Marwa Dabbagh

Embracing the “Other”Marwa Dabbagh

—by Nasreen Nasreen

Marwa Dabbagh has often thought to herself: “Where do I fit in?”

It wasn’t until much later in life that she realized she didn’t have to fit any prescribed norm. As a Muslim immigrant Syrian American Canadian woman who is also a naturopathic doctor, her identity is fluid. It continues to grow with the many different experiences she has every day.

Marwa was a teenager — 13 years old — when her family decided to immigrate to Canada for a better future. As a child who grew up in four different countries, it wasn’t easy for her to fit in. Canada was in no way similar to what she had experienced before — from weather to food to what you wear or speak. It was a culture shock. She was baffled by the fact that she could wear anything to school except a uniform. She had the freedom to express herself and her opinions. The hardest part for Marwa was to learn a new language, without which she could not communicate with her classmates. That also made her an easy target for bullies.

Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, where her father was pursuing his Ph.D. studies, Marwa moved to Syria — her parents’ home country — with her family at the young age of three. However, it wasn’t long before her father realized that there was no future for his children in Syria, a country marred by violence and conflict. He decided to move his family to Kuwait for better work and education prospects.

Marwa remembers her all-female private Islamic school in Kuwait as a strict, rule-driven education. But as an inquisitive young girl, she was always challenging the rules of power, hierarchy, and discrimination. “The school was a representation of the larger Arab culture in Kuwait, which does not support equality or inclusion, and it does not empower women,” says Marwa as she recounts her days at the school. She never really felt like she fit in with the culture, as she looked and behaved differently both inside and outside her school.

She was always aware of the differences in how she was treated as a foreigner but didn’t see a valid reason for it. “Immigrants living in Kuwait were not looked at as equals as non-immigrants. Speaking up was frowned upon there, especially from an immigrant. But that did not stop me from advocating for myself when I was wronged.

“Social and financial status and class are very prominent in Arab culture, so we weren’t all treated the same, and I always found it to be unfair and un-Islamic, which ironically, was still being reflected in an Islamic school.”

After living in Kuwait for several years, Marwa’s father decided it was time for the family to immigrate again. Canada was on top of the list of the countries they were considering immigrating to for better education, work opportunities, safety, and equality.

Marwa remembers several incidents from her teenage years in Canada, where she felt she was an outsider. Being a new immigrant who barely spoke any English and dressed differently made her an easy target for bullying and Islamophobia.

As Marwa narrates one of the incidents etched in her memory, you can feel the pain in her voice. Her family initially settled in Mississauga, and Marwa started school the same week they landed in Canada. Of course, she did not know much English nor was she accustomed to the norms of how the school was run (class structure, schedule, and so on). Feelings of confusion and anxiousness were part of Marwa’s daily life. She did not have friends since she started school later in the term than everyone else. So when it came time for recess, Marwa was always on her own walking around the schoolyard. This made her an easy target for bullies. “One day, this bully approached me and pulled out a knife, yelled out Islamophobic and racial slurs and threatened to hurt me. I was terrified and did not dare to be around the schoolyard again. From that day on, I hung out in the library.”

A month after that incident, Marwa was relieved when her family relocated to the Kitchener-Waterloo area. Her face suddenly lights up as she fondly remembers her first English ESL (English as a second language) teacher in Kitchener-Waterloo — Mrs. Ellis — who tried everything in her power to ensure Marwa felt right at home in her new school. “Mrs. Ellis lobbied for us newcomers to get extra time for exams. It took us at least twice the time to read, comprehend, and answer questions, and she recognized the language barrier.”

Marwa takes a trip down memory lane. She describes the small ESL room with only two round tables. Most of the activities were focused on having fun while learning. “Every time I had my ESL class, I felt it was a break rather than a class. Since most of us barely spoke any English outside that class, Mrs. Ellis would let us talk to one another in whatever broken English we knew. We wouldn’t stop talking. It was a safe space with no judgment.”

A biomedical science student, Marwa graduated with honours from the University of Waterloo in 2009, and then moved to Toronto to complete naturopathic medicine at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in 2013.

After completing her degree, Marwa moved back to the Waterloo Region and was immediately hired at a clinic in the region. While she had experienced indifference and discrimination a few times in her life based on her background and faith, experiencing it at her workplace was shocking and something she wasn’t prepared for.

The most flagrant discriminatory comments made were about her inability to perform her job because of her religion. It was assumed she might not be able to do her job effectively because she wore a hijab. “My co-workers believed that I might not be comfortable working with male colleagues or patients. These initial assumptions, combined with a toxic work environment, made it necessary for me to make the tough decision to choose between my work and my mental health. I chose the latter.”

