Volleyball Canada


Volleyball is helping build bridges with the Muslim community in Winnipeg

Community spotlight: The third in a series of stories highlighting communities that are volleyball’s Sport for All grant recipients. The Community Sport for All Initiative (CSAI) component of the Sport Support Program seeks to remove barriers and increase sport participation rates for underrepresented groups.

Young Muslim girls, many both newcomers to Canada and to the sport of volleyball, can’t stop smiling as they learn how to hit the ball over the net in the gym at the Grand Mosque in Winnipeg.

The biggest smile though is on the face of Alia Harb, one of nine coaches specially trained to run this new volleyball drop-in program.

“I was really pumped after I came out of the coaching training. I’m super excited not just about playing the sport but having an intentional direction on where we want to go with this,” Harb says.

Harb, who was born in Canada, played volleyball in high school, and used to run a less structured program here at the Mosque for a handful of youth who, like her, love the sport. But that program fizzled out because of the pandemic. 

"When Carolyn (from the Winnipeg Newcomer Sport Academy) first introduced this idea of partnering with Volleyball Manitoba, I was excited," says Harb, who is now offering the biggest volleyball program in the Mosque’s history.  She adds, "it's a very agreeable sport, most girls or women like to do because it's not as aggressive as other contact sports and it’s a lot of fun."

Still Harb says there is one big barrier that she needed to overcome for this program to be successful because for some newcomers from Muslim countries, not many girls and women participate in sport.

One of my deep passions particularly for young Muslim women is to empower their identity and let them know that they can be who they want to be not this prescribed notion of what society thinks we are.

Alia Harb

Harb says this volleyball program offers so many benefits for the women including helping them socialize and make friends, as well as being good for their physical and mental health. 

“Bringing it to the Mosque they can see older sisters like me who have grown up here and I can share my experience. This gives them a place where they can feel comfortable, ask questions, and get excited about sport.”

She gets a lot of questions from parents and can allay their concerns right away.

“I am a proud practicing Muslim woman enjoying a healthy lifestyle (with sport), and I can really connect to some of the parents and their hopes, and the reasons why they came to Canada to offer an opportunity for their young girls to be different in the society.”

Some of the parents want to know how Muslim cultural norms will be followed.

“We tell them the gym is very private.  It’s exclusively used by us. We still get to wear a hijab. There are no males there. It’s just generally a girls’ club.”

The Grand Mosque is also hosting a volleyball drop-in for Muslim high school boys on another night throughout the summer, which will be coached by men.

This is one of 30 different initiatives being implemented by community sport and settlement organizations across the country for Volleyball Canada after it was awarded $425,000 this year from Sport Canada. This is part of Sport Canada’s Community Sport for All initiative aimed at offering sporting opportunities to equity deserving groups.

This volleyball program is the brainchild of Carolyn Trono, who is the founder of the Winnipeg Newcomer Sport Academy.

Trono competed in rowing as a coxswain at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and has worked in different capacities in the Canadian sports system ever since.

The Winnipeg Newcomer Sport Academy began in 2019 after Trono found the mainstream sport system wasn’t doing a good job of reaching newcomers who have just arrived in Canada in the last five years.

“I’ve worked in the sports system for 30 plus years and I think we make assumptions that everybody knows about mainstream sports and how to access their programs. But they don't. Newcomers don't know where to go and where to find those welcoming environments,” Trono says.

Trono adds even for some newcomers who do know where to go, it can be really intimidating for them to join mainstream activities outside their environment and with all the other challenges they have going on in their lives when it comes to resettlement.

“The significance of this grant is we can have a quality volleyball environment in places where people feel comfortable participating, where they already feel welcome. So, they can learn and they're not having to navigate a system that is quite foreign to them,” Trono says.

Trono’s organization brought in Volleyball Manitoba and with the financial assistance of the grant from Sport Canada, Volleyball Manitoba provided advice on the right size balls for the different age groups, nets and padding. Volleyball Manitoba also offered coaching sessions to ensure the program can continue well beyond this summer.

Trono says the aim of programs like this one is to provide newcomer children with economically accessible and quality sport programming that helps them integrate into their new community.

Harb, whose husband came to Canada from Syria 24 years ago, has witnessed first-hand how that works. 

“From my own experience, witnessing my husband go through it, I think sport offered him a community that really gave him a sense of belonging, which is especially important for newcomers,” Harb says.

One of the key things the Newcomer Sport Academy looks at is removing any barriers that arise from the rigid structures, regulations and bylaws sport has put in place. For example, Trono had a Muslim girl in one of her programs who was playing soccer and wanted to join a soccer club in the community.  The girl was told she couldn’t wear a long sleeve shirt and had to wear shorts which made the activity not very welcoming for her.

“These systems and structures block people from entering (sport). We keep saying we want to grow sport, but what are we really doing to make that happen?  That’s kind of my mission,” Trono says.

She says sport organizations need to be both more deliberate and flexible to adapt their activities based on the norms in different communities, like they’ve done at the Grand Mosque.

“If we really want more diversity in sport, if we truly want to welcome newcomers into our programs, we need to make the effort authentically to make it happen. Putting up a poster just isn't good enough.”

The hope is some of the participants here may take a liking to volleyball through this program and feel comfortable enough down the road to play in tournaments with other teams in Winnipeg that will help with their integration.  That way, this can turn into a cultural exchange with Canadian children.

“That's my long-term hope to see how we can make that trajectory and connection because I don't want it to be just our community. I want it to be bridge building with other teams throughout Manitoba who play volleyball,” Harb says.

Trono, whose son is Muslim, says this program will hopefully create better understanding between cultures and take aim at Islamophobia. She’s hoping to see non-Muslim teams play at the Mosque or Muslim youth play in tournaments in other communities.

“We’ll see where it goes. Maybe they go play a friendly match at a school or teams come play at the Mosque and there’s a bit of a cultural exchange where everybody learns from each other,” Trono says.

Trono says in other programs she’s put together with newcomers, what starts out as a sport activity has much greater benefits.

“What I hear from the Canadian born leaders (in some of our other programs) is how much it's expanded their world view,” Trono says.

Harb says she’s already had some great conversations with leaders in the volleyball community around the hijab, other Muslim traditions, and sport in general.

“It’s a way to start these conversations and build relationships. There are different ways to build relationships (between cultures) and sport is one of them. So, I'm very excited to see what lies ahead.”

Trono says from her experience, a handful of participants are likely going to be interested in going much further in the sport and they’ll provide guidance on how to do that.

"What we find with almost any of our sport activities is yes, we provide exposure to sport like volleyball in this case and then, we often have three or four kids who want to do more.”

Harb says it is hard to predict exactly how things may go at the Mosque but she also has a long-term dream.

She would like to see more Muslim youth like NHL player Nazem Kadri, or Ibtihaj Muhammad who won a bronze medal in fencing representing the United States at the Rio 2016 Olympics wearing a hijab.

Harb would like to see that happen more with athletes representing Canada, maybe even in volleyball.

"In Winnipeg, we have Obby Khan, who played football (in the CFL) and who is now an MLA in the province.  It’s exposing newcomers to the idea that this is possible,” Harb says.

She adds, "it would be great to see a Muslim woman wearing a hijab make it on the public arena in sport in Canada."

Winnipeg - Sport for All