How my organization and I are fixing a major problem with Canada’s foster and shelter systems

“Children have no choice or say in their situation when they enter the shelter system—they’re disempowered”

For Muslim women and children who leave an abusive home, entering the mainstream shelter and social service system can mean contending with Islamophobia during the most vulnerable period of their lives. It’s so bad that some women choose to stay in abusive situations rather than deal with the system. Zena Chaudhry founded Sakeenah Homes—the largest shelter system for Muslim women in the country—with her own savings. Recently, Sakeenah Homes became the first licensed foster care agency for Muslim children in North America. Here, Chaudhry describes how she built a much-needed part of the social-service sector from the ground up:

“I never thought I’d be working in the social service sector. In 2013, I graduated from Cardiff University in the U.K. with a master of laws degree and returned home to Canada to put my degree to work. At the time, a family friend was going through a messy divorce and attempting to leave an abusive situation. My mom asked me to help her navigate the system, given my educational background. I quickly realized that there was little support available in her language, Urdu—let alone culturally or religiously sensitive support for Muslim women. One counsellor she met with asked, “Isn’t this sort of thing normal for Muslims?” She was trying to get help, but had to defend her religion instead.

That broke my heart—and it got me thinking. I looked into what’s available and quickly saw massive gaps, from culturally sensitive shelters to affordable mental health support for Muslims. For people trying to leave abusive domestic situations, it’s crucial to find some sense of familiarity and safety in a new circumstance. But for Muslim women, entering the mainstream shelter system can mean contending with blatant Islamophobia and a total lack of accommodation for religious practices.

For instance, during the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn till dusk. We’ve had numerous women tell us they weren’t able to eat during that month because kitchens aren’t open when they break their fast, or they had to leave the shelter after dark in search of food for their early morning pre-fast meal because shelter kitchens close in the evening. Women have told us they’ve had their head scarves pulled off while trying to pray. One told us someone urinated on her prayer mat while she was praying. It’s so bad that some women will stay in an abusive situation rather than deal with the mainstream system.

I founded Sakeenah Homes in mid-2017, funding it with my own savings. I gave my personal number to social-service organizations and asked them to send Muslim-identifying women and children my way—I would help them if they couldn’t. Within five months, I’d spent my entire savings on hotel stays, transportation, emergency food assistance and so on. In 2018, convinced that there was a strong demand for this type of specialized support, I set up a board and registered Sakeenah Homes as a not-for-profit. I did everything in those first two years, from frontline work to fundraising and financing, before I could start growing our team. The first Toronto shelter opened in 2019.

Since then, we’ve opened five shelters in cities across the country, with three more on the way this year alone. Our shelters are nearly always full, so we established a remote case work option for those who can’t or don’t want to live in one of our shelters. Everything we provide to our clients inside a home, we also provide remotely—including legal advice, mental health and employment counselling, access to health services, and planning how to safely and sustainably leave an abusive situation. We want to give women options and remove barriers wherever possible.

When we started growing our team and were able to take on more clients, we would come together and ask: what issues haven’t we addressed yet that we see come up in our case work? The conversation quickly turned to children and youth. When we started working with the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), we asked what happens to kids from Muslim families who get taken away from both parents—do they get placed in culturally and religiously sensitive foster care or group homes? The answer was no. In Ontario alone, hundreds of Muslim children are in care every night, but there are only a handful of registered Muslim foster families. That means most Muslim children are being put into homes that might not offer halal meat or understand their religious practices.

Children have no choice or say in their situation when they enter the shelter system—they’re even more disempowered than the women we work with. It’s crucial for them to have a sense of comfort and familiarity when they leave an abusive home. In our conversations with CAS, we learned that no matter what beliefs a child is raised with, religious accommodation is one of the first things children ask for in new homes. Every conversation we’ve had with a regional CAS body has cemented the idea that there’s a strong demand for a dedicated service to place Muslim children in foster homes with Muslim families.

We started the process of getting licensed to becomes the first foster care agency for Muslim children—not just in the country, but in all of North America. Covid pushed out our timeline tremendously, but we finally got our licence on August 30. From the moment it was announced, foster families signups have risen dramatically. In the past three years, we had about 70 families sign up—in the past few weeks since the announcement, we’ve had more than 80 families express interest in fostering children.

It takes three to six months to onboard a foster family—there’s the application interview, police background checks, home visits and everything else to ensure they have a safe and appropriate home for a child. It feels like we can’t sign up families fast enough, which is just the nature of it, since there aren’t enough foster families to meet demand. But we wanted to address one of the reasons that’s the case, which is that foster families get burnt out. They need support beyond money for food and clothing—caring for a child from an abusive home, not to mention letting go of that child when you become attached to them, can be demanding and even traumatizing. When we set up our model, we didn’t want to do the bare minimum. Every foster family that registers with us gets a stipend for therapy, for both parents and children. This not only helps us keep foster families in the system, but by protecting their mental wellbeing, we protect the children in their care by extension.

In this line of work, most of your days are long and hard, with few occasions for celebrating. But only a few years ago, there was no specialized support for Muslim women and children trying to leave abusive homes. Thanks to our team and the communities that have rallied around us, we’ve helped more than 10,000 women and children across Canada—and counting.”

—As told to Liza Agrba

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.