A Rebel is What I Am! — Rahmah Omar—by Seemab Zahra
At the heart of Africa, in Nagele Borana, a city in the south of Ethiopia, a little girl was born to the Ogaden clan in a time when the brave people of her clan were fighting to regain their land from Ethiopia. The name Ogaden means known in Somali. It is a land that was divided and handed over to three different countries: Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya in the nineteenth century by the British colonial rule. History tells us that babies who are born during any revolution or war are not only survivors, but are hope for future and born leaders. This is true of Rahmah — a woman who fought for her right to feel good as a woman, to be respected as a human, to be appreciated as a person and to be accepted as a citizen.
Rahmah was just a child when her parents got divorced. Her mother remarried a Yemeni man and they moved to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. At first, Rahmah lived with her father but soon she moved in with her mother in Addis Ababa where they lived for one year until they moved to Yemen. They lived in Yemen for about two years and finally moved to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Rahmah started her schooling in Jeddah. She was the oldest child, and although there were many changes in her life, she had the ability to adapt and learn a new language, and soon she was able to speak Arabic fluently and succeed in school.
When Rahmah was in grade 8, her mother got very sick and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. As the eldest child, she took the responsibility to accompany her mother from Jeddah to King Faisal Hospital in Riyadh, the only hospital that could treat cancer. While her mother was receiving her treatment, Rahmah used to fly back and forth between Jeddah and Riyadh to catch up with her schooling. Little did she know that she would meet her future husband during her stay at the hospital.
Amer worked as an interpreter at King Faisal Hospital. It was Eid al Adha. And Rahmah’s mother felt homesick and wanted to visit her children in Jeddah. She flew to Jeddah for Eid, and Rahmah stayed at the luxury hotel that was part of the hospital. Though she did not like talking to Amer, he was the only person who used to sit at the reception and Rahmah needed to talk to him in order to get meals and other necessities. Rahmah was 14 years old at that time and did not know anything about love. When Rahmah’s mother came back, Amer brought a lot of gifts. Within one month, Rahmah and her mother got acquainted with Amer's family and then he asked for Rahmah’s hand in marriage.
Rahmah got engaged to Amer, but Rahmah’s mother took a very important promise from Amer. She told Amer that she would only give her daughter’s hand in marriage if he promised to never stop her from continuing her education. Amer said yes to this request, and they got engaged. He would fly all the way from Riyadh to Jeddah every weekend just to see Rahmah, such was his love for her. Amer's love for Rahman was so great, he was so captivated by her that Rahmah got married at the age of 15.
Rahmah moved to Riyadh after their marriage. Soon she was pregnant and became a mother at the age of 16. However, she never stopped going to school. She finished high school and was admitted to the university, but she was unable to continue her studies as her husband lost his job and proposed they move to Yemen where his family resided. It was not an easy decision for Rahmah to move to Yemen because Amer had a big family which lived in one big house. Apart from that, the conditions in Yemen were not in a good state either. Rahmah knew that she wouldn’t be able to live in that kind of situation, and she was also afraid that she would never be able to fulfill her dream to get higher education due to the situation in Yemen. She wanted to live in a place where she could be happy and free, and also be able to complete her education.
Rahmah and her husband decided to move to Canada as Amer’s brother was already there and he was willing to sponsor them. In order to make the process of coming to Canada faster, they had to move to Rome. Rahmah had to make a choice, so she chose to move to Canada so that at least her little family could have the freedom to have their own home and she could once again pursue her education. However, she had no idea about the hardships she was about to face.
They moved from Saudi Arabia to Rome, Italy in the late 1980s. Rahmah was pregnant with her second child when they moved. In Rome, Rahmah and her husband could not afford to live together, so Rahmah and her son had to live separately at a residence for young pregnant women while her husband stayed at a different place. They could not see or speak with each other for a week or sometimes for many weeks. There were nuns at the residence who used to take care of all the pregnant women including Rahmah, but life at the residence was very difficult for Rahmah and her son.
The night her water broke, she could not call her husband to tell him that she was going to the hospital to deliver their baby as there were no phones available. Rahmah's condition began to worsen and she thought she was going to die, however she refused to leave and go to the hospital, even though her water had broken. At around midnight however, they had to rush her to the hospital.
Rahmah went into labour on Sunday. Her husband, after searching for her for an entire day, finally found her on Monday and after a long tiresome labour of three days, Rahmah finally gave birth to a baby boy. At the time, she was only 18 years old, alone, scared, in pain, and with no one from her family to be by her side during this difficult birth.
Now that Rahmah had two young children, Rahmah’s husband wanted to live with his family. With the help of an organization that helps refugees he was able to find a job at a farm in the city of Foggia in southern Italy. In winter when the farming was over, Amer took another job on another farm. They lived there until their papers finally arrived from Canada.
Rahmah was just 19 years old when she came to Canada and she was filled with hope. She had finished high school and had agreed to leave her family and the only country she knew trusting that her husband would fulfill the promise he had made to her mother that he would never stop her from getting further education. But things took a strange turn when Rahmah came to Canada. The man who had so much love in his heart for Rahmah altogether changed into someone unrecognizable.
