Atlantic Canada's 1st transition house for Muslim women and children opens in Halifax

Yasmine Youssef, the program director at Nisa Homes, says the demand for a transition house's services has grown since the COVID-19 pandemic started. (Paul Poirier/CBC - image credit)
Yasmine Youssef, the program director at Nisa Homes, says the demand for a transition house's services has grown since the COVID-19 pandemic started. (Paul Poirier/CBC - image credit)

Atlantic Canada's first transition house specifically for Muslim women and children fleeing domestic violence or homelessness opened this month in Halifax, and was celebrated with a grand opening ceremony at the Ummah Masjid Mosque on Friday.

The Ummah Society and Nisa Homes, a national non-profit charity, partnered to open the shelter and a new resource centre to serve the Muslim community in the region.

Yasmine Youssef, the program director at Nisa Homes, said the idea to open a transition house in Halifax has been in the works for almost five years, but the demand for its services has grown since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

"At the end of last year, we were just like, 'OK, now we need to make it happen,'" Youssef said.

"Especially we saw with COVID the numbers for domestic violence significantly increased and then also we're seeing now with the economic situation, a lot of homelessness and a lot of just people struggling to get by."

Paul Poirier/CBC
Paul Poirier/CBC

The shelter caters to immigrant, refugee, non-status or Muslim women, and will be able to accommodate up to 12 women and children, who can stay for up to three months at a time.

Once they do move out, they'll also have access to remote support for three more months. Youssef said the goal is to get the women back on their feet and living a fulfilling life.

The transition house in Halifax is the ninth of its kind in Canada. Youssef said each home costs around $250,000 per year to run, and this is expected to grow to $350,000 with rising costs.

She said this is funded by community donations.

Youssef said with Nova Scotia's high levels of immigration, government services just aren't able to keep up. She said the goal of the organization is to work in conjunction with existing services, and help women access any supports that are available to them.

"We're really trying to meet that culturally responsive gap for those newcomers, those women that are experiencing challenges when it comes to just settling into Canada," she said.

Paul Poirier/CBC
Paul Poirier/CBC

"But when you add on to it other challenges of domestic violence or homelessness or poverty, all of these things make it harder to find help and to access resources. And that's kind of where we come in."

The Atlantic Muslim Resource Centre will also help families access things like counselling, financial support, mental health services and parental support.

Although the shelter is located in the Halifax Regional Municipality, anyone in Atlantic Canada can access its remote services for support.

Youssef said the location will be kept secret and the women who use the services will sign a confidentiality agreement. It will also have security systems and security patrol.

Zainub Beg, a case worker and city operations manager with Nisa Homes in Halifax, said having a shelter specifically designed for Muslim women is vital.

"It's essential because it provides a culturally responsive and trauma-informed service that understands the identities of individuals seeking our services," Beg told CBC Radio's Mainstreet Thursday.

"They don't need to explain who they are or validate their existence. They come to someone who's providing care, that already understands where they're coming from and what their needs are and that allows them to heal in a safer environment."

Rethinking cultural taboo

Beg said not having access to that understanding while in a vulnerable situation often prevents women from coming forward and seeking support.

"There is already a taboo within the culture and the tradition and the religion as well about speaking about abuse and so if you're terrified to speak out about it and you're met with stigma it just becomes exponentially more difficult to talk about it and seek help," she said.

Beg said some services provided at the shelter include spiritual support with an imam or religious leader, being able to read the Qur'an, access to halal food, being able to pray in peace and being able to fast without judgment.

Youssef, from Nisa Homes, said it's also important that all the workers at the home are women, and either Muslim or able to reflect the community in another way. They will also undergo special training.

"We have clients that come to us and tell us the only reason I came forward is that you look like me. You speak like me. You understand where I'm coming from," she said.

Paul Poirier/CBC
Paul Poirier/CBC

Before the grand opening ceremony, Abdullah Yousri, imam of the Ummah Mosque, led a prayer for hundreds of community members. His message focused on removing stigma from things like domestic abuse and mental health.

"Many people are avoiding these topics ... because of culture stigma, because of also some religious sensitivities around these topics in general when it comes to mental health, suicide, domestic violence and and many other topics," Yousri said.

He made the original call to Nisa Homes years ago. He said his role as a religious leader is to call people to action and educate the community.

"When we talk about women, when we talk about domestic violence, when we talk about the women's rights in Islam in general, we have lots of guidance, lots of verses, lots of narrations addressing these topics and also at the same time misconceptions that we are trying to dismantle," he said.