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Sakeenah Homes expands west to serve Winnipeg’s Muslim women

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In an unmarked building in Winnipeg, the city’s first shelter catering to the needs of Muslim women and families quietly opened its doors Oct. 13.

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In an unmarked building in Winnipeg, the city’s first shelter catering to the needs of Muslim women and families quietly opened its doors Oct. 13.

Sakeenah Homes hopes to serve Winnipeg Muslim women fleeing domestic violence situations and abuse, and families struggling with poverty. Within a week, the shelter had already seen a family and begun the intake process. It’s what the organization does — the nation-wide charity has four homes in Ontario and one in Quebec — and bringing their sixth shelter to Winnipeg made sense.

Sakeenah Homes founder Zena Chaudhry noticed that while they were providing remote mental health casework during the COVID-19 pandemic, they were getting more and more calls out of Manitoba.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Islamic Social Services Association executive director Shahina Siddiqui has worked in this community for decades. She has housed survivors of domestic violence in her own home out of desperation before, because people felt they had nowhere else to go.

They connected with shelters and resource centres across Manitoba to assess need, and Chaudhry said as the immigrant and refugee population in the province has risen, so has the need for culturally sensitive supports.

“We know that as time goes on, we will only see that call volume increase, because people will call once they know a resource exists, and they’ll only know that resource exists once we’d been there for a while,” she said.

Chaudhry first founded Sakeenah Homes after realizing how few resources in Canada were attuned to a family friend’s specific needs as she went through a divorce.

“I found that there were little to no religiously and culturally sensitive resources for Muslim women, South Asian women, Arab women, minority women in general. And when I took a deeper dive, it was not even that there were no resources, it was the resources that existed were either Islamophobic, they didn’t understand the cultural sensitivities, employees didn’t know what to say, they’d sometimes said the wrong thing,” she said.

“And it made the women that I spoke to feel like they were not welcomed in these spaces, they’re not welcome in the social service agencies. And a lot of them had decided, the ones I spoke to, to go back to their abusive homes, because, they said, at least over there we have some sort of control over the situation … it’s the lesser of two evils, they’d rather just go back. And hearing that was heartbreaking.”

Sakeenah Homes received funding through COVID-19 grants from the federal government, but the vast majority comes from private donors, including Northpine Foundation and the ASK Foundation.

Chaudhry said she hopes Sakeenah Homes becomes part of the wider framework of Muslim-centric supports in Winnipeg, and becomes a resource to non-Muslim women and families as well.

“We’re not here trying to exclude people, we’re trying to make the net larger, so that more people can get access to services,” she said.

That framework includes the Islamic Social Services Association, which facilitated Sakeenah Homes’ move into Winnipeg and have accepted donations on their behalf.

Executive director Shahina Siddiqui has worked in this community for decades. She has housed survivors of domestic violence in her own home out of desperation before, because people felt they had nowhere else to go.

When she began doing this work, talking about domestic violence within Muslim communities was taboo — she recalls the first time she was asked to hold a session at a convention for Muslims, she was asked to soften the title of her talk to remove the word “abuse.”

She refused — and the room filled so quickly that people had to listen from outside, and speakers had to be brought in for people outside.

“That was a wake-up call for the community that this is an issue,” she said. “Everybody has started talking about it. Now we are in a phase where we are building our own shelters.”

It’s not just about providing halal food or a place to pray — trying to refer a client who is very new to Canada to a typical shelter doesn’t always end well, she said, in part because they have unique fears counsellors may not be able to fully work through with them.

“Especially for the newcomers who do not know their rights, the reasons to stay in an abusive relationship will be very different for a refugee or an immigrant,” she said.

“Especially if they feel that their husbands hold their status, so if they leave, will they lose their status or their permanent residency?”

The community here is insular, she said, and with that comes people who don’t want to discuss it publicly, or go to a mosque for help. There’s also the looming hurdle of what Siddiqui calls “spiritual abuse” — where people have their religion used against them by abusers in their lives.

“(The fear that) what you have done is un-Islamic for example, (saying) you will be punished for doing this. Which is of course totally wrong,” she said. “But who does she share it with? How can a counsellor who is not Muslim defeat that and say, ‘No, that’s not true?’”

On the other end, often counsellors trained in Canada aren’t always trained to tackle these sorts of problems.

“For me, doing this for 30 years, I can tell you I’ve seen clients who have come to me and have been told by mainstream counsellors, ‘You have to choose between your faith and to leave your husband, because that’s what Muslim men do, they’re allowed to do that,’” she said.

“That’s the level of knowledge among the providers and now the extent of Islamophobia. So how do you navigate all that? How do you manage all that? So I’m glad it is here.”

Siddiqui is glad, but apprehensive — with a community so small, gaining widespread trust is not easy. She hopes facilitation from local established groups like ISSA helps.

The Manitoba Islamic Association has a social fund and a food hamper program, along with mental health counselling. MIA vice-chair Tasneem Vali said people working in these programs have reported an increased need of emergency housing both for victims of domestic abuse and refugees who arrive here with little to no support.

MIA’s counselling is all online and completely confidential, where they would speak with people and possibly redirect them to larger city shelters. What they’ve found is that many of their clients were more comfortable coming to a mosque than going to an office when they needed help.

For some women, burdened by stigma, it was easier to say they were going to the mosque than going to therapy.

While the MIA has provided care packages and cultural sensitivity training to shelters in the past, Vali has heard concerns that in other shelters, women are coming in with little but their spirituality and religion, and are sometimes unable to practice them fully.

One example is that in Islam, practising Muslims pray five times a day, and the earliest prayer is very early in the day.

If a woman at a shelter doesn’t have the language skills — or the confidence, considering the situation many are coming from — they may not be able to express that they need to be given space to pray at that time, and could find themselves discouraged from seeking further help. It’s no one’s fault, Vali said, but it adds challenges on top of an already-challenging situation.

“They’re already coming from a victimized position, and they still feel victimized because there are a lot of practices, some of them are cultural, some of them religious, where people don’t understand,” she said.

Many Muslims in Winnipeg have come here under great duress — as refugees fleeing war, poverty or other strife — and with that, it has taken time for communities within the wider group of Winnipeg Muslims to settle into their new lives and become able to focus on building support systems.

“Every community grows, and then as they grow, they are able to identify needs, and they’re able to then commit those resources… I think it’s always been there, it’s not that this need has just been identified,” she said.

“It’s just as a community, we have matured and have now identified these and can do something about it.”

malak.abas@freepress.mb.ca

Malak Abas

Malak Abas
Reporter

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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