Standing my Ground — Howida Sayeed—by Nasreen Nasreen
“I saw my future turn into darkness before my eyes. It was clear I was being punished because I refused to give in and cease raising my voice. But nothing in life comes easy. You have to work hard for your dreams. And so did I — I had to start from scratch.”
Howida Sayeed Ahmed had to start her studies all over again in another subject. Yet that experience, though discouraging, gave her the strength to move to Canada, starting once again in a country where everything was new and unlike anything she was accustomed to.
Slowly, but with determination, Howida earned academic qualifications and then worked at different jobs, each more skilled than the last. Once established, she helped co-found two organizations to help Muslim women, one in Kitchener and one in Sudan. It wasn’t easy for her to get to where she is today. It was solely her desire to be someone she could be proud of that kept her going during the most turbulent times of her life.
Howida’s story begins in Sudan. Born into a large family, she is the oldest of seven children. She was in Grade 3 when her family decided to pack everything and move to Saudi Arabia for a brighter future.
Being the oldest, it was her responsibility to help her mother take care of her younger siblings. This time spent caring for her siblings shaped her personality. It ignited within her the desire to help people. Howida understood from an early age the meaning of responsibility and care. She also learned that if she wanted to be respected, she had to be well educated. But that is something she could not have achieved in Saudi Arabia. Her options were limited because she was not a Saudi citizen. While her family had a respectable life, there were limits on everything they did.
Howida loved chemistry, and she aspired to be a chemical engineer one day. That was all she ever wanted for herself. With a smile on her face, Howida admits she wasn’t going to settle for just any university. She wanted the best for herself. With her big dreams, Howida moved to Sudan at the age of 18 to study chemical engineering at the University of Khartoum. Little did she know her life was going to take an unimaginable turn — something she could not have foreseen.
During the first year of her undergraduate studies, Sudan fell into political turmoil. As Howida narrates why she made the choices that she did, you can hear the passion in her words. “I have never been a bystander. I always speak my mind and stand my ground if I know something is not right. I had to voice my opinion against corruption in the country, and I had to play my part. I had been silent for too long when I was in Saudi Arabia, and I finally had the chance to express myself. I wanted to be the change that positively impacted my community and my country and its future.”
Howida joined the students’ political movement. Since she owned a car, she held the responsibility of driving her fellow classmates back and forth from protests. One of the critical issues that she was fighting for was the freedom to express your opinion at the university. She was also not happy with the level of corruption Sudan was struggling with. There was a significant change in the academic curriculum with all study material being taught in Arabic and not in English anymore. Because of her connection with the movement, Howida was questioned by the police on several occasions for supporting the campaign and speaking her mind. “My personality changed altogether. I grew as a person. I went from being an obedient young girl to an outspoken, confident, and strong woman. But it didn’t end well.”
As a way to protest, Howida decided she did not want to sit for her exams. The university administration was not amused by her actions, and she was asked to refrain from showing support for the movement. Howida refused to back down and continued to protest.
“And it cost me my only dream!”
In retaliation, the university concluded that she could not pursue chemical engineering any longer. She was asked to study another subject from the beginning. It was a decision that was made for her. She could either study mathematical science or leave.
This was a turning point in Howida’s life, something she had not planned for. As she recounts the changes that took place in her life, her eyes drift away. “The incident changed me. It shaped me into who I am today. Everything that I have been able to achieve in Canada, every struggle that I have been able to endure was only possible because of my days fighting injustice in Sudan.
During this time, Howida met her husband. They got engaged while she was a student at the university, still pursuing her undergraduate studies. While many people move thousands of miles away to different countries to search for better opportunities, it was love that brought Howida to Canada.
Her fiancé asked Howida to come to Canada since it was the perfect place to raise children. They would receive the best education and be safe and happy. Howida did not want to uproot her life and move to a new country. But she had been with her fiancé for a long time, and she did not want to lose what she had with him either. “There is truth in the saying — we do the unthinkable when we are in love. And that’s what I did.”
“I thought to myself that I should give it a try and if I don’t like it, I will come back to Sudan. It was not an easy decision to make to leave my family and all my friends so far away, but being the strong woman that I am, I was not going to say no without trying. So, I packed my life in a suitcase and moved to Canada.”
