Breaking biases and uplifting communities.
“There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.”
Today is International Women’s Day—a special time dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women and taking action for equality. This year’s #BreakTheBias theme focuses on the discrimination too often faced by women, but also the many people who are working to build a future free from gender bias. In honour of this initiative, we are pleased to feature Zein Dhanidina, founder of the Refugee Women’s Network (RWN). Zein is a trailblazer and change maker helping women who are new immigrants and refugees get their footing in Canada. Their mission of empowering women to help them successfully integrate into Canadian society while still maintaining their respective cultural values is inspiring and worthy (and of course, aligned with our values at Root & Seed).
Supporting new beginnings
Part of the inspiration and drive behind Zein’s work is rooted in her own childhood experience as a new immigrant navigating an unfamiliar culture and country.
“I immigrated to Canada from Tanzania when I was 6 years old with my parents and sisters in 1975. It was a very difficult time for new immigrants. It was a culture shock; the weather was a shock. It was a learning curve for my mum but she had the advantage of knowing English.”
Through her volunteer work, Zein met other women with some similar experiences of displacement in Canada, and a clear need for better tools to self-advocate for themselves and their children.
“[They] were struggling to understand how to help their children with their homework, how to advocate for their children, and how to talk to their teacher. I was also working with a settlement organization helping people within a small area. I decided to start Refugee Women’s Network to help all women from across Ontario regardless of when they arrived and what their status was, to learn English. In 2016, I started RWN and on March 27, 2017 we officially became a registered Canadian charity.”
“I started RWN with 3 goals: to provide a place for women to learn English in our Learning Labs, to provide women a space where they can find support . . . and to provide women the opportunity to have their qualifications assessed and pursue further education. Our programs are unique because we offer them virtually so women can attend from all over the country. In fact, our professional teachers, who are certified by the Ontario Teaching English As A Second Language for Adults, teach from different parts of the world.”
Ensuring that their clients learn to speak English is a particular priority for the network, as breaking down language barriers can also help break cycles of isolation and disempowerment within women’s communities.
“We offer our programs to refugees, newcomers, and Canadian Citizens. I am fighting for all women to learn English so they can comfortably settle in their communities, so they can hold conversations, advocate for their children at school, understand what is happening around them, understand the news, understand when someone is trying to victimize them, abuse the fact they don’t understand English, and understand what their rights are as women . . . Being able to communicate gives them the ability to seek support. When a woman can speak English, she can pursue further education, she can be employable, she can be a role model for her family. She has the ability to be a contributing member of her family. She is empowered, self-confident and self-sufficient. As she moves forward, her children move forward and thus breaking the cycle of poverty.”
“I wish to see every newcomer woman thrive and feel like a part of their community and not an outsider . . . We want refugee women to feel safe and self-confident and at the same time, feel like she belongs.”
Working towards this dream, Zein recognizes the gender biases we must collectively work together to break.
“Refugee women are looked at as taking away a citizen’s job, being a burden on social services, and bringing conflict into their new communities. However, refugee women are motivated to learn and work hard and not be a burden on social services. Supporting refugee women and helping them settle in their community allows others around them to see how dedicated and motivated they are to learn and be successful. And that they are not a burden on social services.”
Zein’s work is especially critical in light of recent global events, like the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. With many Afghan refugees newly arriving in Canada, providing tools of self-empowerment is crucial to support strong community networks and bonds, particularly between women.
“Many refugees newly arriving are isolated within their families and face many challenges. Our Women Helping Women program gives them a safe environment to connect with others and share. It helps them move forward and build their community. If we don’t continue to help all refugee women arriving, then they will continue to be isolated. They will feel hopeless and deflated. Teaching them English is empowering.”
Although education is prioritized to help refugee women get started in Canada, Zein knows that maintaining cultural heritage and traditions will also play a vital role throughout their lives, as an essential piece of their identity.
“Refugee women have had to give up so much and try to settle in a new, safer, community. Being able to hold their traditions and cultural values is a way to hold on to their identity. Being able to preserve their cultural heritage is like a lifeline for women. Everyone’s cultural heritage is tied to their values, the way they live their life, the celebrations they embrace, and how they raise their families. It makes up the fabric of their selves. It is how they define themselves and if we don’t help them maintain it, then they will lose a part of themselves . . . We want to continue to provide tools so refugee women can be employable, financially independent, know how to manage their finances, know how to avoid being a victim of scams, and know how to raise their families as who they truly are.”
Uplifting women, together
To honour the spirit of this year’s #BreakTheBias theme for International Women’s Day, we encourage you to not only look at ways to celebrate and uplift women in our close communities, but also in others facing their own unique challenges. To learn more about Zein and the Refugee Women’s Network, we invite you to explore their website and donate to support this important work.
Happy International Women’s Day!