieces of bike equipment.
“This has worried me a lot. I care about MACycle. A lot of people care about it,” said Bennett. He said that moving to Lot O temporarily would discourage cyclists from using the co-op because of the uphill ride afterward.
Roger Couldrey, McMaster’s vice-president of administration, said he was surprised tenants were worried about going to Lot O. He added that, so far, it’s only been decided that the McMaster Children’s Centre will move there by the end of April.
“It seems that what I’m being told isn’t fully understood by the tenants or wasn’t communicated to them,” he said.
Couldrey said an alternate space would be proposed to the MSA at a meeting on Friday. He said finding a space for MACycle would be more challenging but discussions are still ongoing.
However, Facility Services coordinator Robert Craik confirmed that Lot O would be a default solution if no other arrangements are made by the end of April.
For the tenants, getting mixed messages from Facility Services and the university's administration isn't new. David Campbell, the McMaster Students Union's VP (administration), expressed similar frustrations. He’s been advocating for some of the groups and asking for updates throughout the year.
“The first I heard about the Lot O decision was in January, and I was disappointed that that was the decision they came up with,” said Campbell.
The Photo Club's darkroom manager, Myles Francis, has been reaching out to administrators on his own since last spring, concerned about the darkroom being left behind.
“I felt like if I didn’t go out there and tell people that it existed, the building would have been demolished with the darkroom still there,” said Francis.
The Lodge, a temporary space for off-campus students in Wentworth House this year in lieu of the old Phoenix bar, seems to have been scrapped due to lack of space, according to coordinator Jennifer Kleven.
Francis didn’t want the same thing to happen to the darkroom.
Since February, Francis has been researching darkroom spaces in the downtown core, where he says involved students would be willing to go.
“I don’t like the idea of things being done for me that I feel I should have a hand in. I mean, nowadays who knows how to create a darkroom? Who knows what the darkroom needs, other than me?”
While they’re unsure of long-term plans, tenants aren’t giving up on their cause. But they’re not buying university officials’ advice to not worry.
“I think it’s an issue of prioritization on the university’s end,” Khan said. “Each club has different needs, but we’re united in that we all share the same space. Whatever we can do to help each other, we will.”
Photos by Anqi Shen.