Welcome to Signal for Help, a special podcast series from the Canadian Women’s Foundation and award-winning women journalists, Media Girlfriends.
We know that gender-based violence is a problem, and we want to support survivors in our lives, but there’s a lot of stigma and silence around gender-based violence in our society: too many people who experience abuse are shamed, silenced, and stigmatized, and too many people don’t feel confident and competent in supporting them.
Featuring interviews with survivors and experts, we’ll explore how everyday people can better support survivors of gender-based violence.
This podcast includes stories of gender-based violence. Please listen with care.
This week, we’re joined by two guests: Yasmin and Taghreed, colleagues at the Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support & Integration.
They’re based in London, Ontario, a city that has experienced a traumatic Islamophobic attack in recent years. Yasmin was originally working with Muslim youth, addressing gendered Islamophobia and various social issues. When the pandemic happened, she asked, “How are your moms?”
From there, Yasmin and Taghreed co-created a peer-to-peer program for newcomer women to Canada. It’s delivered over Zoom in English, with Arabic translation, with curriculum focused on recognizing signs of abuse and providing support.
Program participants are extremely dedicated – and nearly 100 strong to date. Together, Yasmin and Taghreed have a simple goal: to empower community members, particularly newcomer women in the unique challenges they face. Because systems alone won’t solve the problem of abuse – it’s the community that will be the key.
00:00:02 Nana aba
Welcome to Signal for Help. I’m Nana aba Duncan.
This podcast is all about learning how you and I can help when someone we know is experiencing abuse and sharing those lessons is the whole reason why we made this show with the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
Now I’m going to ask you to think back to the worst days of the pandemic. I know, I know. I’m sorry. Nobody wants to do that. It was hard for all of us to be cut off in various ways from the people around us, but during that time thousands of women, girls and trans and non-binary people faced a heightened risk of violence at home. Whether it was emotional, physical or sexual abuse. I thought about those folks.
I also thought a lot about community during that time and how even in the darkest days, especially in the darkest days, community can really step up. Friends, family, neighbors. I’m sure you remember moments when people were really there for each other.
Our community, we as members are on the front lines. Most women would call a friend, a sister, knock on the door of their neighbors, like to ask for help.
00:01:21 Nana aba
That’s Taghreed and I love how she puts it, that we are the front lines in our communities when someone needs help.
Taghreed and her work partner, Yasmin developed a really special program for Muslim Arabic speaking newcomers to Canada. And it’s on Zoom. If you have an office job, maybe Zoom has not been your favorite pandemic development, but for the women that Taghreed and Yasmin serve, Zoom has been a lifeline. It’s been a lifeline to learning and to judgement free conversations and above all, building community.
Why don’t we start by getting to know you two. Yasmin, starting with you? Tell us about the work that you do together.
Thanks, Nana aba. Yeah, so Taghreed and I really started working together two and a half, three years ago at the start of the pandemic. Families who had just come to Canada and had experienced all this, you know, migration trauma, integration challenges, were now being confronted with sort of lockdown due to the pandemic. And we started in the beginning doing sort of Zoom groups with newcomer women thinking about creating a space for connection, talking about parenting during the pandemic, talking about their well-being during the pandemic and that was a starting point for our work together, which then transitioned into this program called the Peer Leader program or the It’s on Us Peer Leader Program which was done thinking about how do we address the issue of domestic violence in our community.
00:02:50 Nana aba
Speaking of community, you both work at a Resource Center that serves the Muslim community in London, Ontario can you tell us about it?
Yes, so our organization, the Muslim Resource Center for Social Support and Integration, serves the diversity of the London Muslim community. So Arabic speaking, non-Arabic speaking, even in terms of faith, we’ve served Arabic speaking newcomer families who don’t identify as Muslim, people who identify Muslim in very different ways, we are not a faith-based organization. Our focus really is on supporting the well-being and safety of individuals and families and thinking about safety within families, sort of addressing issues of gender based and family violence. But also addressing safety within community, within the Muslim community, within the Canadian community, so also addressing issues around exclusion, marginalization and harm and safety in that way. So, I would say generally that is the focus of our organization.
