by Diba Hareer in Ottawa 

Lack of language skills, community support and cultural constraints prevent many immigrant and ethnic women from fleeing abusive relationships and seeking help.  

The most recent figures from Statistics Canada show that one quarter of all violent crimes are domestic in nature and in nearly seven out of 10 cases women and girls are the victims. 

Although there are no specific numbers for the demographic, shelters in urban centres say they are seeing a growing number of immigrant/ethnic women using their services and fear many others aren’t seeking help because of cultural barriers. 

Seeking refuge 

Elmas, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is an 18-year-old, born and raised in Canada by immigrant parents. She was abused by her parents who, she says, sought to control every aspect of her life, imposing what she calls the lifestyle of a ‘traditional Middle Eastern woman’ on her. 

She currently lives in a women’s shelter and is concerned her parents might find her.  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][Elmas] fled her parents’ home after they tried to force her into an arranged marriage.[/quote]

Elmas says that she fled her parents’ home after they tried to force her into an arranged marriage, which she refused. 

Even though she was raised in a Middle Eastern culture at home, she valued her Canadian identity and wanted to be in charge of her own life. She says that’s what led to her parents abusing her.  

“My parents act as [if] they’re dictators in the house, whatever they say must happen ... They have anger issues,” she explains. 

Elmas says her parents worried they would become the “laughing stock” of their social circle and that they valued their image in the community above her welfare and happiness. 

Although they did not like being married to each other, Elmas says they chose to continue the relationship because divorce was considered taboo. Elmas desired to choose her partner herself, rather than be pushed by a culture she could not understand.  

Elmas explains her parents constantly yelled at her and subjected her to harsh criticism. They began controlling her contact with her friends and restricted her social get-togethers.  

“It was getting to an extent where I wasn’t having a choice in anything.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][T]he women who most often don’t seek help are the ones who don’t speak English or French.[/quote]

A common story  

Elmas’ story is one that staff at women’s shelters often hear from immigrant and ethnic women. 

Keri Lewis, the executive director of Nelson House in Ottawa, says more than half of the women staying at the shelter are immigrants and/or ethnic women. Lewis says the immigrant women specifically that she sees are often quite isolated due to language barriers.  

The trend is similar in Toronto. About 55 per cent of the women staying at Sandgate Women’s Shelter in York region are immigrants and/or ethnic women, according to Jehan Chaudhry, Sandgate’s executive director. Of that number, 35 per cent are of Middle Eastern descent. 

The types of cases both shelters handle are similar and include women fleeing physical and emotional abuse, forced or arranged marriages, and honour-based crimes.  

According to Chaudhry, the women who most often don’t seek help are the ones who don’t speak English or French and aren’t aware of the services offered by shelters.

Another factor barring women from running to safety is their concern about the impact of being separated from their children. Sometimes a woman who tries to leave her husband gets pressured by her community to stay.  

Economic dependency and fear of further victimization are other factors that force immigrant women to stay in abusive relationships. 

Priya Kharat, a counsellor at the Students’ Union Wellness Centre at the University of Calgary, found in her research that new immigrant women compare Canadian law enforcement with law enforcement in their native countries, which are often corrupt and unfair, so they fear seeking help.  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“What they were doing was wrong, no matter what they said, I knew it was wrong.”[/quote]

Difficult to leave  

Elmas had many second thoughts about running away.  

“I felt that it wasn’t right for me to leave if I didn’t give them a full chance,” she says. But her parents didn’t change their approach. They continued to emotionally and physically abuse her, and often would inflict the same pain on her younger siblings.  

“It was against my religion,” says Elmas, who is Muslim. “What they were doing was wrong, no matter what they said, I knew it was wrong.”  

The day she left is seared into her memory. She remembers feeling nervous and nauseous. “But I knew it was the direction that I had to go on,” she explains. 

Elmas had a friend who helped her leave home and find a shelter and a lawyer – support many women do not have. According to Chaudhry, one of the main challenges abused immigrant women face is not knowing how to navigate the Canadian system. 

Chaudhry says that’s why it’s important for shelter staff to provide facilities for women based on their specific cultural and language needs.  

Sandgate has Arabic and Farsi interpreters, a room designated for prayers and halal food options, for example.  

Now that she is at a shelter, Elmas says she feels safe. Her goal is to enrol in university once more and pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.  

Her advice for women and girls going through a similar experience is not to run unless they are committed to following through. 

“You’ll end up wanting to go back and if you go back, it’ll be even worse than before.”


Journalist Judy Trinh mentored the writer of this article through the NCM Mentoring Program 

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Published in Health
Thursday, 17 December 2015 04:48

Panel Discusses Root Causes of Migration Crises

by Diba Hareer in Ottawa

The efforts by the Canadian government to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by February 2016 is generous, but it does not address the factors that caused the massive diaspora in the first place. Only when the roots of this and similar situations such as the North African migrant crisis are addressed can these human tragedies end.

