First Winnipeg shelter for Muslim women and children opens, hopes to offer a sense of belonging

Winnipeg’s first shelter for Muslim women and children opened its doors last week, with the hope that it will create a sense of safety and belonging for those who in need.

The project was first announced in March. Sakeenah Home Winnipeg was created through a partnership between the Islamic Social Services Association in Winnipeg and Sakeenah Homes, which offers transitional housing services for women and children in Brampton, London, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.

“Whenever you see something new — you always have a few apprehensions — but also hope,” said Shahina Siddiqui, executive director of ISSA, in an interview Sunday.

ISSA helped connect Sakeenah Homes with the community in Winnipeg. Having worked with Winnipeg’s Islamic community for decades, Siddiqui has met many Muslim women who she says did not feel welcome in mainstream shelters, citing dietary, religious and social issues.

Domestic violence affects more than just physical safety, said Siddiqui, and it’s necessary to help victims feel safe on an emotional, cultural and spiritual level as well so they can feel secure as they begin to heal from abusive situations.

“I know some shelters did try to accommodate the diet and all that, but if you have one fridge and you’re keeping pork next to the halal meat — it’s just creating issues,” said Siddiqui.

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“Women were resisting to go to a shelter, and those who did would call and say ‘Please get me out of here.'”

She says a lack of sensitivities in mainstream shelters often have dire consequences.

“This was the hardest thing for me to swallow, is that [Muslim women] would choose to stay in an abusive relationship rather than go to a shelter where they felt that they were not safe, that they were not being accommodated or it could impact their children negatively.”

‘We have taken the first step’

Siddiqui’s vision is to have more shelters that are sensitive to the needs of Muslims beyond Winnipeg and throughout Manitoba, adding that ISSA is looking into what it can do to make that vision a reality.

Reactions to the new shelter have been positive, and Siddiqui hopes everything moves in the right direction. “We have taken the first step,” she said, but a few more now lie ahead of ISSA and Sakeenah Homes.

Cheikh Ould Moulaye of the Manitoba Islamic Association said his organization has identified a “definite” need for shelters like the new one in Winnipeg.

“Some of our Muslim sisters don’t feel included in the shelters,” he told CBC on Sunday.

In addition to addressing their dietary, religious and social needs, Moulaye says Muslim women can find help with language barriers at the new shelter.

“They need to be understood and to be helped as soon as possible,” he said. “Finding a place where you already feel like you belong makes it easier when you are coming from a situation where you already have other challenges.”

The shelter with 13 beds and one crib has not received government funding, according to Chaudhry, who says it’s being initially funded through support from Northpine Foundation and the ASK Foundation.

“We rely on support from everybody, so for us it’s a great feeling, but we hope that the community feels that they have ownership in this as well,” she said in an interview Saturday.

Chaudhry said domestic violence worsened after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and her organization received an increasing amount of phone calls from Muslim women in Manitoba during that period.

In 2019, Statistics Canada found that Manitoba and Saskatchewan had the highest provincial rates of police-reported family violence.

Designed to feel like home

Chaudhry says the Winnipeg shelter takes a step away from “institutional” looking furnishings often seen in mainstream facilities.

The shelter is “designed to feel like you’re sitting at home,” she said, “because we know women and children coming from these traumatic backgrounds need that space to heal before they can do anything else.”

Volunteers from similar organizations in Winnipeg already offered help setting up the new shelter, where the staff are all local to Winnipeg, said Chaudhry.

“It’s so great for them to create those relationships and communities around them to support the work that they’re doing.”

The staff at Sakeenah Homes are happy to be able to provide their services in Winnipeg, according to Chaudhry, but also saddened that there is a need for them in the first place. Their ultimate goal is to eliminate that need. 

“Muslims can be rest assured that if they’re looking for a space that understands their cultural and religious sensitivities — we’re there,” she said.

“That’s not to say that we only accept Muslims as residents — we’re open to everybody and anybody that needs a space.”

Support is available for anyone who has been abused or assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. ​​If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.