Essay submitted by Shahina Siddiqui
Author; Speaker; Educator; Volunteer Executive Director, Islamic Social Services Association
I visited Winnipeg from New York in 1974 and fell in love with it. “This city has a soul,” I whispered to my husband. In 1976 we got our immigration papers and came straight to Winnipeg. My love for Winnipeg only grows stronger with each passing.
Here, I found a community of people who were devoted to peace and justice. I’ve had the privilege to know my Indigenous relatives who welcomed and sustained me through difficult times. Through my experiences working with diverse peoples and organizations, I gained insights and appreciation of the diversity that blossoms within the soul of our city, allowing us to see the unity of humanity, in all its diversity, as a blessing. The challenge is to continuously struggle for justice and human equality and never to take our freedoms for granted.
Through these diverse relationships, I have gained awareness of my own biases, and have grown empathy and appreciation of what it means to be accepting of differences without judgement and othering.
For 45 years I have lived in neighbourhoods whose residences are mostly from dominant culture. My neighbours were accepting, caring and helpful in building my confidence as a Canadian. From this experience, I learned that wholesale indictment of a group of people is not fair. To be able to see both sides of an issue and find common goals – and not anger and hate – is the constructive response.
Through my personal experiences caring for a child with special needs, and in the grief of his passing, I became acutely aware of the lack of services that were spiritually and culturally compatible to assist Muslim families who had children with special needs, and of the lack of organized funeral services. This is when I promised myself, God willing, I will do my utmost to establish social services for Muslims in North America. In 1999, this dream became a reality with the help of three American social workers. I volunteered to be the Executive Director and Winnipeg became the headquarter for Islamic Social Services Association: The first Muslim organization devoted to social services for North American Muslims.
It has been 20 years since I have been running ISSA as volunteer Executive Director and people often ask “What? You do not get paid for this.” There are many Winnipeggers who selflessly give of their time and expertise that nurtures our city’s soul. We need to recognize this donation, also, as philanthropy to encourage more engagement
My vision for Winnipeg is that by the next century we would have been successful to purge racism, anti-Indigenous discrimination and the “othering” and demonizing of the racialized groups, religious minorities and public sectors.
For ISSA, social services is about community building – where all feel safe to access services, where institutions serving the public are observing cultural safety and serving with cultural humility.
My hope and prayer for Winnipeg: may it never loose the soul this city revealed to me 45 years ago. Let us advocate and work together to invest in developing our neighbourhoods that have been neglected. Let us start building new, clean, affordable housing, green spaces and community centres to replace the mice and bug-infested slum buildings that crush the dignity of those who are forced to reside there.
We must honour Treaty 1, not just with words, but by returning the favour of the generous hospitality of the Indigenous communities whose land we live on, and stand with them in pursuit of justice, equality and human rights.
Winnipeg for me has been a beacon of hope and possibilities, friendships across cultures, coalitions, collaborations, marches for justice, peace, rallies for human rights, standing together for each other, engaging the media and calling out injustices. Where else would I have found such a treasure of hope!
Shahina Siddiqui is a freelance writer, author, spiritual counsellor, speaker and educator. Shahina has worked for decades to build bridges between faith and cultural communities, to help preserve human rights, and promote cultural competency and mutual respect.
Shahina co-founded Islamic Social Services Association in 1999 and serves as its volunteer Executive Director. She has also presented as a keynote speaker at local, national and international conferences on gender, faith, Islamophobia, human rights/anti-racism and extremism.
Shahina is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal (2013), the Canadian Red Cross Humanitarian of the Year (2016), and an Honourary Doctorate of Laws, University of Manitoba (2019).