Rahmah’s brother-in-law got her husband a job the very next day after they arrived. Both men would leave for work in the morning and come home in the evening while Rahmah was left at home all day to cook, clean and take care of her children. She could never go outside or meet people. She did not know the language either. One day Rahmah got very sick and asked her husband to take her to a clinic, but he did not take it seriously. The same thing happened again when their youngest son got sick and her husband told her to wait until his brother came back from work. Rahmah became so angry that she took the baby and left home without wearing warm clothes or writing down the street address or building number.
She did not know where the clinic was, so she started walking on the street, hoping to meet someone who spoke her language. Rahmah approached a man and asked if he spoke Arabic. He took her to his sister-in-law who spoke Arabic, but sadly, she could not help Rahmah either. Rahmah left disappointed and started on the road again until she saw her husband come running. He apologized and told her to take a walk with him. Rahmah had only taken a few steps when she fell down and fainted. She was taken to a hospital.
From that day onwards, Rahmah vowed that she would not stay home, that she would learn the language, street names, dress well and go to school. Rahmah would go out on the streets and parks and find women who looked like her so that she could ask them questions, and they would tell her about bus stations or street cars. Rahmah learned about withdrawing the child tax benefit money at the bank with the help of a lady who lived in her building and worked at a bank. She would go to the subsidy office and ask for help. They gave her a subsidy for registered childcare. Rahmah immediately put her children in childcare and enrolled herself in a program called the Future Program in which she would work part-time and go to school for the other half of the day.
There was, however, a war she had to fight at home. Both her husband and her brother-in-law were extremely mad at her for not staying home. She defended herself when she was told that women needed to stay at home and take care of children.
Due to this conflict, Rahmah made yet another difficult decision; she took her children and moved to a family shelter. Later, her husband joined them at the shelter. After a few months they were able to get a government subsidized apartment in Scarborough. Now Rahmah was juggling between travelling many hours from Scarborough to Toronto where her school was located. However, she continued the Future Program for six more months. Sadly, due to excessive stress and chest pains she eventually had to quit.
Rahmah had a hole in her heart since birth, which had by now grown much bigger. She needed surgery right away. Rahmah’s mother came from Saudi Arabia to take care of her, but Rahmah decided to decline her heart surgery because her mother, who was already suffering from cancer, became extremely sad and fell sick after finding Rahmah in such a miserable state. She was dealing with her health issues, having to take care of her children and also trying to fix a broken marriage. Her mother stayed a few months and then went back to Jeddah because she couldn’t handle the cold weather and became very ill.
As if Amer had not brought enough misery to Rahmah’s life, he took her to court and filed a case to attain child custody on the basis that Rahmah was sick and could not take care of her children anymore. Now Rahmah was busy taking care of her children, going to school and fighting a custody case in court. Things became worse, but after some time her husband dropped his accusations and apologized to her. For a short while, Rahmah’s life got better, her husband took a job and started taking care of his family. Rahmah paused her education because she was pregnant again, this time she had a baby girl.
When her baby was four months old, Rahmah’s mother died. The death of her mother left Rahmah in despair. It took her some time to collect herself and return to school again. While studying at George Brown College in Toronto, Rahmah started a women’s Islamic clothing business with the help of her brother in Jeddah. Rahmah asked her husband to either take care of the children or take care of the business. Rahmah wanted her husband to take responsibility, but not only did he refuse, but he also left Rahmah once again.
This time, Rahmah was shattered because she had just lost her mother and was dealing with her own health issues. Rahmah became very sick, and she was in bed for a month. Her five-year-old child helped her to do things around the house. Rahmah went to see the doctor and found out that not only the hole in her heart had grown bigger, but she also had blood pouring into her lungs. Rahmah needed surgery immediately, but there was no one to take care of her children so she postponed her surgery.
By that time Rahmah was completely stressed and wanted to move. A friend suggested that she move to Kitchener, a smaller city that would be easier to navigate. Rahmah soon moved to Ansalma House women’s shelter in Kitchener with her children. Rahmah was able to rent an apartment after some time at Ansalma House, put her children into school, got herself enrolled in high school and started taking driving lessons. But even more misery awaited her. When Rahmah started driving, she got into a car accident that left her injured and in deep emotional shock, which had a long-term effect on her mental and physical health.
Rahmah could not go to school. She was heartbroken, sick and now also injured. Losing her mother and having a broken marriage left Rahmah in a deep depression and for a time she did not realize that while her body was healing, her heart was not. She was suffering from multiple traumas. All of this mental and physical suffering aggravated Rahmah’s heart condition and, ultimately, she had to go for surgery. Her brother came from Saudi Arabia to take care of her and her children.
Rahmah went back to school again and successfully completed her high school with good grades. After getting her high school diploma, Rahmah wanted to work and be independent. She wanted her children to learn the importance of being financially independent, so she started sewing hijabs and selling them from home while also applying for various jobs. However, she could not find a front-end associate job because she was constantly told that if she wore a hijab, she couldn’t work at the front end. This frustrated Rahmah.
