‘Keeping it in the community is our strength’

Informal Calgary network addresses core needs of new Canadian women

The Women Support Group Calgary celebrated its first year in October.

The Women Support Group Calgary celebrated its first year in October.

Noreen Mahmood was volunteering at a local nonprofit centre where she works with new Canadians when she caught a vision for the possibilities that an informal women’s group could open up.

Fairly new to Canada herself – she moved from Pakistan in the spring of last year – Noreen had been active at the centre in Calgary’s northeast, helping with translation services.

“I used to wear a headscarf, so women from areas like South Asia . . . used to come and stop by. I looked like them, so they came to me and asked about different things,” Noreen recalls.

“And what I realized is that while they were very skilled women, many had no information about the resources available in the community.”

Having felt it herself, Noreen understood the hesitancy that many of the women felt about approaching professionals such as settlement counsellors or employment counsellors with their questions. Both language and culture differences created anxiety.

With a background in community development, Noreen was also keenly aware of the importance of social capital – and could see that this was a lack.

“So I thought of this informal setting where women can come and benefit from networking and gathering information,” Noreen says.

In October of 2013, the group’s first meeting took place. Four were present.

This fall, the Women Support Group Calgary celebrated its first-year anniversary.

More than 30 women are now engaged with the group.

Looking back, Noreen is energized to see that what she had envisioned for the group has come to fruition in many ways.

“It’s working,” she says.

Women are exchanging contact information so they can connect outside of the group meetings.

The group has identified topics they wish to learn about and then hosted guest speakers. In some cases, those guests have been employment and settlement counsellors. This allows the women to be introduced in the informal group setting. They then feel more confident about following up with the counsellors later.

The group has organized several social gatherings – a picnic in summer and anniversary celebration in October, with families, food and fun included.

“Keeping this within the community is our strength,” Noreen says. “People feel more comfortable, that this is ‘our’ group and we are coming here to participate based on what we need and want.”

She is proud of the group’s inclusive spirit. “If we want to enjoy the diversity of Calgary, we should be collaborating,” she says.

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As for the future of the group, Noreen is brimming with ideas and possibilities. She and the group want to have more of a presence in other parts of the city. Currently the network meets in the city’s northeast. A non-profit centre, 1,000 Voices, allows the group to use one of its rooms for free.

But the scenario is not always ideal as the women who live in other parts of the city can sometimes find transportation difficult because of weather conditions, whether or not they have to access to vehicles and the extra time required on public transit. Satellite groups in various neighbourhoods could help address these concerns.

Noreen and the group have also discussed becoming more intentional about blending their gifts and strengths for the greater good of their community. One issue of concern to them is the disturbingly high rate of domestic violence in the city – the highest in the country.

They’re also keen to explore collaborating more with other organized groups.

And if their first year is any indication, those possibilities are most likely to come to life in a great way.

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