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As Trump Inauguration Approaches, Calls to Muslim Helplines Spike Beyond Capacity

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This file photo taken on December 20, 2015 shows a Muslim woman holding a poster during a protest in New York. KENA BETANCUR / AFP - Getty Images

Muslims in the United States are turning to two Canadian helplines to seek support following the U.S. election.

Naseeha, which caters to Muslim youth, and the NISA Helpline, a phone line geared toward Muslim women, offer toll-free and confidential service across North America. Both helplines said they have seen an increase of callers during and after the election.

According to Yaseen Poonah, the founder of Naseeha, the Toronto-area helpline has received a little more than 16,000 calls in 2016, a sharp increase from the 4,000 received in 2015.

Poonah said most of Naseeha's callers are from the U.S. He added that the organization is overwhelmed with the number of calls because counsellors can't always get to answer every single person who phones in.

"Sixteen thousand calls have come in, but we haven't answered that 100 percent. Our success rate is far less than that because a lot of calls come outside of our operating hours," Poonah told NBC News.

Naseeha, which means "advice" in Arabic, operates from Monday to Friday from 6 p.m to 9 p.m. Eastern time. But Poonah said many people call from cities like Vancouver or Los Angeles, who are in Pacific time.

"That's where we're overwhelmed because we want to access a lot of those calls that we're missing," he said.

Tanweer Ebrahim, the director of the Vancouver-based NISA helpline, which means "women" in Arabic, said her counselors are also dealing with significantly more callers.

She said calls went up from 3579 in 2015 to close to 4500 in 2016. Ebrahim added that the helpline saw a 3 to 4 percent increase in callers post-election, with many of them concerned about Trump's statements about Muslims. Before he was voted into office, the president-elect vowed to implement a database system to track Muslims in the United States.

"We have mothers fearing for the treatment of their children in school. And overall, they're worried for the future of their children with a Trump presidency," Ebrahim told NBC News.

"From university students, we also had a call about Republican clubs being formed that had legislation endorsing the white supremacist movement and establishing fear amongst Muslim students," she added. "Those are the major concerns from callers."

Yaseen Poonah, the founder of Naseeha, a Toronto-based phone helpline for Muslim youth. Courtesy of Yaseen Poonah

Both Poonah and Ebrahim are expecting to see even more people calling their helplines after Inauguration Day.

For that reason, they say they are always in need of support when it comes to funding and getting more counsellors to volunteer their time to help.

"Looking at the increasing volume of calls we've received since our launch, there is a need," Ebrahim said. "We would be very pleased not to miss any calls, but, there are certain times and days where the influx of calls is just enormous."

To prepare for Inauguration Day, Naseeha is looking for other ways to offer a lending hand. Poonah said his team is currently gathering a list of different organizations and resources in the U.S. they can direct callers to.

"Although we're first-line support, we might not have answers for everything," he said. "We want to make sure that they are partnered up with the right people."

But while Naseeha and the NISA helpline often struggle to keep up with the number of calls they receive, both Ebrahim and Poonah said they are providing an essential service for Muslims.

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"Whether it's Muslim youth or any youth, it's our contribution to society and it's what our religion teaches us: to help others with what you want for yourself," Poonah said.

Formed in 2006, Naseeha was created because Poonah felt that Muslim youth could benefit from talking to a younger counselor from a similar religious, cultural, and ethnic background.

"Trust is a big element. They're calling a mental health line that's not only based on their ethnic and religious values. They're talking to a peer who's between 18 to 35," he said.

Tanweer Ebrahim, the director of the Vancouver-based NISA Helpline, which is targeted at Muslim women. Courtesy of Tanweer Ebrahim

For Ebrahim, overseeing the NISA helpline remains one of her biggest passions. Launched in 2014, the helpline was formed because she felt that Muslim women often have difficulties reaching out for help.

"Through the helpline, I really get to know the grassroots issues many of the women are facing — things that you might not hear when talking to someone face-to-face," she said.

Ebrahim understands that the current political climate is worrying for the Muslim community.

She tells people to stay strong against Islamaphobia and encourages them to not be afraid of being themselves and to get help when they need it.

"Be nice to others and educate others through actions and good deeds," she said. "At NISA helpline, we are here to advise and give resources and information about other organizations and support out there. Trust yourself, be who you are as a Muslim. Be prepared and educate yourself."

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