This was the theme of a panel discussion held by Kaleidoscope World, a Canadian charity organization, on November 23rd.

The panel members discussed the complicated situations and obstacles refugees from all countries face during migration to Europe. The photos of Aylan Kurdi washed ashore near the Turkish resort of Bodrum focused the world's attention on the plight of Syrian refugees, but there is also a significant number of individuals fleeing North Africa.

Not since the Second World War has there been such a huge number of people fleeing across borders in search of better economic opportunities and safety. For some the journey — which begins with hope — ends in death.

The dangerous crossing to Europe

Hilary Homes, the acting manager of Amnesty International Canada’s Campaign Team and a member of the panel, says that as of August, more than 2,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea this year alone.

She recalls an incident in May 2015 when fishing boats carrying South Asian refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh were forced back into the sea by Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian authorities who refused to let them disembark. 

“The refugees were left without food, water and medical care for an entire week until the Philippines and later Indonesia offered to take them in,” she says.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]More than 2,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015.[/quote]

This is only one example of a time when doors were slammed shut for refugees. Even if they successfully make the difficult journey to safety, refugees also face the threat of deportation.

Women refugees in particular “consistently face threats of violence, sexual violence, harassment and exploitation,” according to Homes. 

She says the refugee camps are usually crowded, with insufficient washrooms, and common sleeping areas, which puts women in vulnerable positions. 

Tackling the root causes of the migrant crisis

Solutions to the refugee crisis can only be found if the root causes are tackled in their home countries, according to Hilda Joyce Portilla, another speaker.

Portilla, who teaches courses on migration, minority and sociology of family and gender relations at the University of Ottawa, explains that the problem for refugees does not start during migration: “The story begins long before that”. 

Some of the factors that lead to mass migration include terrorism, poverty, state persecution and corruption. 

Abai Coker, CEO of Canadian Solidarity and originally from Gambia, roots the problem in the corrupt systems of troubled African nations.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Solutions to the refugee crisis can only be found if the root causes are tackled in their home countries.[/quote] 

He explains that tourism has gone bankrupt and Gambia depends on foreign aid. There is a lack of job opportunities. Coker says the government simply doesn't care for its citizens and has robbed them of hope in the future.

In Africa, the collective lifestyle and the focus on taking care of extended family members forces young people to move in search for opportunities, says Coker. They seek better lives in Europe, but often only find misery. 

They can’t get jobs and as a result become homeless. Women are forced into prostitution, face constant violence and some lose their lives, he explains.

Europe has promised 1.8 billion euro to African countries in return for the deportation of “unwanted” refugees, but Coker thinks the aid will be in vain because of corruption. “Europe has to check if the infrastructure and policies are right for keeping those people [in African countries],” he states.

Confronting terrorism in the Middle East

Majed El-Shafie, the president of One Free World International, argues that terrorism is at the root of the migration problem in the Middle East. He says the solution must go beyond removing ISIS. “You can fight ISIS, but you are facing an ideology.” 

El-Shafie said that the only way to stop terrorism is to educate the younger generation who are potential recruits for ISIS and other extremist groups. If they’re not properly educated, they will be more susceptible to the ideology. 

He believes freedom of religion and separation of religion and state in the Middle East will bring the lengthy conflict to an end and pave the ground for democracy. 

El-Shafie is also critical of Arab countries who share a similar religion, culture and language with Syria, but who are not taking in the refugees. Although 125 countries have ratified the UN Convention on refugees, most of the Middle East is absent from the list.  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“You can fight ISIS, but you are facing an ideology.”[/quote]

“Why are the Arab Muslim countries not accepting more [Syrian] refugees? Why is Saudi Arabia not accepting more [Syrian] refugees? Qatar, Kuwait, Dubai, United Arab Emirates in general, Algeria, Morocco, Tunis?”

Once the refugees arrive in their new countries, the panelists say it's imperative that social support structures are put in place to help the migrants not only adapt, but also succeed. 

A refugee himself who came to Canada years ago, El-Shafie says the newcomers must not be treated as victims once they arrive. Instead they must be helped to stand on their feet again. 

“We’re human beings, who need to be independent.”


Journalist Judy Trinh mentored the writer of this article through the NCM Mentoring Program 

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Published in Top Stories

by Diba Hareer in Ottawa 

Her story reads like a movie script. 

Twenty years ago, Maryam Monsef fled the brutal rule of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and now, two decades later, she has become the first Muslim to be appointed a cabinet minister in the federal government.  

In 1996, Monsef’s mother and her three daughters settled in Peterborough, Ont. after Iran refused to grant them refuge. 

