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A decade of caring

Islamic Social Services Association plays a vital role

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Take 65 conferences, mix in 700 presentations to schools, churches and universities, factor in 5,000 professionals trained in cross-cultural issues and blend with countless more connections in the community, and somehow it still adds up to only one.

One person, that is. That would be Shahina Siddiqui, the Muslim social worker, spiritual counsellor, and driving force behind the Winnipeg-based Islamic Social Services Association, which celebrates its 10th anniversary April 3 with its first-ever fundraising banquet.

"I think ISSA would be nothing without Siddiqui. She is the backbone and pillar of ISSA," says board member Sophia Ali, who worked as Siddiqui's unpaid assistant in the early days of the organization.

"She jumps at every opportunity. She's done everything for ISSA and makes it happen."

"There was a need, it had to be filled. I was in the position to make it happen," says Siddiqui, 54, always modest about her achievements, which include a long list of media appearances, publications, and consulting positions.

Developed initially to provide services and information to North America's expanding Muslim community, Siddiqui and her organization also have a growing role in providing information about Muslims and Islam to the public.

"They really serve as a really wonderful bridge to bring together the non-Muslim community with the Muslim community," says Brian Rochat, local program co-ordinator for the Canadian Centre for Diversity, who contacts Siddiqui whenever he needs a speaker from the Muslim community.

Already comfortable with writing for newspapers and talking to groups before her involvement with ISSA, Siddiqui found herself thrust in the media spotlight after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the public was searching for explanations of Islamic beliefs and practices.

"I think that would be the turning point, where the demand for our seminars and workshops and information skyrocketed," says Siddiqui, a resident of Winnipeg for the past three decades.

That demand for information led to Siddiqui researching and publishing a series of 13 booklets that address issues such as culturally sensitive health care, social services, or workplace environments.

A 16-page booklet on what police officers need to know about Islam and Muslims has sold 12,000 copies, due in part to the co-operation with Staff Sgt. Ron Johansson of the Winnipeg Police Service, who now recommends it to other police services across the country.

"It's a tool in the toolbox for us. You bring it out when you need it," says Johansson, the former diversity relations officer with the police service.

The most recent booklet provides guidelines for imams and community leaders in dealing with domestic abuse.

Siddiqui is vocal about her opposition to domestic violence of any kind, even if her community might not be ready to address it.

"I've always believed you can lead or you can follow. I've decided the (Muslim) community needs to be educated and you have to address issues head on," says Siddiqui, who spends her days working at the ISSA office on McDermot Avenue and her evenings counselling people on the telephone from the Charleswood home she shares with her husband, son, daughter-in-law, and two young grandchildren.

"People now talk about (domestic abuse) openly. We have imams giving sermons on it."

Siddiqui is equally vocal that the work of helping recently immigrated Muslims adapt to life in Canada is far from complete.

Her dream is to see ISSA offer even more social services, perhaps a shelter for Muslim women that will accommodate their dietary and religious needs, train a Muslim spiritual care provider to work in Winnipeg's hospitals and jails, and establish some sort of family services, similar to other ethnic or religious agencies such as Jewish Child and Family Services.

That's been an longtime goal of Albert Eltassi, vice-president of ISSA and financial supporter of the organization from its inception.

Recently, seven foster families within the Muslim community have been recruited, and Eltassi is hopeful that is a small step toward providing a full range of Muslim social services.

"We would like to have Muslim children in Muslim (foster) homes, with the proper diet and customs," explains the owner of Peerless Garments.

For now, Siddiqui continues with her unique mixture of willingness to tackle tough issues and the ability to bring others on board with her vision for the 10-year-old organization.

"I've always been cautious to take baby steps," she explains. "Whatever we establish, we want (it) to be firm, we want (it) to be sustainable."

brenda@suderman.com

ISSA's history

Formed in 1999 by Shahina Siddiqui and three American social workers to be an information source and network for Muslims in the United States and Canada.

Initially, Siddiqui worked as a volunteer from a home office and no budget; now the organization has an annual budget of about $125,000, employs three people in addition to Siddiqui who chooses to volunteer her time, and occupies an office suite in the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg building on McDermot Avenue.

ISSA split into two national associations in 2003 and gained charitable tax status.

In 2006, ISSA founded Canadian Muslim Women's Institute, which operates a food bank and provides direct services to immigrant and refugee women.

Rick Frost, CEO of The Winnipeg Foundation, will be honoured on April 3 with ISSA's first-ever Ihsan Award. Ihsan is the Arabic word for good.

Last year, ISSA ran a public awareness campaign on billboards and buses depicting the diversity of Manitoba's Muslim community.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2009 A11

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