00:03:46 Nana aba
We’re going to get into all of that. Taghreed, I would like to hear what is the best thing about your work partner?
So, I was fortunate actually to work with Yasmin. It’s my first job. Also, me, myself, I’m a newcomer to Canada and I’ll say I was fortunate also to find a job in the pandemic where most people were losing, sadly their jobs.
00:04:12 Nana aba
And you were coming to Canada from Lebanon, what were you doing there? What was your job?
Yeah, I am a former journalist then I decided to be a researcher. I was doing some research about gender-based violence related to media and how they have this big impact on community.
00:04:30 Nana aba
And Yasmin, what would you say is the best thing about Taghreed.
So, I really valued working with Taghreed. I really valued the opportunity to think about how we both build relationship with one another because we were building relationship with one another. But in doing that we were also thinking about how we build relationship with others and build community. My passion has always been thinking about how we create community and engage people. Also on, you know, in a way that is meaningful, but also thinking about like a lot of our work is, is on a difficult topic. Thinking about family violence and gender-based violence, but how do you meaningfully engage people on an issue that is difficult to talk about. And I really appreciated, the richness and the experience that Taghreed brings from her work in Lebanon, but also her understanding of what it means to move to a new country and then meshing that with the experience I have doing the work here in Canada with newcomer and racialized communities.
00:05:26 Nana aba
Taghreed, based on what you hear from the people you serve, what does gender based violence look like for the women?
So, I would say, many, many women in the community we serve, they don’t know even like what is gender-based violence. They are not aware of what is domestic abuse sometimes like, let’s start from the naming. They have challenges naming the topic or aware of the importance of the topic.
I hope it changes. I think it’s still difficult. Like, I think people are aware to different degrees within our community. You know, how do we distinguish abuse from unhealthy conflict? And when women who join the programs, most people say, well, physical abuse, that’s harmful. But I think what our program is building an awareness that emotional abuse is harmful as well. And maybe, sometimes can feel even more so harmful, because it often is the tactics of isolating the tactics, of questioning what is even happening, and then beginning to build doubts and the experience of abuse or understanding economic abuse, a language around spiritual abuse, a language around sexual abuse.
And so, I think that’s been one of the most powerful pieces of our work is that women then begin to see really recognize things as, “Okay, I can understand why how silent treatment can be a form of punishment”, or how isolating someone from being a part of the community can be intentional. And what is the impact of that as a controlling tactic or recognizing it as a tactic of control.
So, I think those pieces become really important. And I think broadens peoples understanding of what abuse is and that’s I think are really important element. Because a lot of the times we do start with very narrow understanding of what abuse might be.
00:07:17 Nana aba
What I’m hearing from you is that the women are not even able to identify that what they’re experiencing is domestic abuse and that you are giving them the language. Is that right?
True, true. Because they normalize abuse because social norms like normalize abuse and they say, this is the relationship between you and your husband because we focus on IPV or intimate partner violence. So, I would say the big step we did with this woman to name what is abuse, to recognize abuse, so they now can name different forms of abuse. They can recognize the signs, warning signs and which is maybe make a big big difference for this woman.
00:08:01 Nana aba
So, when you’re talking to them in their conversations and you’ve named things for them, what are some of the things that they say to you that makes you know that they’re understanding that their perception of what is happening for them is changing?
Woman starts saying now that like a friend of mine, a sister, a neighbor, she’s experiencing abuse and I can see behaviors, abusive behaviors. I can recognize the pattern, the frequency and also many of them, they said like, you know to read and Yasmin, mean we have experienced this and like we find this information very validating to our experience.
00:08:36 Nana aba
What’s the next step after that though? Because I’m so curious about how they’re now recognizing that something is happening and they have the language even when you have the language, it doesn’t mean that you can just go home and say this is what this is, right? So, what is the next phase for them?
