A Woman on a Mission — Fadhilah Balogun—by Anneke van den Berg
Sisterhood. That is a feeling Fadhilah Balogun has always searched for. It doesn’t necessarily have to be with other Muslim women or other Nigerian women or even African women, but with like-minded women, who will accept her for who she is — to be part of a community, a place where she can fill her need for connection and have purpose.
Coming to Canada in 2007 and settling in Kitchener, Ontario, Fadhilah knew it wouldn’t be easy to find that community. She had lived in Fredericton, New Brunswick, for four months before moving to Kitchener. Fredericton had been a very White city with few immigrants. Waterloo Region promised to be a bit better, but she knew that as a Nigerian Muslim woman she was not going to easily find a thriving community of fellow Nigerians. Nevertheless, she took on the move with an open mind. After all, she wasn’t looking specifically for women like her, but women she could build relationships with, learn from, and who could help her get established in her new hometown.
Very pregnant and with a toddler, Fadhilah and her husband arrived in Kitchener in September 2007. They didn’t know anyone, and her husband was studying long hours as a student. Fadhilah spent the days by herself with her toddler. When she went into labour one morning, she prayed that her labour wouldn’t progress quickly, so that she wouldn’t have to go to the hospital before her husband returned. It worked out, and she gave birth in the hospital without complications.
Fadhilah was determined to make connections. She’d always had a knack for finding potential friends. She did not go out often, as that was very difficult with two little ones. Canadian winters are long, and there was no reliable transportation. That particular year it was an especially harsh winter, also known as the “winter of snow without end.” While going out was difficult, she still had to leave the apartment to do laundry in her building. Being resourceful, she found that she could turn the humdrum laundry chore into an opportunity for friendly socializing. In this spirit, she offered her help to others in the building whenever the situation presented itself.
One day, Fadhila met two West African ladies in the elevator of her building and she memorized the floor they got out on. Never one to sit back and wait, Fadhilah decided to figure out where the women lived. She proceeded to knock briskly on doors. Her persistence paid off and she was welcomed into their homes. During an appointment with Focus for Ethnic Women, an employment counsellor suggested to her that she should look into becoming a personal support worker (PSW), since she had a similar background already. She had been a Family Physician in Nigeria.
Fadhilah was shocked by the counsellor's suggestion. After all, she was a trained medical doctor, and while she valued the work of PSWs, she couldn’t ever see herself in that position. As well, she had considerable arthritis in her knees. She knew the knee pain would make a job entailing standing and lifting patients all day simply impossible for her, and she told this to the counsellor in their meeting. She was also troubled by something: would the agency typically suggest this career solution to other women with a similar educational background? Fadhilah highly doubted that they would.
Instead, she undertook another enterprising adventure. Fadhilah decided to start attending a sewing class hosted by Focus for Ethnic Women. She believed that such a practical step could be useful for her. She didn’t know how to sew and was interested in acquiring new skills. It wasn’t long before she realized sewing wasn’t really a skill at which she wanted to excel. Yet in her class, she did stand out without too much effort. Strong communication skills were a natural strength for Fadhilah that simply bubbled to the surface. She often found herself informally assisting the teacher by clearly explaining specific sewing instructions to her peers. This valuable interpersonal asset was recognized by the agency. Not long after joining the group, Fadhilah was offered a volunteer position assisting in the classroom.
For some time, Fadhilah had been reflecting on whether having a job at that point in her life would necessarily work for her family. She wanted to be the primary caregiver for her children, a key life role that overshadowed all else for her. But she also understood that she needed to do something for herself. Volunteering and community work would evolve to become her main focus. “I needed to find something to channel my energy, something that makes me a valued member of this community and that gave my life purpose.” It was an important insight in her life at the time.
Fadhilah continued volunteering at a range of other community organizations for several years. She enjoyed working with people, but also began to feel she didn’t have a voice in these organizations. She was not invited to share her opinion or to show initiative of any kind. As an ambitious, highly educated, and vocal woman, Fadhilah felt deeply that she had opinions and ideas to share.
In 2010, Fadhilah was introduced to the Coalition of Muslim Women (CMW), when she attended their first event, “Let Us Talk,” at Kitchener City Hall. It was a pioneering community forum about the proposed Bill 94 in Quebec. She was impressed by the event, especially by the diversity of the participants and the many community partners that attended. Fadhilah felt energized following the event — an event that had brought together so many local Muslim women. She didn’t really expect that anything else would come from the event.
In 2011, however, her life changed again. She was invited by the CMW to join a member orientation session. She thoroughly enjoyed the stimulating tone of the meeting, the abundance of information she was given, and the new engaged faces at the table. For the first time in Canada, an organization actually took the time to explain to her what her rights were as a volunteer. Fadhilah understood that there could be many opportunities for her with the Coalition, an organization where, as a member, she could actually have a vote in the decision-making process and a voice. “There immediately was a sense of belonging and sisterhood that I hadn’t experienced before in Canada.”