It is the kindness and the support that my family and I received from the people of Peterborough-Kawartha that is at the heart of the service that I intend to give to the people of this riding,” says the Minister of Democratic Institutions. 

Campaigning in a small town 

Monsef says the fact that she grew up in a smaller community allowed her to build networks. It was easier for her to create connections in Peterborough, a city of less than 80,000 people. 

“It is possible to plant seeds in this community because of its size, and to see those seeds grow, and to see that you can have an impact when you come together and collaborate.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Monsef is also the first female Member of Parliament (MP) ever elected in the riding Peterborough-Kawartha.[/quote]

Monsef is also the first female Member of Parliament (MP) ever elected in the riding Peterborough-Kawartha. It’s an achievement she attributes to a lot of hard work. 

During the 60-day election campaign she and her team knocked on 70,000 doors and held 10 different roundtable discussions with the community. 

At these meetings she outlined her priorities for the riding. She campaigned for the Liberals on good sustainable jobs, preservation of the environment, health care and access to services for seniors. 

According to Monsef attracting and retaining newcomers to her riding is critical for the prosperity of the district. 

“Over a 160 different groups and individuals have been meeting for over five years and [have] developed strategies and action items devoted specifically to that mandate of creating a more welcoming community for newcomers to our area.” 

She adds that her riding continues its efforts to be a welcoming community to newcomers and Canadian immigrants. 

Strengthening democratic institutions 

While she was born in a country with a lack of human rights, it will be Monsef’s responsibility to strengthen Canada’s democracy as Minister of Democratic Institutions. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"[M]y job I believe is to restore and to strengthen Canadians' respect and appreciation for these democratic institutions that we are so privileged to have.”[/quote]

Monsef describes the scope of her job as “broad”, encompassing Senate reform, electoral reform and elections spending. 

“The way I see my job I believe is to restore and to strengthen Canadians' respect and appreciation for these democratic institutions that we are so privileged to have.” 

She would also like to see more women’s participation in Canadian politics. 

Monsef says she is grateful for the women who paved the way before her and hopes to do the same for others who follow. 

Inspiring Afghan Canadians 

For Afghans in Canada the news of Monsef’s appointment as a cabinet minister broke at the same time with the news of the horrific stoning of a young girl in Ghor, a northwestern province in Afghanistan.  

Amid the horror in Ghor, Afghans welcomed the news of Monsef’s appointment with delight and surprise. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Monsef’s election is helping to build the image of refugees and trust of Canadian society in them."[/quote]

Adeena Niazi, the Executive Director of Afghan Women’s Organization in Toronto is of the view that refugees are too often perceived to be a burden and treated as unequal members of society, but that Monsef’s election has the power to change that. 

“Monsef’s election is helping to build the image of refugees and trust of Canadian society in them. It decreases the discrimination against refugees in society.” 

Monsef forces the public to re-think their perception of Afghan women, Niazi adds. 

“The international media has portrayed Afghan women as victims, listeners and oppressed, but since Monsef’s election everyone has come to realize that Afghan women are not just silent victims; they have strength and ability.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"[S]ince Monsef’s election everyone has come to realize that Afghan women are not just silent victims."[/quote]

Khalid Mirzamir, an Afghan Canadian immigration counsellor in Ottawa, says Monsef’s story is one of hope and inspiration. 

“Maryam’s election reminds all of us as immigrants that Canada is a country where it gives everyone the opportunity to grow.” 

Hope is what Frozan Rahmani felt after Monsef was elected. The Toronto-based student followed the campaign closely and shed tears of joy when Monsef’s victory was announced. 

Rahmani is awed by the fact that it was Monsef’s mother who was the key to the minister’s success. 

After fleeing the Taliban, Monsef’s mother started life from scratch with her three daughters in Canada. The difficult task is a shared experience for many immigrants in this country. 

“I am not happy because we share the same heritage as Afghans, but because I know that she has risen from a society that has pains, from a culture that in the 21st century does not value women,” says Rahmani. “We have witnessed the stoning of women. But Maryam did rise in Canada and made us proud.”


Journalist Judy Trinh mentored the writer of this article through the NCM Mentoring Program.  

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Published in Politics

by Diba Hareer (@DibaHareer) in Ottawa, Ontario

In September 2010, I received a phone call from Afghanistan. My relative, Meena, was on the other end. The Grade 9 schoolgirl was upset because her father had pulled her out of school when she reached puberty.

Meena was confined at home for over two months, unable to get permission to return to school. Her call from a village in Baghlan province, 230 km northeast of Kabul, was a desperate cry for help from my father, an elder of our extended family. Luckily, he influenced Meena’s father to let her resume school.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]It is difficult to increase the literacy rate in Afghanistan with so many girls not completing school.[/quote]

Meena’s plight informed my future academic research: The Influence of Traditions and Cultural Norms on Girls’ School Withdrawal in Afghanistan. It turns out Meena was incredibly lucky – a significant number of girls never make it back to school.

