A Changemaker Coming Home in Canada — Joudi Al Haj Ali—by Anneke van den Berg
“An extreme extravert, who needs to talk to people.” That is how Joudi describes herself. Her outgoing personality and need for connection are core to her nature; it’s why she says community work has been so important to her well-being. Not only is Joudi an active and committed member of the Coalition of Muslim Women (CMW). She might just be the Coalition’s youngest member, too.
Joudi is a 20-year-old Physics and Astronomy student, with a minor in Biophysics, at the University of Waterloo. Since coming to Canada, she has at times been using an alternative spelling of her name — Judi. “It is easier for most Canadians to pronounce it that way. Spelling my name as Judi saves me time correcting them.” Joudi doesn’t like wasting time.
Joudi is the eldest in her large, close-knit family. ”I feel protective of my siblings. I always try to keep them safe.” Though she was born in Syria, she doesn’t have many memories of living there. Growing up in Al Ain, one of the lesser-known Emirates in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), she visited Syria with her family every summer. Those long summers among family and friends in her home country, she remembers well. “We went every year, until the war happened. I haven’t been back since.”
Al Ain is a quiet, rather conservative place, not at all like flashy Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Growing up, Joudi loved her family environment and the social life the whole family enjoyed there. After coming to Canada, she realized that she had missed out on something during her time in the UAE. “In the UAE there was no public space available to us, as non-citizens. While there are opportunities in the Emirates, there are also so many barriers.”
Joudi came to Canada as a teenager, almost an adult, in 2018. She had completed her GCSE’s and was awarded a Cambridge International Certificate of Education (ICE) with distinction in the UAE. In Kitchener, Joudi settled into high school. The first months in Canada were hard on Joudi. She felt lonely, and struggled to feel normal. “I didn’t really know how to integrate into Canadian society.” Around that time, both her mother, Hadbaa, and Joudi met Fauzia and Uzma from the CMW. Together, they were invited to join the “Be the Change” leadership training. They eagerly accepted the invitation.
Both mother and daughter were excited to join the training. This was an opportunity to meet new people, perhaps people they could be friends with. “I felt myself shining there.” Joudi was the youngest participant, but she revelled in the experience. Her age never deterred her from becoming a fully active member of the Coalition. “I feel that the Coalition gave me a community. I had missed having a community since leaving the United Arab Emirates.”
The “Be the Change” training provided Joudi with the chance to learn leadership skills and boosted her confidence. Many of the hands-on skills that she learned were not being taught at school. She met inspiring speakers at the training, including Mr. Neil. She describes Mr. Neil as “one of the sweetest and most remarkable people I met there.” Joudi had a good conversation with him; he told her that Canada was her home now.
“I mattered here, I had a voice. That message of his had a huge impact on me. I would say that that conversation was my real beginning in Canada.” It was the beginning of Joudi, the Canadian-Syrian woman. She would meet Mr. Neil again, a year later. He recognized her, and remembered their conversation. “That he remembered me was a big deal to me!” He gave her his business card. “I do not think that I will ever contact him, but still I carry his business card with me everywhere.” The encounter left a big impression on her and reminds her of all the connections she has made, and her roots here in Canada. She belongs here now.
Since coming to Canada, Joudi has developed new passions. Photography is one of them. Joudi loves visual images and stories; she can be spotted taking pictures when she has the chance. “I just use my phone, but I really enjoy it.” She also started to explore other art forms such as painting. “In Canada, I have found more time to dedicate to art. Back in the United Arab Emirates, school took up all my free time.”
Volunteering is something of value that Joudi discovered. She had never volunteered, other than at her school. “In the Emirates, volunteering isn’t a ‘thing.’ There aren’t many opportunities, nor is it valued. People just don’t do it.” When she was contacted about becoming a volunteer with the CMW, Joudi was thrilled. “It was another way for me to connect to the community.” Joudi made new friends, explored new places she didn’t know and got to know the region. Volunteering became an important aspect of Joudi’s life in Canada, and it is something she has continued to make space for her in her busy life. Joudi also volunteered as a lab assistant with Science Outreach for Chemistry lab sessions at the University of Waterloo.
