Free to be Myself — Salha Haidar—by Nasreen Nasreen
“There are people who would judge you for how you look. And then some people would believe in you regardless of your religion, the colour of your skin, or the country where you come from. They will recognize you for who you are. If it weren’t for the support of the people who believed in me and my hard work, then I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Born and raised in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Salha Haidar is employed with a leading tech company based in Waterloo, where she enjoys her work as an international recruitment manager for the Middle East region. She is also currently teaching a course on data analytics at the University of Waterloo.
However, her journey to become the successful woman that she is today was not an easy one.
Salha, who also goes by the name Saliha, grew up in a large and happy family. She is the eldest of six children and also has six half-siblings. Her parents were born and brought up in Eritrea, a country marred by war and conflict, so they moved to Saudi for a better life. Salha’s father, a renowned entrepreneur and businessman, was a busy man who regularly travelled for weeks, and sometimes even months, to different countries in Asia and Europe.
Salha fondly remembers the time when her father would return home after weeks of travelling for work. Since women were not allowed to drive at that time in Saudi Arabia and could not be outside without a male member of the family, Salha and her siblings could not venture out. “We were always so excited when my father came home. We would spend time together as a family. It was the only time we could go out.”
An avid reader, Salha’s father introduced her to the world of books. Every time her father would return from a business trip, he would bring her magazines, newspapers, and books written in English by foreign authors. Salha giggles as she reveals there were times when she would re-read the books over and over again. Since there wasn’t much to do at home, books became Salha’s first love. “Since I was confined to just the four walls of my house, books became my gateway to another world. That’s how I connected to other cultures and countries.”
Reminiscing about her childhood days, Salha says she loved going to school and never missed a single day. It was the only time Salha and her siblings could step out of the house. She never liked being confined to one space. It was, at times, tedious. Salha had a lot of friends at school, and she enjoyed spending time with them. “To be honest, the school was my only social life, and I loved every bit of it.” A majority of her relatives lived in Jeddah, which was a nine-hour drive from Riyadh. Since Salha's father always travelled and there were no other male members in the house, Salha and her family could not travel to see their relatives or family friends.
She loved seeing her father when he returned home, and the family all went out together. “It was worth it! We would drive to other cities to meet our relatives and family friends in Jeddah and spend several days there. When you are born and live in a place all your life, you get accustomed to the ways. That’s how life was in Saudi Arabia.”
From a young age, Salha enjoyed heading up group projects. Always ready to take the lead, her leadership and management skills carved a career path for her later in life. “Being a people person, I was always the group leader. I would bring all the members to work together in harmony on any given project. My childhood was beautiful.”
Following the cultural tradition in Saudi Arabia, Salha was married right after she completed Grade 11. Soon after her marriage, she moved to Jeddah with her husband, where she completed Grade 12. Salha gave birth to her first child at the age of 19.
Passionate about her education, Salha wanted to continue to study further. She decided to pursue a one-year diploma course in computer studies. Following the completion of her diploma, Salha took a job at a computer centre where she spent her days teaching English to beginners. At the age of 21, Salha was pregnant with her second child when she decided she wanted to study more and applied to several universities to study financial and banking science.
In 2004, Salha moved to Doha, Qatar, with her husband, who had a new job there, where she completed her remaining two years of her bachelor’s degree through distance learning. A year after she arrived in Qatar, she got a job with Qatar Airways as an administrative coordinator. While balancing her bachelor’s degree, two young children and a job, Salha gave birth to her third child. By the time Salha graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Science and Technology, she was a mother of three young children.
As Salha takes a trip down memory lane, a smile crosses her face. Salha discloses she was nine months pregnant when writing her final exams for her bachelor’s degree. Determined not to delay her education, Salha decided to go ahead and write her exams anyway. She went into labour soon after she was done writing her second exam. Two days after giving birth, Salha went back to take the rest of her exams. “It wasn’t easy to balance everything. But I was not going to put my education on the back burner. If we decide to do something in life, we can do it. There is nothing that can stop you.” Salha’s determination gave her enough courage to continue with her studies. In 2009, Salha was pregnant with her fourth child.
Salha worked with Qatar Airways for over 10 years. She was promoted to the post of manager, exhibition, air shows. She was also part of the marketing and communications department. In her role, Salha had the opportunity to travel the world and see different countries. Being an airline employee allowed Salha and her family as well to travel. “It felt like I was making up for my childhood when I travelled with my children. I could see the excitement in their eyes, and it seemed I was living my childhood through them.”