As Howida narrates the aftermath of moving to Canada, her eyes are a picture of sadness. The couple made St. Catharines, Ontario, their home. Despite their efforts, neither of them could find a job. “Canada was very different back then. We welcome immigrants and refugees with open arms now, but it wasn’t the same when we came here.
“Little did I know that I was going to lose everything that I held close to my heart, including myself. All that success, hard work, confidence, and my happiness — it was all gone! All I knew or felt was the feeling of being reduced to nothing. The loneliness clawed at me from the inside and nothing that I did made it go away. I had nothing to hold on to — no career, family, or friends. My life was insignificant and without a purpose. I was ready to leave within the first three months of being here.”
Howida’s neighbours and other people in the community suggested she take any job that she could find regardless of her skills and experience. She was told the way to live here is to network and make connections. Fluent in her mother tongue — Arabic — English wasn’t her strongest skill.
Running between hiring agencies, Howida was trying as hard as she could to find a job but with no success. “I was disappointed with life. I was disappointed with myself. I could have been so much more in Sudan. I had hit rock bottom.”
It was after Howida gave birth to her son that it all sunk in. She wondered what she wanted her son to see her as. “I wanted to change things, I wanted to find myself and be the same person that I was before. I couldn’t be this person anymore. I was determined to at least give myself one more chance.”
Howida enrolled at Conestoga College to pursue a three-year degree course in computer programming. She was at the top of her class and started getting her confidence back. She also started volunteering by helping the youth in her community. Since she had been good at mathematics, Howida took the opportunity to tutor as many students as she could. She had an income coming in while she completed her program. She was preparing for job interviews for getting into the job market once her program was completed.
“Every job I applied to had the same reason for not hiring me — I had no Canadian experience. It did not matter what degree I had, with no experience I was not going to get hired. I started going to agencies and told them I would take anything at this point. I had to pay off my student loans and I had my family to support as well.”
After waiting for a few months, Howida finally heard back from the agency about an opening with one of the tech companies in Waterloo Region. It was nothing related to her degree, but the bills had to be paid. She was fixing phone devices for the company as a technician. She got noticed for her work and was soon offered a full-time position.
Howida’s managers were impressed by her skills and she quickly climbed the ladder of success. It’s been over 10 years now and she has been employed with the same IT company she started with. She is now working as a systems business analyst. And her son is now in college.
Co-founder of the Kitchener-based Coalition of Muslim Women (CMW) and Share Fi Alkhair, which supports people in Sudan, Howida has left no stone unturned in giving back to her community.
Howida, along with some of her friends in Kitchener-Waterloo, came together to form the Coalition of Muslim Women-KW in 2010. They were concerned about the potential negative impact of the proposed Bill 94 in Quebec. The bill, if passed, would limit Muslim women’s ability to wear a face veil when requesting services from the government. “We could not just sit and see this happen — I had been silent for as long as I can remember. The idea was not just to speak up against injustices, but to also provide a space to Muslim women to strengthen their voices.” Over the years, the CMW has provided Muslim women with support and leadership opportunities.
Howida draws a deep breath in, as if she is finally at peace. “With the founding of the Coalition, I got the opportunity to change. I became who I always wanted to be. It’s given my life a purpose that was missing all this while. Now I know how to help people and I do that every day. In other words, it satisfies my desire to be a great leader.”
However, it did not come easy. Howida remembers her early days after founding the CMW. “CMW was our baby. It took a lot of hard work and effort to build the organization. There was so much to do in the beginning that we had not thought about. It was an amazing journey that played a crucial role in shaping who I am today.”
Howida reminisces about some of the early days when she, along with her fellow co-founders, were too shy to speak up in a small room. Today, Howida and many CMW members hold workshops and speak at events with confidence. “We empowered ourselves and now we empower other Muslim women.”
Through her organization, Share Fi Alkhair, Howida has helped numerous women who are widows, to pay for their children’s education in Sudan. The organization also provides financial aid to those in need of urgent medical care but are unable to afford it.
“If there’s one thing that I am proud of about myself, it is my ability to make a decision and follow it through. And that’s what I did when I moved to Canada. I started from scratch and didn’t let go when nothing seemed to be going right. My confidence dwindled, but I held on. I am proud of my struggles. I make a difference with my work every day. And I am finally in a place where I am content with who I am. I am proud of the different identities I carry within myself — Canadian, Muslim, Sudanese, a woman, and an immigrant.”