Fewer Girls in Secondary School

It is difficult to increase the literacy rate in Afghanistan with so many girls not completing school. These girls simply add to the large population of illiterate women in the world.

A World Bank report says that since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, education for Afghan girls has improved significantly with school enrolment over 3.75 million in 2015, compared to 191,000 in 2002.

While this increase seems promising, High Stakes – a joint briefing paper about the many hurdles girls in Afghanistan face in getting an education – reports a dramatic decrease in enrolment at the secondary school level and higher.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]My research has shown that in over a decade since the fall of the Taliban, not much effort has been made to retain female students in schools, especially in the rural areas where 75 to 80 per cent of the country’s population lives.[/quote]

The United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has also expressed concern over the Afghan Ministry of Education’s vague record of the number of students currently present in schools.

The ministry’s records show that in 2014 out of 8.35 million students (both genders) enrolled, 6.6 million were present and 1.55 million were permanently absent.

According to the Afghan education system, an absent student’s name remains on the roll for three years; then he or she is considered a permanent absentee. The records do not indicate the number of students who dropped out or were withdrawn from school during this time.

My research has shown that in over a decade since the fall of the Taliban, not much effort has been made to retain female students in schools, especially in the rural areas where 75 to 80 per cent of the country’s population lives.

Foreign countries like Canada have provided assistance, though. Canada has spent over $2 billion investing in numerous educational projects for Afghanistan between 2002 and 2013 and renewed its commitment to Afghanistan from 2014 to 2017 focusing on education, mothers’ health, human rights, women’s rights and building the capacity of local organizations.

Positive Impact of Education Overlooked

Many cultural and non-cultural factors prevent Afghan girls from staying in school.

Parents’ or guardians’ lack of awareness about the benefits of schooling for women, combined with fear of elopement or kidnapping, and in many cases wrong interpretation of Islamic teachings, all prevent girls in rural areas from getting a high school education, if not more.

Recently, Mohammad Younus Yousufi, Provincial Head of Kandahar Province, urged parents to allow their daughters to complete high school. “Every year we witness older girls leaving school. We know it is because families withdraw them,” he has been quoted as saying.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]People say a girl should learn how to pray and observe fast, and that is enough.” - Research participant[/quote]

Through my research I found it is a common belief among rural people that when a girl reaches puberty education has no purpose in her life; she should prepare for marriage and learn how to do housework and be a caregiver. One of my research participants spoke of the community attitude towards girls’ education by saying: “People say a girl should learn how to pray and observe fast, and that is enough.”

Often overlooked, especially among men, is the positive impact of girls’ education on their personal lives and their future married life, even if it doesn't help them to get employed. After all, securing employment is another obstacle for girls, and there are minimum “female jobs” in the rural areas.

Some Families ‘Worse Than Taliban’

Rana was studying in Grade 11 at age 18 when her brother pulled her out of school in 2012. Her mother explained the motive: “My son told his sisters, ‘do the housework. That will benefit you in your future [after marriage]. School has no benefit for you.’”

Similarly, 20-year-old Farha was in Grade 8 when her only brother stopped her from attending school. Likewise, her 18-year-old sister Gulnar was prevented from going to school in Grade 9. (The reason for the discrepancy between their age and the grade they were attending is because girls were banned from school under the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, and the earlier turmoil from 1992 to 1996 that kept many girls out of school.)

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“If my son had a mind of his own, he would have said, ‘whatever people say I won’t buy. Until I [have] seen my sisters being corrupted, talking and flirting with boys, I won’t believe it.’” - Mother of girls withdrawn from school[/quote]

Farha and Gulnar’s mother said the rumours spread by villagers about schoolgirls are a major problem. “If my son had a mind of his own, he would have said, ‘whatever people say I won’t buy. Until I [have] seen my sisters being corrupted, talking and flirting with boys, I won’t believe it.’”

When asked if there are any threats from the Taliban, the mother responded: “There isn’t any threat from Taliban, but some families are worse than Taliban. Uncles and relatives are worse than Taliban.”

Farha and Gulnar represent hundreds of thousands of girls in Afghanistan whose rights to education are being denied.

According to the High Stakes report, a schoolteacher in Parwan province suggests that if schools maintain regular contact with parents through meetings, this will help them see the benefit of education and cooperate in sending their daughters to school despite the challenges. 

Cases like Meena need not be rare. Meena graduated from high school in 2013 and was one of the few girls who went on to study further in the Khinjan district of Baghlan province. This year she will complete a teacher-training program in the district and hopefully get a job in her field.  

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Published in Education

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