By Emily Heyward

Imam Ibrahim Abdelhalim settles into the lounge chair in the corner of his living room. He takes his swollen left foot out of his sandal and rests it on top of his shoe. He has been plagued by a sore foot, brought on by eating too much bad food with his grandchildren, he says with a chuckle, so he hasn’t been sleeping very well lately. But it doesn’t stop him from getting on with his day. In fact, the mere thought of slowing down is enough to keep him going.  

“In my age, it’s easy for me, and no one can blame me if I sit relaxing, but I feel if I sit like that, it’s a sign of death,” he says.  

A senior member of the Muslim community in Ōtautahi, Ibrahim is the University of Canterbury’s first Muslim chaplain. He’s also the first non-Christian chaplain on campus. Appointed last July, Ibrahim saysit’s a huge “honour” to be able to support students and staff at UC, a place he has been connected with for over two decades. But he says it is also a “big responsibility”. 

“It became a very big responsibility. Why? Because I am very known to the people and I think I do the best without any authority, but now I have authority, and I have to do something better or much more than I did.” 

Ibrahim has guest-lectured at UC’s school of health sciences and led Friday prayers with students on campus. Now that he’s a chaplain here, he wants to get even more involved, saying he is looking at establishing a monthly general lecture, discussing any topic students, staff or the wider community are interested in hearing him talk about.  

Ibrahim’s voice is filled with passion and sincerity when he talks about his new role. He says his job is about listening, supporting and helping solve any issues people may be having.  

“Some students face some problem when they are studying, some of them fail an exam, or student allowance stop[s] and they need reference letters to StudyLink… I am here to give support, to give advice, to help, to solve any problem. If you face any problem, I can raise it with the university.” 

Ibrahim wants to emphasise that he is here to support all students and staff.  

“My responsibility is not only for the Muslim group. No, it’s for all the staff and all the students.” 

But while he is honoured to be in the role, Imam Ibrahim says it shouldn’t have taken an event like March 15 for a Muslim chaplain to be appointed at UC.  

“Canterbury University, from day one, they have only one faith; Christianity. It’s unfair… Canterbury University is a university for more than 70 nationalities. In the last 10 years, a lot of Muslim students, international Muslim students, coming to study at the university. So, it is unfair… It is important to be fair.  

“They try to offer something, to show the public, this university now support[s] the Muslim community. They tell me that,” he says. 

Ibrahim says while it’s “no trouble”, people need to recognise and accept that we are living in a diverse place. 

“We are living in a multi-cultural country. We have to understand that whether we like it or not. It adds strength when you have different faces, different nationalities, different ideas.” 

In 2019, Imam Ibrahim received the Anne Frank Interfaith Unity Award, and the Unit of Religions award by the United Nations in recognition of his spiritual leadership in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. He was leading Friday prayers at Linwood Mosque when the terrorist entered on March 15, 2019, killing seven people and injuring five others there.  

“I saw everything in front of my eye. My wife, one of the injured and my son, the youngest son, he istraumatised.” 

A further 44 people were killed, and 35 others were injured at Al Noor mosque.  

“It is something nobody can believe or imagine that something like that can happen in this country,” he says. Ibrahim says he tries to be strong and focus on the future despite what has happened and isn’tinterested in attending anniversary services. 

“What happened, it’s happened. Don’t need anything more. What is in our hearts is still in our hearts. 

“We need to show the whole world we are strong, we able to face all difficulties. This is part of our life; our life is not going straight, up and down up and down. How can we face our life like that?” 

A box of children’s toys sits almost overflowing in Ibrahim’s hallway. “These ones they love,” Ibrahim says, pointing at a bunch of multi-coloured toy balls. It’s clear he loves spending time with his grandchildren. He proudly shows off his latest yearly calendar, each month showcasing an array of family photos, a documentation of his growing grandchildren.  

And for someone who tries to always look to the future, Ibrahim has some advice for students facing another year of global uncertainty. 

“Number one is to care about yourself. Eat well, sleep well, study well as much as you can. Number two, you have to believe this is kind of [a] test, as you are looking for the test at the end to pass the exam, we are now in a test.  

“Number three, even if we have some shortage of facilities in studying here, don’t complain. As much as you can, do the best. Thinking for others before thinking of yourself. Very simple. Be sure that all hands open, and all ears open to listen, to help,” he says. 

Imam Ibrahim Abdelhalim rises from the lounge chair in the corner of his living room. He walks to his kitchen and returns with a chocolate fruit cake. 

“For you,” he says. A man filled with kindness.  

UC’s response to criticisms about the timing of appointing a Muslim chaplain: 

“UC is student-led, so it was following discussions with our Muslim community members in 2018, especially UC MUSA, that a Muslim chaplaincy at UC was appropriate. The search for a candidate to fill the role of UC Muslim Chaplain began in late 2018, but the tragic events of 15 March 2019 put the search on hold so that the more immediate needs of UC’s Muslim community could be prioritised.”