I think it’s integrated into the program which you know runs ten weeks. It starts with thinking about the norms that maybe encourage victim blaming or that minimize or normalize abuse and domestic violence. But then thinking about how can we support and what does it mean for us to support someone who might be experiencing abuse and then to recognize that most women who are experiencing abuse will reach out to someone that they know. Or that they trust; a friend, a neighbor, and that is true for all women, but again, especially true for newcomer women who may not have access or knowledge of services and supports, but they know their neighbors. They know other women in their community who become like family when there’s no longer the extended family here in Canada and become a trusted support.
00:09:51 Nana aba
Taghreed, you’ve been in Canada for four years now. What was your impression of gender-based violence before you came and how you thought it might be in Canada?
Yeah, to be honest, I was really curious and interested when I came from Lebanon to see the Canadian experience. So back in Lebanon, like every woman or all women are fighting to criminalize the domestic abuse. We don’t even have shelters. There’s a lack of services there, so I came here and I know in Canada there is a system that supports women, shelter system services. And I said, to myself, the rate should be very, very low in Canada.
I remember opening my laptop, reading that maybe every six days at least one woman in Canada is killed, like on the hands of her intimate partner. I couldn’t believe that. Why this rate is really high and this was before the pandemic, so I couldn’t relate that to the pandemic.
So, I started asking myself like what should be done? Like we were asking for a law for a system. They have everything here, so what should be done more like to address domestic abuse and I found naturally that the community, there’s a power in the community. Our community, we as members are on the front lines. Most women would call a friend, a sister, knock on the door of their neighbors to ask for help.
00:11:18 Nana aba
Yasmine the organization works specifically with newcomer families. What are some of the unique challenges that they face when it comes to gender-based violence that others don’t?
Taghreed can also speak more to this, but I think one of the pieces is, you know, there probably haven’t been enough studies, but I think it’s not so much that the rates are different because the rates are high in all communities, as Taghreed said, even in our program, when we speak to women about what some of the stats are in Canada, many of the women are surprised. And because they also may think maybe abuse have higher rates within Muslim communities or within Arabic speaking communities, but to learn that this is a global issue and impacts all communities is really important.
And one of the pieces of difference is maybe the norms around how the issues talked about in the stigma. And so, I think there are greater stigma around speaking out about it or seeking support. And that comes with a lot more, maybe victim blaming or victim blaming exists everywhere.
But again, what does victim blaming sound like, or minimizing or justifying or normalizing? And so, coming up, you know, I think encountering things like, well, it’s important to keep the family together, that’s more important. Or I think challenging some of those norms, I think are some of the big pieces that serve as barriers, I think again, there’s many levels of barriers, but Taghreed?
00:12:42 Nana aba
Yeah, let’s hear from her.
No, I agree with you, Yasmin, social norms are a big piece in our communities for sure. In our program we start with talking about the impacts of these social norms. And then we recognize in our groups that women find it very challenging, like maybe to shift their thinking about these social norms, because they are embedded in their culture. So, this is what makes it very challenging for them to shift their thinking, but I would say also there is many social norms embedded in how to support someone who is experiencing abuse. So, we start guiding them that we have many things to do to support women other than offering a solution or fixing the problem.
00:13:29 Nana aba
So, are you saying that for some of the people that you’re talking about when it comes to newcomers, they’re thinking more about trying to fix the problem rather than sort of just being there or supporting? Is that what you mean?
Exactly, this is their understanding. When you ask someone like why you don’t support? They said I don’t want to offer solutions, I don’t want to maybe handle their responsibility, I don’t want to, like, maybe the family or broke the family and then we start saying no like there’s another perspective and we offer our perspective through a resource called five Alif. And those five Alifs are five main peer guidance to how to support a victim.
00:14:08 Nana aba
Can you list the five Alifs and what is an Alif?
So, to begin with, Alif is the letter A in Arabic. The five Alifs exist in English, but in Arabic the words all start with the letter A. So, we start with listen. And then believe and validate. Ask, and then just like how many did I list so far.
Those are three, Yasmin.
00:14:30 Nana aba
That was three.
