On Monday, like every other year after a month of fasting for Ramadan, Hikma Musa will skip class to celebrate Eid al-Fitr.
She is among many students at Brooks Composite High School who are marked absent while they are with family and friends celebrating the Islamic holiday.
About one third of students at the school are Muslim, and each year, unless their parents call in, attending celebrations affects their attendance.
But that will change for Musa's final year of high school, thanks to the advocacy work of students and administrators at the school in Brooks, Alta., which is about 185 kilometres southeast of Calgary.
Next year, all students enrolled in the Grasslands Public Schools district will have a day off for Eid al-Fitr.
"You feel included… it's like maybe I can belong to this place," said Musa, one of several students who spoke up for the change.
Grade 12 student Abdi Dawe says being listened to feels empowering for him and the students who come after him.
"I was actually surprised, and impressed and thankful," he said.
"I just try to speak up for everybody and bring awareness."
A 'sense of belonging'
The idea to grant the day off for Eid came out of student focus groups put together through a research project at the University of Calgary.
From there, the request by students worked its way up through administrative levels in the school district.
Rahat Zaidi, whose research at the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary focuses on community connections and racialized minorities in public education, says a team at the school worked to create a space where students could feel heard about their problems.
"Basically, we started talking about what the nature of the challenges were for these students," she said.
Zaidi said there is a high newcomer population in the southeastern Albertan school district, where more than 35 per cent of the population are Muslim.
In discussions with students, administrators and researchers heard from racialized students about their every day experiences.
"We felt that some part of the population did not feel represented…they wanted their voices to be heard," said Joseph Octavious, a family liaison for newcomers in Grasslands Public Schools.
Michelle Veroba, vice-principal at Brooks Composite High School, says the day off is about creating "that sense of belonging" for students.
Students at the school have also taken to social media to raise awareness about issues that affect them, and say they've inspired other nearby communities to do the same.
Grade 12 student Tolu Ayeni, who also advocated to have a day off for Eid, says she started speaking up last year during Black History Month when she felt more could be done to honour the month.
"I just hope to see more awareness toward a lot of different topics," she said.
"To see more people being comfortable with having these conversations and to know that they have support and there are people behind them."
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