Shelter Spotlight: Nisa Homes

NISA Homes Volunteers

Nisa Homes opened its first transition house seven years ago with a mission to “create the opportunity of ‘home’ for domestic abuse violence survivors across Canada.” A project of the National Zakat Foundation, the organization provides shelter to women and their children fleeing violence. [Zakat, meaning “to cleanse,” is one of the five pillars of Islam – it’s a mandatory charitable contribution and religious duty for all Muslims who meet the necessary criteria of wealth to help the needy.]

There are now eight Nisa Homes transition houses located in BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, with two more currently in the planning stages. Located in residential neighbourhoods, the homes are run by multi-lingual staff and volunteers, have an average capacity of 12-14 clients, and provide a supportive environment for Muslim women who don’t always feel comfortable in other shelters due to Islamaphobia and a general lack of knowledge of Islamic practices.

Nisa Homes’ shelters are specifically designed to provide a supportive environment for Muslim women to practice as they wish. As Syma Nehal, Regional Manager for Nisa Homes Vancouver, explains, “we offer [clients] prayer areas, books, and other materials.” While Nisa’s programs are catered towards immigrant, refugee, and Muslim women, the organization’s services are accessible to non-Muslim women as well. “We don’t have any expectations of anyone practicing – we wouldn’t even ask – you do whatever you’re comfortable with and know that you’re in a respectful environment,” says Nehal.

In addition to providing shelter, Nisa Homes (“nisa” means “women” in Arabic) also supports off-site clients, such as families with children as well as single women, who need services other than housing. These range from case management (one-on-one support for clients to secure income, employment, and housing) and financial assistance, to mental health counselling and spiritual support. Nehal notes that a growing number of clients are refugee claimants due to immigration rules changing in the United States and, more recently, the Afghan refugee crisis last fall.

A Local and National Partnership

Shelter Movers provides an average of two moves a month for Nisa Homes Vancouver. When asked how Nisa clients moved their belongings before the partnership, Nehal is blunt. “They didn’t,” she replies, explaining that few, if any, clients can afford to hire a moving company. There is not much in terms of a government subsidy to help fund their move, leaving clients with no other option than to take as much as they can over public transit or in taxis.

Shelter Movers is a very specific, very special service – it’s one of a kind and I truly feel that if we didn’t have Shelter Movers we are lost in that category.

Syma Nehal, Regional Manager for Nisa Homes Vancouver

This is a partnership that continues to grow on both a local and a national level; every time the two national organizations open a new chapter in the same city, a local partnership blossoms. Currently that translates into five local partnerships which Yael Schwarz, Shelter Movers’ National Operations Director, describes as being a “hybrid of a national and local relationship.” She explains the process to set up each new partnership isn’t always the same: “for example, in Ottawa, Vancouver, and soon in Halifax, I’ve reached out to my national contact at Nisa to set up a partnership by asking to introduce our local team to theirs, whereas in Montreal they reached out to us on their own with a referral for a client before we had the chance to formally establish the relationship.” 

“Our Mantra is Empowerment”

With clients limited to a three-month maximum stay and a perpetually tight rental market, the search to find a permanent home, or at least second-stage housing, starts before the client even arrives. “We’ve already narrowed down the budget before [the client] gets here,” notes Nehal. Once clients leave, they can continue to access services for another six months. Nehal emphasizes the importance of helping a client become self-sufficient. That assistance is personalized based on each client’s specific needs and can include everything from learning how to use the transit system to opening a bank account. Most importantly, the client learns how to access resources on her own. “Our mantra is empowerment,” Nehal says. “We don’t want to do everything for clients because they’ll be lost when they leave.”

To illustrate this, Nehal tells the story of a female refugee from a war-torn country who arrived in Canada with shrapnel still lodged in her eye and arm, speaking not a word of English. Initially Nisa Homes Vancouver was only asked to assist with some translation services, but as the woman felt comfortable with Nisa staff and the Vancouver location had space available, she requested a move there. As the woman’s caseworker, Nehal recalls using strategies such as Google Translate and hand gestures to overcome the language barrier and help her client navigate the complex logistics of medical appointments, eye surgery and a difficult recovery. As it turned out, one of the Nisa volunteers spoke the woman’s language and stepped up to provide crucial support. The client recovered, conquered her extreme anxiety, located housing and employment, and learned a new language. “She made it,” says Nehal. “She was able to create a life for herself.”

Nisa Homes truly fills a critical niche in the gender-based violence sector by providing a safe haven and support for women and their families fleeing domestic violence, poverty or seeking asylum. To learn more, visit their website.

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