‘I can go to school. It’s safe here.’ Afghan girls, women and their families come together to share their experiences and mark Mother’s Day

‘I can go to school. It’s safe here.’ Afghan girls, women and their families come together to share their experiences...

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Nine-year-old Zainab Nabawi, a newcomer from Afghanistan, squinted in the sun as she talked about her life in Canada.

“I can go to school. It’s safe here,” said the grade 4 student who had no access to education, following the Taliban’s return to power in August, 2021 before she came to Canada last summer.

Nabawi and her sister were among about 300 people who gathered in Richmond Hill on Mother’s Day at an outdoor event held to highlight the plight of women in Afghanistan.

“The things they’ve seen is incomparable to what we’ve seen … they’ve seen family members blasted, blown up, kidnapped,” said Zeeshan Mawji, head of procurement for the non-profit organization Salaam Foundation.

Mawji, one of the organizers of the Mother’s Day event, said while food, clothing and housing are essential for newcomers, mental health resources need to be prioritized.

“Imagine coming from that and having to start a whole new life in a whole new country. They have a lot of trauma,” she said.

Salaam Foundation and several other Richmond Hill-based organizations — including Hazara Women Organization and Who is Hussain — that provide housing, education and job support for Afghan immigrants came together to hold the Sunday celebration at Richmond Green Sports Centre & Park.

The Mother’s Day event specifically focused on the Hazara community, an ethno-religious minority group facing increased attacks since the Taliban took over.

“We co-ordinated with other organizations to help the Hazara community because they have specific needs, as they are being discriminated against and persecuted,” said Halima Bahman, co-founder of Hazara Women organization. “They need specialized support.”

Having fled the Taliban in 1998 over violent attacks against the Hazara, Bahman experienced trauma and persecution first-hand.

She said that’s why she’s made it her life’s mission to help others, especially the Hazara community.

During Sunday’s event, mental health workers were on-site to provide support with trauma counselling through one-on-one discussions, and offered avenues to continue ongoing therapy and support.

There are many aspects to Canadian life that will be a sizable adjustment for the newcomers, said Mawji, such as access to schooling, which many women have been denied.

“Access to school and education is a huge privilege. To (be able to) go somewhere where they are safe without the Taliban attacking them and having women be educators, it’s a big thing,” Mawji said.

Event volunteer Suhaila Akbarzada arrived in Canada with three children in 2017, having completed a Grade 4 level of education. Now, she’s a dental assistant and credits Canada for the opportunities she’s been afforded.

“I want to achieve more and help my people to make my country proud of me,” she said. “I want to tell my people about their options. Canada can give a lot of opportunity, but you have to be ambitious. We have to give back.”

Moving forward, Bahman said the government can provide more support and stand with the Hazara community, especially after the bombing of a girl’s school in September, 2022.

Learning about the Hazara and the persecution they’ve endured will allow Canadians to better understand their plight, said Bahman.

“Show them the love and support they have been missing from Afghanistan,” she said. “We want to show them, this is not Afghanistan. They can be valued as a human being. There is worth for you as a human being.”

Sheila Wang is a York Region-based investigative reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected]

Clarrie Feinstein is a Toronto-based business reporter for the Star. Reach Clarrie via email: [email protected]

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