Reassure, yeah, and then the final one is respect. Confidentiality is a key one. So, listening to her is important. Believing and validating her, asking how you can support. Providing reassurance, sort of being there, being present, supporting her and her choices, and then respecting her confidentiality are the sort of the five key principles. And then we talked through them with some of, these are some of the dos you can do and here are maybe somethings you can stay away from.
And I would say also that maybe few Alifs resonate more with women. The second Alif, which is validate and believe, because women find it very challenging to believe the victims right? So, many of them said, because of the good reputation, let’s say he’s a good father, good provider for his family. Like it makes it really hard for women to believe that this is a victim of abuse. So, we started saying that this is really like a good step to start with and, it’s really resonate with women. And I would say the other one is ask, and never ask details about what was happening, did he hit you? And we start saying for them, ask like how can you help. Let the victim tell you what she needs at the moment. What make like, she would say I just wanted you to listen to me and that’s it, yeah.
And I think these are important reframes of what support can look like. I think as Taghreed was saying, because I think a lot of times people feel pressure someone’s coming to you. That you need to offer, one take on the whole, take on everything. Take on the whole problem and be there in every way possible and also really offer quick solutions and find a way to fix the problem. And then by reframing and saying you know, no, that’s not what support looks like. What she really needs most is that someone is there for her or someone is there with her, and someone who believes her and someone who can support her in her journey. And you can ask what that looks like. And you can also make decisions around what that looks like for you, in terms of, you know, there might be some request that you may feel this is not what I’m able to take on and to recognize the role of peer support.
So, we talk about how peer support is really invaluable because for women to be supported by people in a compassionate way, by people who are part of their everyday lives is really key. But your support is different from a professional support, you know abuse isolates. And then if peer support or if peer response is also isolate, where does that leave women who are experiencing abuse at least and really feeling very alone and with no much support. And it keeps them feeling helpless or hopeless. And so, our support is really by first believing, I think can be such a huge step.
But I think for newcomer women, the other barriers are you know, any decision might feel like a very big decision. I don’t have my immediate family here. What does it mean to find housing? What does it mean to be on my own, you know, especially for women who are experiencing abuse, where economic abuse is part of the equation, not having access to financial resources or to banking and being removed from all of that makes any access to reaching out for service or making those decisions even that much harder. There’s so many factors or layers that keep women feeling alone, and so the fact that peers can be there, and validate and you don’t need to have the solution and things may not change quickly, but just being there and for someone not to be alone is so powerful.
00:18:09 Nana aba
And I know that they, especially in your group, they were sharing, you were teaching them all of these things and they were becoming close, I imagine. I want to be mindful of privacy, but what are some examples or stories that you’ve heard in the group Zooms that that really stick with you. If there’s anything that you can share, generally speaking, of course.
I know one of one woman stayed later, like, as Taghreed said, sometimes women will ask to stay after the session to talk with us and really talked about… the request, was can I come, you know, say, can I come to your home? And culturally, it’s hard to say no.
But she was able to recognize and saying I actually don’t feel safe saying yes because I worry about the implications that may have for my family and so we were able to talk through that and say, you know what, there might be really, people will draw different decisions, make different decisions around this. But if you’re uncomfortable saying yes, come to my home because then you’re worried about the problem will then come to your home. That is, that is also fair and legitimate. So how can you then articulate that in a way that doesn’t shut down, that you’re not being there for this individual, but to reframe and say, you know what I care and I’m worried about your safety, but this maybe doesn’t feel safe for me. But I’m also worried that it maybe doesn’t create safety for you. Let’s explore other options.
And so, these sorts of discussions like I think are also really important, is really unpacking tangibly. What it means to support and should I say yes, come to my house or yes, I’ll come to your house and maybe you’re not comfortable. So being able to work through some of that I think is really important.
00:19:46 Nana aba
And Taghreed, any other stories you can share from the conversations in the Zooms.