In 2019, Joudi started to work for the Coalition. She was hired for six months for the HUQUQ Human Rights Project. She had never worked before, and was aware that most of her peers had. “Here in Canada, everybody works.” She combined the part-time work with her Physics and Astronomy studies at Waterloo University. Joudi independently facilitated Arabic- and English-language sessions on human rights for Arabic families and youth. The goal of the sessions was to increase awareness of the Ontario Human Rights Code in the larger Muslim community of Waterloo Region. She advertised the sessions herself, using social media and posters, reaching about 600 people. A true extravert, she embraced this opportunity to connect with people and made her project a success.
Physics and Astronomy are not the most obvious choices for an Arab girl to study. During her studies, Joudi often felt like the odd one out. “I was the only student wearing the hijab in my year.” The fact that she was fluent in English baffled her fellow students. They often could not place her. “Time and again, I got the question, ‘how long have I been in Canada?’.” Joudi loves her studies and hopes to continue in the field of optometry, after she finishes a successful co-op placement at the University of Waterloo Optometry Clinic. Her passion and aptitude for optometry was obvious to those around her; Joudi was offered a position of part-time undergraduate research assistant at the same clinic for summer 2021.
Overall, settling in Canada has been fairly easy for Joudi. There was one aspect though that she still has a hard time adjusting to. Prior to coming to Canada, Joudi did not have any experience with Islamophobia. “I did expect to face some form of discrimination when coming to Canada.” What she didn’t foresee was that standing up to discrimination is much harder than it sounds. “I always thought, one would actually be able to stand up for themself when something happens. But when it happened to my mother and me, we were unable to do or say anything. I think, because we felt so unsafe.”
Joudi and her family were exposed quite a few times to Islamophobia in Canada; some occasions were rather scary. Often Joudi was with somebody else, like her mother, but other times Joudi was alone. One event is especially hard to forget. It started out of the blue, when she was waiting by herself on the ION train at the university station. Another woman was waiting there as well. She told Joudi, aggressively, to keep her distance. When the train arrived, the woman quickly entered the vehicle. “Stay there, stay there! She started yelling at me.” Joudi entered the train from a different door, unseen by the woman. “Every time I pass the station, I always think of what happened there.”
Talking about these experiences with others was important for Joudi, and the CMW’s Muslimah Project provided a space to do that. The project explored the intersections of well-being and belonging. “I joined one of the focus group discussions. I felt heard and understood. I realized that we are all in this together and that we share similar experiences. There is strength in knowing that you are not alone in this.”
Since coming to Canada in 2018, Joudi has been active in a plethora of activities and events, both at the Coalition and in the larger community. She hosted the Coalition’s “Women Who Inspire Awards Gala.” Joudi reviewed $30,000 grant applications as a member of the RBC Future Launch Community Challenge Committee for the Kitchener-Waterloo Community Foundation. For the Technovation Waterloo Project, she mentored eight high school and middle school children. She is a youth representative on the Mayor’s Task Force on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which her mother suggested. Through all her experiences, her mother remains an important influence in Joudi’s and her sisters’ life.
While the year of the pandemic has changed volunteering and community involvement for everyone, including Joudi, she remains committed to her journey to positively impact the world. Being a solely virtual presence hasn’t been easy for this bubbly extravert. “I really miss seeing people and talking with them in person.”
Joudi isn’t giving up though. “There is this quote I heard that really speaks to me: ‘There are things we can’t change, and there’s a lot that we can change; let’s start with that.’ There is a lot of hope, I think, in that message.” We can also say that there is also a lot of hope in welcoming dedicated young people like Joudi to our community. Joudi belongs in Canada. Her contributions, energetic and generous, make her a youthful force of change for this community and the country.