The first time Shahina Siddiqui visited Winnipeg, she fell in love with the city.
"I felt it was a city with a soul," the founder and director of the Islamic Social Services Association said. "I felt at home here."
Originally from Pakistan, Siddiqui and her husband, Iqbal, were living in New York City in the mid-1970s when they paid a visit to Winnipeg. In 1976, they immigrated to Canada, moving to the city.
Forty-three years later, she is being honoured on Tuesday with an honorary degree from the University of Manitoba.
It’s been an unexpected journey for Siddiqui. When the family arrived in Winnipeg, it was home to only a few dozen Muslim families. With only one mosque, people had to "learn to live with diversity," she said.
For Siddiqui, this was a new experience. "I remember feeling uncomfortable at first, being with people from other nationalities," she recalled. "I realized I need to work through this, that maybe I had a little bit of racism in me."
It was also a time when she went deeper into her faith.
"Growing up in a Muslim country, I never questioned my faith," she said.
In Winnipeg, however, she had to answer questions from non-Muslim neighbours about Islam: what it was, and why she believed it.
She was troubled to realize she didn’t have good answers.
"Nobody ever asked me those questions back in Pakistan," she said.
The experience prompted her to study more about Islam, which was made easier by the lack of cultural influences.
"It was easier to find true Islam here," she said, adding that was also the time she decided to wear the hijab as an outward declaration of her commitment to God.
"I still don’t have all the answers," she stated. "I’m still relying on God to guide me, and still asking questions. But Islam answers my big questions of why I am here and what is the purpose of my life."
Soon after coming to Winnipeg, she learned one of her two sons had Leigh syndrome, a rare neurological disease.
Although devastated by the news, Siddiqui said she realized God was in control upon learning Winnipeg was home to the only Canadian doctor who was researching the syndrome.
Although her son died in 1984, being in Winnipeg meant he received quality medical care from someone who specialized in the disease.
"My faith sustained me when he died," she said, adding his illness made her realize "there was greater power than me, and everything had purpose and meaning."
After his death, Siddiqui became involved with various groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations in the U.S. She also helped create the Canadian chapter of the organization and did media outreach for the Manitoba Islamic Association.
Through these and other involvements, she developed leadership skills and the ability to relate to the media. Nothing prepared her for what happened on 9/11.
After the attacks, local and national media began looking for Muslims to talk to. But few in the community were prepared or confident enough to respond.
"In Winnipeg, there was no one in the Muslim community ready to face the media," she said of how she became the go-to person for reporters. Soon, the media across the country was calling; within 48 hours of the attacks, she had done 72 interviews.
"I did talk shows, live radio, TV, it was just crazy," she recalled.
Some in the Muslim community were unsure about her outspokenness, wanting to hide from the media. "But with all the misinformation out there, I knew I had to address it," she said.
She remembers it as an exhausting and trying time — and scary. "I got lots of hate mail and threats," she said.
But it was also a time of hope. She recalls how Winnipeggers rallied to support the community, like the woman who showed up to clean hateful graffiti off a local mosque, or a Second World War veteran who offered to take Muslim women shopping.
"They were afraid to go out in public to buy groceries," she said. "This veteran called and said, ‘I fought for their freedom. I’ll take them.’"
Responses like that "sustained me," she said. "There were so many people who responded with words of support, and other faith groups, too."
Since that time, "my life has not been the same," she said of how she has become the public face of the Muslim community, both locally and across the country.
It’s been a rich and gratifying time, she said, but also challenging.
"It can be a burden to speak on behalf of Islam," she said, noting the faith is not monolithic. Not everyone in the Muslim community agrees with how she talks openly about challenges facing Muslims in Canada today.
"I am sometimes criticized for being honest," she said. For instance, when discussing domestic violence and sexual abuse, or how the community should respond to LGBTTQ* Muslims.
She’s also witnessed a time of change for Muslims in Winnipeg. The community has grown to more than 12,000 people, representing over 50 cultures and speaking 40 languages and dialects, and meeting in five mosques and four to five other small meeting places.
While immigration brings new people to the community each year, there are now second- and third-generation Muslims growing up in the city — people who have never known anywhere but Winnipeg as home.
"We’re not just an immigrant community anymore," she stated.
Siddiqui is proud of how the community has grown and matured, even if there is still a ways to go. And she has grown older, too, needing to watch her health.
"I tire easily now," the 65-year-old said, adding "I sometimes wonder how I survived these 18 years."
But helping others and sharing her story also gives her strength. "I get energy when I am speaking, although after, I need to rest," she shared.
One person she is very grateful for is Iqbal. "I’m very fortunate to have a very supportive husband," she said. "He’s a driver, friend, supporter, my everything. I couldn’t do what I do without his support."
Her goal is to train younger Muslims to take leadership roles.
"I can’t do this forever," she said. "It’s time to pass the torch."
The younger generation should have an easier time of it, due to her groundbreaking work. But there is still much that needs to be done, she said.
"We still haven’t completely turned around perceptions of Muslims," Siddiqui said, noting that so much of the reporting in the media about Islam still revolves around "terror, tragedy, violence."
While other faith communities are defined by their saints, she stated, "we are defined by our criminals."
She’s also worried by the rise of hate groups in Canada. "We don’t want to believe these groups can exist in Canada, but they do," she said. "I chose Canada to be my home, but sometimes I worry it is turning on me."
Looking ahead, she wants everyone to feel safe and welcome in Winnipeg.
"This city has so much potential, even with its difficulties," she shared. "I have never lost hope for it."
Although she is humbled by the honour from the University of Manitoba, she said she would be happy with another form of recognition.
"If I can help this city be less hateful, freer from racism and violence, then that is the only honour I seek."
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.
Updated on Monday, June 3, 2019 at 7:50 AM CDT: Adds photo
11:51 PM: Adds to category: faith