Over time, further sparks of insight developed, strengthening Fadhilah’s commitment to the organization. During one early event by the CMW, there was a discussion about ways to integrate into the local community. The presenter gave the example of celebrating Halloween. For both traditional and religious reasons, actively participating in this celebration was not something that Fadhilah would ever consider. In Nigeria, Halloween is not an acceptable celebration for most Nigerians — Muslim or Christian. During the event, Fadhilah was the only participant who was vocal about her (very personal) opinion to not participate in Halloween celebrations. When she saw that Fadhilah was getting criticized for her beliefs, a founding member approached her. She said: “Don’t defend yourself. Your opinion is your opinion, and that opinion is valid.”
That was Fadhilah’s defining moment, helping her to decide to stay with the Coalition. “I knew then that I was being valued, appreciated for who I was, and what I stand for.” There was a place for her within the CMW, and that was exciting.
Fadhilah was impressed by the community that the Coalition provided. She was now experiencing the sisterhood she had long wished for, attending the regular meetings that were organized to create connection between the members. She found these meetings very helpful, as isolation had continued to be an issue for her and her family. Fadhilah attended all the training opportunities the CMW offered, enjoying them all. Through the process of repeated dialogue and discussion, Fadhilah found her own voice at the CMW.
Things did change though. Fadhilah went away for four months to Nigeria, her first trip back home since she had settled in Canada. This was in 2015. She recalled that when she returned, she experienced a divided Coalition, where the members were now separated into groups, into different committees. “That is when the fragmentation started, and people started to leave.”
The meetings Fadhilah had enjoyed so much were cancelled, and the CMW seemed to have new goals. It was working toward a different kind of future, she thought. The Coalition was growing, and with that growth came certain losses. The major loss Fadhilah noticed was the loss of connection — of sisterhood. “I remember that I joined a committee, but I do not even remember whatever came of that committee, or if we ever met.”
That loss of sisterhood was something that Fadhilah experienced in the larger community as well. Fadhilah was still using public transportation and she would sometimes depend on others for a ride home. She had taken buses before without any difficulty. During this time, Fadhilah attended an evening community event, predominantly attended by Muslims. After the event, Fadhilah approached many Muslim women for a ride, but suddenly everyone was going the other way or taking the highway home. Fadhilah made it home after a long and arduous journey by bus and foot, exhausted and deflated.
The disappointing experience left Fadhilah questioning why many of these women would show up and be charitable when the larger community and especially the press were around. “You cannot give a sister a ride home, but when CTV News is there, you are the first in line to do things for the larger community.” It left her with a bad taste in her mouth.
The atmosphere at the CMW was changing as well. Fadhilah felt that Coalition was now focusing more on the wider community, and that the local Muslim women and members were no longer the focus. “Networking became key. Meetings became opportunities for the larger community to meet us, ‘the others’.” Fadhilah felt she was often out of the loop, and she missed a few meetings that she hadn’t even been aware of. The fact that she had let her membership lapse at one point wasn’t helping either.
During this time of change, Fadhilah began to look beyond the CMW and approached other organizations for volunteering and networking opportunities. “I tracked my own path and explored the larger community. The Coalition had given me the confidence and resources to do so.”
Fadhilah was now a busy woman, and her many commitments meant that she wasn’t as flexible or available as other Coalition members. Her arthritis had a huge impact on this too. For the CMW, Fadhilah was always just a phone call away. “Every time the Coalition needed me, they would just call me, and I would always show up.” The Coalition could always count on her.
In 2020, things are going well for Fadhilah. Now the proud owner of a driver’s license, she is currently working as the unofficial outreach worker of the African Women’s Alliance. There, she facilitates cooking programs. She is still volunteering at a long list of local organizations. “New things come up for me all the time,” she says. “But the Coalition is always there, and I look forward to opportunities with them.”
As a medical doctor, and as a Nigerian woman who has lived in Saudi Arabia and has made Canada her home, Fadhilah has learned to be open to all kinds of people, to be respectful of their choices. “I am a true intercultural expert,” Fadhilah says. “I see people as people. I really don’t care where you are from. I can deal, I can connect with anybody. I don’t find it difficult to go into a store and talk with anyone I want.”
What projects and passions lie ahead in 2021? Recently, Fadhilah was asked to participate in the “Keeping Your Families Safe During the Pandemic” project by the CMW. “I really enjoyed the training and I got to meet so many great women.” The diversity of the new participants stimulated Fadhilah, who loves to create new connections. After all, it was one of the reasons she joined the Coalition; she was glad that she had the chance to experience the adventure of new friendships once again. With “Keeping Your Families Safe During the Pandemic,” the CMW proved to her that the larger Muslim community remained an important focus.
The Coalition holds a special place in Fadhilah’s heart. “There simply isn’t another organization like the CMW, here or anywhere else,” Fadhilah says. It is women like Fadhilah, a true intercultural expert, who have made the Coalition the organization it is today, over a decade after that first meeting in April 2010.