Rahmah ended up taking a factory job instead where she learned about a new form of racis, from managers hiring white people before black and brown workers who were on a three-month probationary period or giving white workers lighter jobs as compared to the work given to black and brown workers. Rahmah stayed in that job for many years because she knew that at that time it was the only kind of job she could secure with her hijab. She continued to question the manager regarding his racism, asking him to rotate shifts for all the workers and to provide them with fans because it was always so hot inside the factory. One day however, she injured her finger in a machine and had to finally leave that job.
Having experienced so many difficulties in her life made Rahmah very compassionate, and she decided to help others by starting to volunteer at the YMCA. A settlement worker from the YMCA advised Rahmah to apply for an opportunity to work as an interpreter at the Multicultural Centre. She applied for that job in 2008 and was trained to be certified as an interpreter. Rahmah could speak several languages: Arabic, Amharic and Somali. Her interpreter’s work was not very busy in the beginning so she decided to enroll in a volunteer training program called Community Mental Navigator Training designed by the Community University Research Alliance (CURA). This program took place at Kitchener Downtown Community Health Centre. Immigrant leaders were recruited and trained to work as Mental Health Navigators within their communities.
At the graduation ceremony of the CURA training program, a colleague shared the growing concerns among the Muslim community about Bill 94. Rahmah offered her full support right away. She remembers the initial meetings at the Kitchener Masjid fondly, which gave birth to a very grassroots group called the Coalition of Concerned Muslim Women of KW. As an integral member of this newly formed group, Rahmah became fully involved in the planning and coordination tasks for the “Let Us Talk” forum. Following the success of the forum, Rahmah, and a few other women continued to meet to discuss what had been learned from the forums and to plan for the future.
Rahma’s passion for standing up to injustice and speaking up led her to play a vital role in building the Coalition of Muslim Women (CMW) from the ground up. She immersed herself in the work of the organization: from making her house available for meetings to raising funds to managing events. Rahmah joined the inaugural CMW board in 2012 as the Vice Chair and continued to serve in this position until 2016. Rahmah’s artistic sense and her love for fun and social activities gave birth to the Radiant Ladies Night Gala, which she organized for the first time in 2014 as the Chair of the Fundraising Committee.
Rahmah believes that because the CMW was founded on good intentions, this is why it has survived and is still going strong after 10 years given that everyone was sincere to the core cause of giving back to the community.
Rahmah felt compelled to take a break from the CMW’s board in 2016 as she shifted her attention to raising funds for those affected by wars. The news of people dying of hunger kept her up at night. She began to feel quite depressed but soon found a way to help by raising funds locally to help reduce the suffering and hunger globally.
She went beyond her initial goal to raise funds for people stuck in war zones and refugee camps without food and shelter. Rahmah organized a group of Somali women who would cook food and sell it as a fundraiser at the Friday prayer at the Kitchener Masjid. Rahmah made samosas and sold them at various grocery stores in support of Syrian refugees living in camps in Jordan. She also organized a huge event at RIM Park in collaboration with Islamic Relief Canada where she raised $30,000 for Yemen.
As the war in Syria escalated, a large number of refugees started coming to Canada in 2015 and 2016. Rahmah started to get more work as an interpreter. She was able to earn quite a good amount, but the accounts of misery related by the people coming to Canada to seek refuge made Rahmah think about helping those who were still stuck in Refugee camps. She was able to join a local group including some of the CMW members to sponsor a Syrian family of eight.
In 2018, Rahmah obtained an interpretation translation diploma from Conestoga College. In 2020, she was hired as a Peer Support Worker for a program called Keeping Your Family Safe during the pandemic — a program designed to educate the Somali community by the CMW. Now Rahmah works as an interpreter with the Multicultural Centre and as a Peer Support Worker with the CWM.
In order to appreciate her continuous community-building work, the CMW awarded Rahmah with two awards in 2020: an appreciation of her 10-year service with the CMW award and the Women Who Inspire award in the category of Advocacy and Activism. Rahmah is also a recipient of Ontario Status of Women Leading Women, Leading Girls, Building Communities Recognition Award, which was bestowed by the MPP of Waterloo, Catherine Fife, in 2016.
Rahmah’s resilience and perseverance has made her strong. While stuck in a seemingly endless loop of unfortunate events, she always looked toward the brighter side and managed to pull herself out of that cycle. She always stood up for people and spoke out against the unjust, whether it was her brother-in-law who tried to take control of her life, the manager at work who would not rotate shifts for people of colour, or the police on the street. Rahmah’s experience has provided her with the resolve that she will never let her daughter go through the pain she had to endure. She discontinued her own higher education to allow her daughter get a university education. She wants people to learn from her experience and raise their daughters the same way they raise their sons — to let them have equal status at home with men. Just recently, on International Women's Day 2021, Rahmah heard a statement that deeply impacted her: “Women are half of society, and they are the ones who gives birth and raises the other half,” therefore, she believes firmly today that women are the whole society.