TORONTO - Shahzad Mustafa remembers thinking of his own childhood when a worker from the Children's Aid Society visited his mosque to talk about the importance of Muslim families fostering children of the same faith.
His mother had taken in three Muslim foster children for a few months when he was young — an experience he said had a profound impact on his life.
As the CAS worker told the congregation in Markham, Ont., last year about the scarcity of Muslim foster families in the region, Mustafa says he was struck by a need to act — a feeling that eventually motivated him to launch an organization dedicated to encouraging Muslims in the Greater Toronto Area to become foster caregivers.
"We should be looking after our kids and we should be part of a bigger solution," the 50-year-old told The Canadian Press.
"As immigrant communities become more prominent within Canadian society, there needs to be more outreach within those communities to bring more families into the foster-care movement."
The organization, called FosterLink, launched in March with support from Mercy Mission Canada, a Muslim community development group that Mustafa is the director of.
FosterLink hosts events at mosques to raise awareness about fostering and connect with potential caregivers, Mustafa said. So far, it has recruited about 50 people who are going through a months-long application process that could see them become foster parents.
"We've definitely seen a huge interest," he said. "The intake process is very rigorous ... foster care isn't meant for everyone and there are strict requirements."
According to the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, between 2016 and 2017 there were almost 13,000 children and youth in care during any given month.
The Children's Aid Society of Toronto didn't provide exact figures on how many Muslim children are in foster care, but said there was a need for more caregivers of that faith.
"We understand that when we take kids from one culture and put them in homes that are of a different culture, that is not in their best interest," said Mahesh Prajapat, Chief Operating Office of CAS Toronto.
"Identity is critical, but it's not just identity. It's the feeling that you are somewhere comfortable...from food...to customs."
Fostering children involves looking after a child who is under the temporary care of Children's Aid until their original guardians are deemed fit enough to take them back or the child is adopted.
To become a foster parent through Children's Aid, families must complete a home study evaluation to see if their homes meet safety standards, according to the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies. Caregivers also undergo training where families learn about abuse and neglect a child may have faced.
For Reshma Niazi, one of a few Muslim foster parents in the Greater Toronto Area, providing a supportive temporary home for a child of her faith is a way of following the teachings of her religion.
Islam, she said, teaches the importance of caring for your neighbours, something fostering allows her to do.
"You know in your heart that you're purely doing this for the sake of the child, this isn't about you anymore," she said. "This is about giving back to the community, giving back to these children who just need temporary homes."
Niazi and her husband became foster parents 13 years ago and have cared for between 15 and 20 children, she said. The couple also have a son and two adopted children, one of whom is a former foster child she cared for.
While fostering isn't easy, it's incredibly rewarding, said Niazi, who has encouraged other Muslim families to become foster caregivers as well.
"For the couple of weeks, couple of months, your life changes. Now you've got this extra person in the house," she said. "When you give the child back, you know you did your piece."