In August 2021, Ottawa promised to resettle 40,000 Afghan refugees when the Taliban regained control of most of the country after the U.S Army forces retreated. Thousands of people were forced to flee Afghanistan out of fear of retaliation for having cooperated with Western troops and civilians. Across Canada, 34 communities, including the Waterloo Region, have committed to accepting refugees. According to the Waterloo Record, as many as 1,800 Afghan refugees may resettle in the Waterloo Region over the next two years.
For many, adjusting to life in Canada has been filled with many challenges and hardships. From feelings of isolation and loneliness to dealing with financial troubles and finding affordable housing, life for newcomers is not easy.
Charitable organizations like Muslim Social Services (MSS) are on the front lines in helping refugees from all over the world settle in to their new lives. Since 2007, MSS has aimed to foster an inclusive community and support refugees through its educational, outreach, and support initiatives.
Duaa Al-Aghar, executive director of MSS, came to Canada in 2006 as a refugee and became heavily involved with the organization shortly after.
“We want to foster an inclusive community in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. We’ve helped a lot of families from Rohingya, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Afghanistan. MSS provides social services for long-term care,” Al-Aghar said.
Due to the often violent and traumatic nature of many refugees’ departure from their home, this inclusive environment is a necessity.
One Waterloo resident, who wished to remain anonymous, is a refugee and can attest to this struggle. She came to the region 14 years ago with her parents and eight siblings after leaving their home in Bangladesh. She and her family are Rohingya, and this is now the second major displacement her family has endured.
The Rohingya people are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group who predominantly follow Islam and reside in Rakhine State, Myanmar (previously known as Burma). Prior to the displacement crisis in 2017, when over 740,000 fled to Bangladesh.
“We came here for a better future. My parents left everything. We had faced a war zone back home. My parents had to leave their home of Myanmar. We are now all Canadian citizens,” she said. “We settled in the Reception House [of Waterloo] for a few years until our case was reviewed and we were assigned a house in Kitchener. We eventually moved to Waterloo when my siblings started growing older.”
“When we came here, it was a completely new world. At that time I didn’t realize how much pain and struggles my parents went through being able to connect with the new culture, language, and discrimination. As a family, we faced a lot of Islamophobia,” she said.
For her family, along with many others who came to Waterloo for safety, Islamophobia is an unfortunate daily occurrence. As of 2020, MSS has been providing community discussions, weekly (virtual) social programming, counselling, mental health resources, and community partnerships.
“Many of the Muslim families have been experiencing extreme isolation because COVID-19 has reduced the number of events [we run] that are meant to [help people] socialize,” Rozina Shaheen, MSS community engagement coordinator, said.
Shaheen moved to Waterloo in 2010 as a refugee, and took on her role at MSS in January 2021.
“The language barrier was the hardest. The school where I started did not have any ESL programs, but luckily I made friends easily. What I saw is that here, education is really important and I have always been driven to maintain good grades,” the anonymous resident said.
She recently graduated from the University of Waterloo and is currently working as a community health worker.
“I have not been able to go back home yet and I really miss it. It’s not safe yet for so many reasons. My parents back in 2018 went back home to visit and their experience was filled with pain. I think a lot of refugees and immigrants right now are struggling with that. Pain, and not being able to go home,” she said.
“People do discriminate because of [their] accents. Regardless of my qualifications, I feel like I get passed over because of my accent.”
To try and support individuals and families facing discrimination, MSS also offers community-building events which help people find jobs in Waterloo. Part of their goal as an organization is to create an understanding of social issues pertaining to Muslims in Canada. They also want to increase the capacity of the community to welcome and support refugees and to work meaningfully with Muslims and other communities.