Green Leaders is new online series, profiling Muslims who are involved in the environmental movement. The goal is to highlight the achievements of those within our community and provide role models for the youth who are interested in pursuing a career in an environmentally-related field. This week we follow Siraj Berhan, one of the founders of the Green Scholarship Organization that has developed an innovative way of raising environmental awareness while investing in the next generation of Muslim leaders.
1) Briefly explain your educational and professional background. What piqued your interest in the sustainability field? Was there a defining cause, person or event that was your source of inspiration? What possible career options do you have in mind?
After completing my Bsc. in Computer Science from York University I’ve continued my career in Information Technology. I have over 16 years of progressive software development, management, training, and coaching work experience in a number of companies ranging from start-ups to medium size and large enterprise including IBM, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, CPNI, Novator Systems, and RBC.
My interest in the environment and sustainability increased over the years especially as I’ve been fortunate to travel to a number of countries and experience different cultures. We are blessed in Canada to have an abundance of water and natural resources compared to other parts of the world
I remember going to a BBQ in Toronto a few summers ago at a public park with a couple of dozen people. We had a good time, but I remember feeling disappointed at the amount of waste, especially how we had used up cases of disposable plastic bottles with so much water wasted! I think we can change the world by starting with ourselves, even in small steps.
I’ve got some big dreams: Along with my passion for the environment, I’m learning more about Islamic financing which can be a topic for another day!
2) Describe what the Green Scholarship Organization is about. How did the theme arise? What is its mandate and what are some of the previous projects? Where do you see the organization moving towards in the future?
The Green Scholarship Organization is a registered non-profit organization established in 2013 in Toronto with the aim of investing in the next generation in terms of environmental sustainability and access to education.
The theme for the organization arose after the successful trial of our first program: “Savings for the next generation – Reusable Water Bottles” in which we were able to raise awareness about environmental waste and channeling the savings from waste reduction towards a scholarship program for those entering post-secondary. Our initial theme focused on minimizing the waste during Ramadan at a local Masjid in terms of minimizing the administration costs in buying, managing, and disposing of plastic bottles of water.
The mandate of the organization evolved as we found a niche of bridging environmental awareness with putting together a revenue model for scholarship funding for underprivileged children and youth. Our other program during the summer was the “Community Reuse Program” in June 2013 where we had a tremendous response in terms of donated reusable electronic items.
The organization is still in its infancy. We have a lot potential for growth in terms of executing on our mandate. In the future we are exploring partnership with other institutions.
3) This project has brought together individuals from a diverse range of professional and religious backgrounds (leadership team). What have been some of the benefits of entering into this project as a team? Do you all share the same passion for environmental/social justice issues or has there been a defined leader who spearheads the group?
I think the organization benefits tremendously from the diversity of the leadership team. We have experienced professionals from various backgrounds who are able to leverage their experience and network to bring the vision of the organization into reality. It’s a blessing from Allah that we were able to come together as a team. I might have been the kick starter for promoting environmental sustainability, but it was Mohammad Ashraf who is a board member who was instrumental in forming together the group. Dr. Reda brings his wisdom and years of community involvement in Canada and the US while Mohammed H. Ahmed has a passion for youth programs.
Coming together as a team in building this organization seemed a natural evolution to merge our fields of interest, especially when tackling a challenging subject of environmental sustainability and investing in our youth.
One of the main benefits of being in such a team is that we can grow in different directions and learn from each other. We might have different experiences or levels of development in addressing environmental or social justice issues, but at the end of the day what matters as a team is that each of us cares.
4) One of your earlier projects involved replacing disposable water bottles with reusable ones in the mosque. Why did you choose water bottles as a keystone issue? What was the response from the community? What are some lessons you learned from this experience? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Our first pilot program was called: “Savings for the next generation – Reusable Water Bottles.” The program started about half way through Ramadan and it lasted for about 15 days until Eid.
The reason disposable plastic water bottles was the focus of the program is because as a community you see mostly the same people usually coming in for Iftar and Shur and we would go through hundreds of disposable plastic water bottles every day and unfortunately most of them are more than half full or almost full by the time it goes to garbage or recycling!
The response from the community was positive – we sold about 100 reusable aluminum bottles raising about $1100 eliminating the use of 5,800 plastic bottles which saved about $2000.
At first the biggest challenge was raising an awareness for the program. We worked with the management of the Masjid to include our posters, flyers, and announcements. I think one of the lessons learned to make this type of program succeed is the need for better cohesive integration with the Masjid’s administration. For instance, there were occasions where donors brought cases and cases of disposable plastic bottles of water to the Masjid.
5) Are there any parallels you can describe between Islam and the environment specific to your career path? How has your faith been a source or inspiration or direction in your life (both professionally and personally)? What is one environmental message you like the Muslim community to adopt?
I think there are definitely parallels between Islam as a way of life and any career path you choose to take. For example, my career path included experiences in mentoring, coaching, facilitation, managing, and leadership which I think continues to serve me well when being involved in various community non-profit programs.
I believe we can change the world we live in by changing ourselves, even in small steps. I know Islam encourages that change is within our influence. Of course we have the power of Dua’ or prayer. We also have numerous teachings of our Prophet Mohammed, peace and blessing upon him, that shows us how to live a charitable life. We are taught that simply smiling, planting a tree, or removing harm from the road are all acts of charity that are encouraged in Islam.
The Quran teaches us not to be excessive and wasteful (Surat Al-'An`am [6:141]). In fact, we should be an example and leaders in environmental sustainability for others to follow. That starts at home with our families and extends to our communities and institutions. For example, the next time you plan on having a BBQ think of how to make that more ‘green’!
6) Can you you provide any advice for someone considering a career in the environmental field? Are there any lessons you have learned, mentors who were influential or causes that influenced you so far? What advice can you provide to those considering starting their own environmental non-profit?
I’m not sure I can offer an advice on a career in the environmental field. I understand it’s a growing field that’s becoming more “Mainstream”
I believe you have to have a desire to be in a field to excel in it. I think we definitely need more people who not only care about environmental sustainability, but also have the tools, support, experience, and the empowerment to make some badly needed changes
I think to succeed you can’t work alone. Partnering up with others who care and working with other organization takes some discipline, patience, and effective communication, but it’s worth it to have a stronger momentum.
I’ve been fortunate to have had strong positive influences and excellent support from my family including my parents and my wife who have always given me the boost to pursue my dreams.
In the end, when considering pursuing your own dream in the environmental field, you have to start with the right intention of doing it for the sake of Allah. Start small, reach out to others who you can partner with, but be persistent to execute an idea on your own from start to finish.