New community hub helping Edmonton refugees thrive

·3 min read
IFSAA client Moumneh Aldwamn launched her custom-made doll business five months after arriving in Canada. (CBC News - image credit)
IFSAA client Moumneh Aldwamn launched her custom-made doll business five months after arriving in Canada. (CBC News - image credit)

The first time Moumneh Aldwamna set foot in the new Islamic Family Social Services Association (IFSSA) community hub, she spotted the sewing machines and got to work.

Five months after arriving in Edmonton, the 63-year-old Syrian refugee launched her first business — a home-based, online venture stitching tote bags and made-to-order dolls.

"My life has changed with the machine,'' said Aldwamna, who was gifted with her own sewing machine by her support worker. "I'm so happy."

Aldwamna's experience is exactly what organizers at IFSSA envisioned when they designed the downtown space in a strip mall behind MacEwan University.

The two-storey hub has become a home away from home for many members of Edmonton's Muslim community including students, volunteers, artists and refugees. It offers a space to pray, connect, collaborate, create and belong.

"When a lot of newcomers arrive, there is a huge focus on just survival, for the first year —  making it through a system that is foreign to them," said Lena Awwad, IFSSA program director.

"A space like this really helps them think about flourishing and what that looks like beyond the first year, envisioning a future where they can do what they want."

Scott Neufeld/CBC News
Scott Neufeld/CBC News

Walking into the hub on a typical weekday, one can see clients offered tea, coffee or water and a seat in the centre of the space, painted in calming hues of orange, yellow, blue and green.

A small group gathers on cushions encircling a large plush ruby Persian carpet near an open mic stage.

Staff and volunteers meet in the 'Maker Space' room where clients can sew and podcasting equipment will soon be available.

And downstairs, workers are busy with the new food bank, with its cheery yellow floors, and a client base of more than 700 families every month.

The design was created with hospitality and community in mind, said Sumaira Farooq, IFSAA's essential care manager who oversees programs including food security, the tax clinic and financial literacy courses,

"Just for people to be able to come here, feel safe, sit down, have a cup of tea, have a chat with a staff member or another community member," Farooq said.

"Just for them to be able to tell their story and for us to be able to walk on their journey with them."

She said simply providing a monthly food hamper doesn't get to the root of clients' challenges whether it's isolation, employment, education or language.

"We need to address those issues before we put a Band-Aid on it by giving them a food hamper. And we won't know about those issues unless they come up into the space and have a conversation with us first."

Scott Neufeld/CBC News
Scott Neufeld/CBC News

First envisioned in 2020, community consultations revealed that local services too often mimic the experience clients have had in refugee camps — waiting in line-ups, with very little communication.

"We wanted that to change," Awwad said. "We wanted to do something that was more hospitable and felt more like home."

She said the beauty of the space is intentional with colourful geometric designs throughout, one of the many commonalities between Islamic and Indigenous traditions.

A striking star design on the ground near the entrance is a tribute to Cree star blankets, which are used for healing.

"The star guides Muslim visitors to the direction of prayer, and is a reminder to all of the rich Indigenous cultures on Treaty 6 where we are fortunate to work and live. In Islamic tradition, eight-sided stars and octagons are symbolic of duality and coming together," Awaad said.

Aldwamn found her way to the IFFSA hub after arriving in Edmonton with only her husband. She had to say goodbye to a busy life with four children and five grandchildren, who are settling in Austria,

"The honeymoon continues," Aldwamn joked before revealing her initial feelings of loneliness. Finding community and purpose at the IFSAA community hub has helped change that.

"I became refreshed, more hopeful," Aldwamn said.