A women's shelter run by a Calgary charity focused on helping women and children from different cultural backgrounds escape domestic violence has purchased its own home, helping to secure its future in the city.
Maskan is a shelter that provides specialist accommodation and support services, taking into account cultural and religious considerations that can make women feel more welcome and more likely to seek help, like access to halal or vegetarian food, support in their own language and places to worship within the home.
The transitional shelter is the flagship project of a Calgary-based charity, the Canadian Pakistani Support Group. The group also helps refugees with settlement and crisis supports, runs activities and programs for youth as well as offering other community-focused projects.
Before purchasing the home in a neighbourhood in the city's northwest, Maskan had to operate out of rented accommodation, reliant on the co-operation of landlords, making it more unpredictable to operate.
"At least now we don't have to worry that we have to move from one place to another," said project manager Zainab Khan.
Maskan has moved twice over the past couple of years. At the same time, the organization was busy reaching out to the community and governments to help finance and secure a permanent home to try to avoid the pattern of having to close and move.
"During moving, there's a lot that happens. We have to temporarily shut down the doors to all those seeking shelter," said Khan.
"We always have around five to 10 women and children on our waiting list with more requests every day, so it's a huge thing to close it down. We have to displace the residents, and there are occupancy issues in other shelters," said Khan.
Khan says it also takes around three months to get a permit from the City of Calgary for a new shelter whenever they move, which means they can't take in women in need of help while they wait for that to materialize.
She says buying their own home solves all those problems.
"It means we don't have any interruptions to our operations. It takes a lot of energy and money to move," she said. "And we don't have additional funding to do that."
Demand for their services spiked as the pandemic became more livable with more families getting vaccinated after long periods confined in their homes, often exacerbating existing domestic issues, including violence.
Khan says many women from different cultural backgrounds, including many Muslim women, are reluctant to seek help from mainstream shelters, fearing their cultural and religious needs won't be understood or accommodated.
Women also have access to case workers and mental health support and counselling, in their own language and with an understanding of the cultures and backgrounds they come from.
"One woman was in a violent situation for seven years. She was looking out of the window one day and I asked what she was thinking about. She said, 'This is the first time I've been in Canada, and I feel like I'm breathing freely,'" said Khan.
"They need a comfortable space where they feel secure, in a homely environment, a culturally comfortable environment, religiously comfortable environment. That's the unique value of Maskan, and it feels like home," Khan said.
Maskan also provides women with clothing, including hijabs, and special dietary needs that often aren't an option at other shelters.
"We provide them with the clothes, food. They feel safe and they can relate and connect with other residents. They get together to talk and share their stories," said Aneela Azeem, executive director of the Canadian Pakistani Support Group.
Azeem says women in some shelters aren't even allowed to share details of what they've been through.
"They like to stay here better than any other place," said Azeem. "They have the same background and similar stories and they motivate each other."
All the funding for the home came from the community and fundraisers rather than governments.
"We decided to buy the property to save Maskan and to save the residents, and now we're applying for more funding, including from the federal government," said Azeem.
The shelter needs to raise more money by next spring to keep delivering its services.