It took Marwa over a year to find a work environment that was supportive, safe, inclusive, and respectful. She wanted to make sure that she was happy with the people she was working with. During the year she was off work, she started volunteering, advancing her certificates, and exploring what she liked to do for hobbies. She is now a registered and licensed naturopathic doctor in Ontario and has a family health practice in Kitchener. Her practice focuses on women’s health, weight loss, fertility, digestion, and mental health.

If there’s one thing she can’t stress enough, it’s volunteering. Marwa recommends everyone try volunteering but emphasizes that it is crucial for newcomers. For her, it was a great way to integrate into her new community. She got to meet new people, made connections, and forged life-long friendships. It also helped her to get a good grip on English and be confident enough to speak up for herself.

While some people volunteer to gain experience, for Marwa, it was always about giving back to the community. She received a lot of support from people around her when she moved to Canada. She had found a haven in Canada, and she knew it was time to do something more with her life.

Marwa has maintained an active presence across different platforms on social media. She has always used the power of social media to create awareness about issues that she is passionate about.

She believes it’s essential to raise your voice against injustices because if you don’t, then who else will? Marwa wanted to help and took the opportunity to get involved with several non-profit organizations in the Waterloo Region.

“When you see and experience injustice and discrimination, it becomes tough to unsee it. So I try and advocate for issues close to my heart.” That’s one reason Marwa has tirelessly worked against Islamophobia and supported Indigenous rights. To Marwa, all injustices fall under one umbrella term — oppression. She understands what she has experienced in life is nothing compared to some of the heart-wrenching stories and struggles she has heard from others.

Marwa looks back to the support she received from her teachers and friends, and the difference it has made in her life. “I want to pay it forward and help others so they can also find some relief and feel supported just like I felt when I first came to Canada. Having someone to understand you, empathize with you, and help you in your weakest times is extremely powerful.”

To break the vicious negative perception of Muslim women that has been portrayed by some in the media and Western culture, Marwa started to volunteer with the Coalition of Muslim Women (CMW). The organization breaks down barriers between Muslim women and the broader community.

Soon after, she was entrusted with the responsibility to help coordinate the CMW’s yearly event — Taste of Ramadan. There was no stopping her after that initial event. Marwa was involved in coordinating award galas and was on the Muslim Women’s Employment Support Project's workforce steering committee. Eventually, she was elected as one of the CMW board of directors. Hard work, dedication, leadership, diplomacy, activism, problem solving, organization, and empowerment are only a few of the skills and assets Marwan has gained from her experience working with the CMW. The women she worked with inspired and motivated her to be part of CMW’s leadership team.

Volunteering with the CMW helped Marwa find her place in the community. “It made me appreciate what I have and how far I have come. Seeing myself in others reminded me of where I was. Now I can give hope to others like me.”

Marwa’s friends at the CMW value the fresh ideas and different perspectives that she brings to the organization. One of her co-workers describes Marwa as someone who has the ability to reach across boundaries and strengthen relationships with people of all ages and backgrounds. Her outspoken nature and leadership qualities have helped CMW build new bridges spanning the community.

Marwa now volunteers her time with several other organizations, including the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region and the Kitchener-Waterloo Multicultural Centre. Having experienced the difficulties of the language barrier when she first moved to Canada, Marwa wanted to help others. She spent a year paired with newcomers teaching them conversational English.

While confusing initially, just like any change, Marwa warmly remembers her life back in Syria and Kuwait, and the different cultures that she was lucky enough to experience. She is as connected to her roots as much as anyone could be. “I miss my extended family in Syria and my close friends in Kuwait. I miss all traditions (Syrian and Kuwaiti) as I was very much immersed in each culture. Since I did not have a set identity, I always wanted to be included in whatever the larger community valued as tradition.”

Since it was always only Marwa’s immediate family moving from one country to another, she held on to whatever memories/traditions/events, her extended family and friends enjoyed and celebrated. “Every time we go back to visit Syria or when our Kuwaiti friends came over, I try hard to spend most of my time with them and reminisce on the good old days.”

If there’s one thing she has learned in her life’s journey, it’s to embrace being the “other.” Being different is the norm in Canada, and she doesn’t worry about fitting in anymore. Marwa’s work and the relationships she has built with members of the community have made her feel right at home.

One might wonder why certain things happen, but slowly and steadily, one realizes that every change in life has a purpose. Marwa’s life experiences of living in four different countries, shaped her identity and made her who she is today.

“Ultimately, we always find what we are looking for within ourselves.”

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