Mosque celebrates peace

A template for acceptance and tolerance.

That was how Morwell Sergeant Ben McWilliam described the silent emergence of a mosque on Victor Street, Morwell that opened in April.

The Light of the Hidayah, a Burmese term for guidance, was built by the Karen community who arrived in Australia in the late 2000s after living as refugees in a camp on the border of Myanmar and Thailand.

As Muslims in other areas of Victoria struggle to build a worship place the Karen community peacefully built their mosque without opposition. photograph hayley mills

As Muslims in other areas of Victoria struggle to build a worship place the Karen community peacefully built their mosque without opposition. photograph hayley mills

Sergeant McWilliam, a popular police figure in the multicultural community, said he was not aware that a new mosque was built in Morwell until he received an invitation from the group during an open mosque day in April.

"These guys have been great. They're writing the textbook, they're developing the template on how to be accepted in the community," he said.

Jo Ning, whose family was the first of the Karens to move into Morwell last year, said they were initially looking for an affordable home when they came to town.

Mr Ning a son of the group's Imam, Ayoub Khan, said the family all chipped in to find an affordable place to live in as his father, being a religious leader, was prevented from taking a loan from the bank.

"We went to Pakenham then to Moe until we found this place in Morwell," he recalled.

While doing a home renovation with the family coming to Morwell every week from Noble Park, Jo said his mother and grandmother went around and found a place to build a mosque.

They could not afford the place then drove around and ended up in a former medical clinic on Victor Street and decided to build the mosque there.

Mr Ning said it took them only one day to receive council's approval for a permit to build the mosque.

He said they initially lodged an application to build an Islamic centre but was advised by council to do an application for a worship centre instead.

He was surprised that they received an approval in one day.

Ten members of the Burmese community offered to lend $25,000 each to pay the Victor Street facility.

Mr Ning said the area was full of rubbish and needed a lot of work.

"It was like a jungle – it was very dark. It took our ute 30-40 times of rounds to dump the rubbish," he said.

Mr Khan, the Karen's religious leader, said the community's response while they were doing renovation work was fantastic.

He said one of the neighbours he identified only as Mark dragged a long power cord to the facility when he saw the men working without electricity.

John Shaban, a member of the Gippsland Australian Muslim Community Incorporated, said neighbours were happy when the Karens opened the mosque as the area was previously abandoned with some people reportedly doing antsocial behaviour.

"Now there's a garden, there's a fence, they're very happy," he said.

Sergeant McWilliam described the Karens as a friendly community and said the police anticipated a new emerging community coming to the area.

Mr Ning said five Karen families had recently moved to Morwell and that 50 more families had already bought a home in the area and were just waiting for the school holidays to move in.

But the Karens were not the only ones using the mosque for prayer.

About 50 men from different cultural backgrounds have join the Karens for a Friday afternoon prayer.

Sergeant McWilliam said he is happy to work with the Karens who were initially terrified to see a police officer because of the years of trauma they suffered as refugees.

"Now the police are a friend to us," Mr Ning said.

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