As time passed, Salha and her husband, both Eritrean citizens, often wondered about their future. As their family grew, they felt a gnawing concern that they might have to return to Eritrea if one of them no longer had a job. Racked by years of conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia, Eritrea was, and is still not a safe place to raise a family. According to the United Nations, a “difficult” peace remains in place. “Being expatriates, if we had to leave Qatar, we could not risk going to a conflict zone. I did not want to put my children’s lives at risk,” she said.
The couple started to explore options to move their family to a safer country. With Salha’s brother-in-law already based in Canada, it seemed like a valid option. Salha’s family of six moved to Canada in September 2016.
“Leaving my mother and my siblings behind broke my heart. It was hard since I had never been separated from my siblings before. It isn’t easy to move to a different country because now you can’t see them on weekends or holidays as you could before. But we decided to move to Canada to provide our children with the feeling that they belong to a diverse and loving country. We had to do this for our kids.”
Since the Waterloo Region is known for its diversity and how welcoming it is to immigrants, Salha and her husband unanimously decided to settle in the region. One can hear the excitement in Salha’s voice when she talks about how life has changed for her and her family. “It’s the best thing that has happened to us. I have had the pleasure of spending quality time with my children, each one of them. We have bonded with each other, been through the ups and downs of life together. Picnics and road trips are now a family tradition!”
While Salha and her family are well-settled, Salha says it wasn’t easy to get to where she is right now. She found it hard to understand the system. “I had 10 years of work experience before I moved to Canada, but even that did not seem enough.”
Within a couple of months of arriving in Waterloo, Salha started looking for organizations to connect with immigrant Muslim women like her. She learned about the Coalition of Muslim Women (CMW) through a Google search and sent them an email right away. Through the CMW, Salha started to build connections with other immigrant women in the community. The CMW recognized her talent in event planning and coordination, and asked her if she would be interested in volunteering. She helped organize the CMW’s annual gala dinner.
With a hint of sadness in her voice, Salha says she tried to keep herself as busy as possible. She volunteered with the CMW, the YMCA, the Waterloo Region Museum, and several other organizations in the city. “I did not want to keep thinking about starting from scratch after moving to a new country. There are times when you are frustrated and sad or lonely. So, I decided to keep myself busy, and that helped me not feel alone.”
In the meantime, Salha kept applying to jobs without any success. At one point, she applied to more than 100 jobs and did not hear back from even one. She had no connections, making it harder to look for work. “Somewhere deep down, I started doubting myself. I am an immigrant. The culture here is built on networking, and it’s challenging for a new person to find a job. It’s not about your skills or experience, but about who you know. It makes it difficult for those who don’t have a network or support system to find a job in their field.”
Salha enrolled in a program at Conestoga College that assists internationally trained/skilled workers find a job in the area in their field. Her perseverance finally paid off. She was hired to work with Sustainable Waterloo Region as an events coordinator, where she was able to use her skills and made some meaningful connections.
She later decided to pursue her Master’s degree in business, entrepreneurship and technology, and was thrilled to receive an offer from the University of Waterloo. Immediately after she graduated, Salha was hired on a part-time basis to deliver seminars to around 400 students at the School of Finance and Accounting. “My ultimate goal was to find a full-time job where I could use my experience and skills to build a career in Canada. I continued to search for work, but it made me feel that people responsible for the hiring process would rather hire someone that looked like them or belonged to the same background. I had to work extra hard to have a career in Canada.”
Salha’s hard work finally paid off. She found employment with a Waterloo-based company that values the skills and experience she brings to the job. As part of her work, Salha manages international students’ recruitment for the entire Middle East region. She also enjoys working as a lecturer at the university. “I am who I am because I never stopped trying and learning.”
Working a full-time job and teaching a course has not deterred Salha from volunteering. She is a board member at the Canadian Arab Women Association, an active member of the Eritrean Community, a member of the Black Professionals in Tech Network, and a company mentor at Junior Achievement Waterloo Region, where she mentors young entrepreneurs to launch their businesses. In 2020, she was the recipient of the CMW’s ”Women Who Inspire in Waterloo Region Award 2020” in the Professional Excellence category.
Today, Salha is happy to be in Canada. She says she feels at peace knowing that her children are safe and have opportunities to grow.
“The decision to move halfway across the world to Canada was worth it. I have the freedom of speech, the freedom to be myself, and my family is free to be who they want to be. While I miss my home, I wouldn’t want my life to be any different than what it is at the moment.”