Yeah, so maybe a positive example. One woman said, I’ve been experiencing economic abuse since I came to Canada, and I didn’t know, like, there’s even something called economic abuse. And when she came to the groups and learned about all the different forms of abuse and economic is one of them, she said, I felt like this is like was the very validating to me and she actually went and speak to her husband about this. And she said he was open maybe to start showing a change in his behavior. Because, she said, this is not acceptable and this is like have an impact and also harm me.
So, I would say this is might be a positive example because it’s in a good way. But for sure there is many sad stories and after the session is ended, some of them ask to stay with us and they disclose for me and Yasmin get so many calls and messages from our women who are experiencing abuse as well.
In some instances, women have also connected us to friends, so I think those are really important ripple effects of this program. I think women are supporting friends or neighbors who are here in Canada, but they’re also supporting sometimes sisters and family members who are not in Canada but who are maybe in transit countries like Turkey, Syria or Jordan.
No, true. And actually, we’ve been receiving many questions from these women, if those women back home can join the program. So yes, we know that, like many women ask if their sisters from Syria, from Turkey, Palestine and Jordan, Lebanon, if they can join the groups and yeah.
00:21:34 Nana aba
So, that’s one way that you can sort of tell like you mentioned before, Yasmin, I mean you can tell what the ripple effect of this is and that really does speak to community as well because this is how people learn, often, is through other members of their community. I want to know about what you’ve learned about why this program is working?
Yeah. So, Yasmin, I don’t know if you want to share like that, we started with 8 women and now we have maybe more than 100 to 200 women.
I think some of the ingredients of success for me, Taghreed, because the program is delivered in Arabic so they hear me speak in English, but they connect with Taghreed and the curriculum we’ve developed is in Arabic.
So, a lot of the programming we’ve been doing is virtual, but all the slides or the content is in Arabic and a lot of times they’re communicating or sharing with one another, you know, and the early years of settlement are stressful. There’s so much change. There’s so much that’s happening in terms of adjusting to being in Canada, adjusting to understanding their community and how they belong and their children being in school, that’s thinking about where women are maybe at or families are at in their integration journey.
Actually, one of my favorite stories, Nana aba if you don’t mind, is one of the participants in one of the groups shared that, at the end, after our session, when her husband returned from work, she would basically try to facilitate what we facilitated in terms of our discussion in the session with her husband, which I thought was incredible.
00:23:08 Nana aba
What do you mean?
So, she would take, you know, if we were, if our topic of conversation was thinking about, OK, let’s recognize the six forms of abuse. And so, she would take notes, and then when her husband came home at the end of the day, would use those notes to invite a conversation with him on what she’d learned about abuse and what we were talking about that day. And each session builds on the next and so it was great. She was opening up a space for dialogue with him, and so we often do ask women now. Like, have you talked with anybody else about what you’re learning in this program? Have you talked with your husband? And some women have. They’re sharing it, like Taghreed said, with their kids, sometimes with maybe their sisters, who may not be in Canada or with their husbands, which is really important.
And I remember one of the women and one of the groups, when we talked about the five Alifs asked, you know, is the five Alifs only for women and we’re like no, the five Alifs are for men. Men should be using this as well. Because men may be supporting a sister or supporting a friend or a cousin who might also be experiencing one, they should also learn about abuse, but they can be allies and supporting survivors as well.
I think changing community takes all of us. And it’s not just participating in a program which I think is really important, but I think there’s many women who who’ve been really interested or sort of amplified or mobilized to thinking about what else can we be doing or what are some of the next steps. And sort of engaging them in that leadership capacity and working with them to grow the program into different directions and think about next steps is incredible.
00:24:47 Nana aba
So, the people in your program are Muslim, but there will be people who are listening, who are not Muslim. If there is a Muslim newcomer woman in their lives, what would you want them to know about how to be a good listener or how to be there for that woman.
I would say like check and always start with checking in, and like woman say to herself like this friend doesn’t want to talk to me and she’s not replying to my phone calls and we start learning that maybe they are isolated by the abuse. So, we have to read those early signs. You have to know them. You have to read the abuse and always, always start with opening a conversation, an invitation to a cup of tea, whatever.
