From the villages of Pakistan to the social service industry of Calgary, she has been saying ‘no’ to disparity and ‘yes’ to invitation all her life.
As a child growing up in the town of Shabqadar Fort of the Pakistan province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Noreen Mahmood noticed how classmates from certain religious minorities were shunned. People from what she calls “the mainstream groups” never even liked to be touched by these girls. Though a “mainstreamer” herself, Noreen established herself very early on as a kind of quiet radical.
“As a young child, I used to think about how they were excluded. I used to interact with them nicely,” Noreen remembers. “I helped them in their studies and would visit their homes, which was very unusual. I was overwhelmed by the love and respect I received from them.”
After marriage as a young woman, Noreen noticed a pattern of disparity in the village she had moved to with her husband. This time it was between landowners (which she had married into), most of whom lived in the city, and their tenants, who worked the land. “No women from our homes were allowed to visit our tenants’ homes,” Noreen recalls.
Eager to do more to promote social justice, Noreen pursued a master’s degree in international community development. She then formed a small non-profit organization, Social Justice, and Rural Development Program (SJRDP), with a view to creating social change through education and awareness. She created an Adult Literacy Centre (ALC) in her village for women and young girls, in collaboration with a Pakistan government department, the National Commission on Human Development (NCHD).
In the spring of 2013, Noreen moved to Canada along with her husband and two children. She quickly began expressing her commitment to community and belonging in her new home in Calgary, Alberta after noticing certain needs among new Canadian women. Noreen had been active at the center in Calgary’s northeast, helping with translation services.
“I used to wear a headscarf, so women from areas like South Asia… used to come and stop by. I looked like them, so they came to me and asked about different things,” Noreen recalls. “And what I realized is that while they were very skilled women, many had no information about the resources available in the community.”
In October of 2013, the Women Support Group’s first meeting took place. Four were present, but the group grew very quickly from there. Women would exchange contact information so they can connect outside of the group meetings. They would also identify topics they wished to learn about and then hosted guest speakers. In some cases, those guests have been employment and settlement counselors. This allows the women to be introduced to the informal group setting. They then feel more confident about following up with the counselor later.
She is proud of the group’s inclusive spirit. “If we want to enjoy the diversity of Calgary, we should be collaborating,” she says. Four years later, group members still continue to support each other as well as others in their neighborhoods.