You know, I think the five Alifs apply, regardless of their great peer principles of support that I think are universal. But one of the things I think for a non-Muslim, if you’re supporting someone who’s newcomer or Muslim is also be aware of maybe assumptions you’re making. And so, I think recognizing sometimes we tend to think, you know, reaching out to services is an easy step. But to recognize for many women, it’s a really tremendously big step, and there’s a lot of fear associated with that. Be aware that, you know, not all options may be easy options.
I think it’s important to explore but also recognize the hesitancy and recognize that for a real hesitancy or a real barrier or a real fear and maybe being open to exploring what are other supports, maybe just having a friend or neighbor to talk to is the option where they’re at. But I think as Taghreed said it’s definitely being there and listening and providing the support as you would to any friend.
00:26:26 Nana aba
You mentioned that when people are in trouble, they go to a friend, they go to a parent or a neighbor. When you are that friend or parent or neighbor, what is 1 specific action that people should know how to do?
I would say start with believing the victim. This is the most important thing. Especially in the newcomer communities and Muslim communities because reputation is a big piece in our culture. So, we tend not to believe the victim for many reasons. As I mentioned earlier, like it could be because he go to the mosque, he pray, he’s a good provider for his family. So, it’s really hard.
Start with believing the victim and then go to validate her feelings, so there is no right or wrong feelings. So, validate her feelings and ask her, like, how can you help? Never ask questions. Because like in our groups, people said, oh, I have to understand the problem and hear from both sides. And then I will start fixing the problem. We said no, this is not your role like your role like is to listen. Listen to her and then believe her. Whatever she’s saying and then ask and also respect her choices and respect her privacy as well.
00:27:42 Nana aba
Right. Yasmin, why was it important for you to speak with us today?
I think speaking about how we address complex issues like domestic violence or gender-based violence in community is important because I think change happens at the level of community. And I think you know, sometimes we assume it’s more difficult in particular communities than others and not to say it isn’t challenging, but it’s all possible. Like there’s a willingness in Muslim communities to engage on issues of intimate partner violence and domestic violence. And to take a proactive role to create more caring communities and in creating meaningful safety for survivors.
I would say it’s really important because I see women who have been here in Canada for three months and wants to learn about domestic abuse. This is the opportunity for them. This program is really important for them and also it’s informal channel to disclose about the abuse. So, I hope that we will be continuing working on this program with Yasmin and reaching out for more women as much as we can.
00:28:48 Nana aba
Well, I want to thank you both, Yasmin, thank you so much, Taghreed. Thank you so much for talking to us today.
Thank you, Nana aba.
Thank you, Nana aba.
00:29:08 Nana aba
It was so nice to meet Taghreed and Yasmin. Two women who have worked together to create an amazing ripple effect and the women in their learning group are teaching their sisters, their families, and their communities.
The five Alifs which I really loved. Yasmin was right, it’s an Arabic letter, but the lessons are universal. Listen, believe, validate, reassure, and respect confidentiality, yes.
I’m walking away from this episode with a major take away. It’s Taghreed’s idea that we are the front lines and that we need to be prepared when someone comes to us for help, whether it’s a sister or a friend or a colleague or a neighbor.
There’s a mini course that you can find online. I highly recommend you do it. I did it. I learned so much. Takes about an hour and it was designed to help you learn the signs of gender- based violence and what to do when you see them is going to make you feel empowered with knowledge. I promise.
You can sign up to be a Signal for Help Responder and join the learning journey. Just go to the website signalforhelpresponder.ca. After all, when you know how to respond to the signs of abuse, you can change the story. That’s signalforhelpresponder.ca.
Signal for Help is a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, made by Media Girlfriends.
The producers of this show are Garvia Bailey and Hannah Sung.
Associate producer is Elena Hudgens Lyle.
Post-production is by David Moreau.
And I’m Nana aba Duncan.
Again, if you’re feeling like you need support, go to signalforhelpresponder.ca and click on get help for links to services and information. Take care of yourself.
This project has been funded by Women and Gender Equality Canada.
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