It was out of sheer curiosity that Janet Kroeker picked up the phone and called the Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute in Winnipeg a few months back.
The Roseau River woman had heard its president telling a CBC interview about the organization.
“I said, ‘well, that’s interesting,” said Kroeker, a member of Manitoba Women’s Institute herself. She wanted to know more about this group that shared a similar name.
Her call put her through to Yasmin Ali and the two women were soon planning a get-together — with food involved, of course.
That led to more than a dozen CMWI women travelling out to this corner of southeastern Manitoba to sit down with Woodmore WI ladies for possibly the most internationally flavoured potluck ever eaten in this small village’s hall.
Over macaroni pie and kibbeh and wild rice casserole and biryani — and a mountain of dessert — they visited and shared kids’ photos and talked about where they and their families came from.
And they learned their otherwise unaffiliated groups have a lot more in common than just a name.
The women were encouraged to talk about family origins and how each arrived in Canada. They had the most wonderful conversations, said Kroeker.
“I think that was the most thrilling thing, seeing that happen.”
They also read out a creed from the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada, then heard it read out aloud again — in Arabic.
The Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute has a very different start than the now 117-year-old provincial group, but its values are entirely the same.
They formed in 2006 to support women who were newcomers to Winnipeg, often stay-at-home mothers and without any extended families of their own to turn to, explains Ali.
Their main funder is the United Way to help the group carry out its programs.
They got organized to help other Muslim women, but as time’s passed they’ve evolved into a family resource centre serving all, regardless of religious background.
“We help women of all faiths and ethnicities,” said Ali, noting those coming to the CWMI are from countries such as Ghana, Sierra Leone, Djibouti, Somalia, Chad, Ivory Coast, Eritria, Syria as well as Central America and the U.S.
Their focus is on settlement of newcomers. One of their most used services is a baby car seat loan program, she said.
Many new parents among their clients don’t even have a driver’s licence or car, let alone a baby car seat. They find themselves in a predicament when they’ve given birth in a Winnipeg hospital that won’t release a child unless it is transported home in a proper car seat.
“So CMWI loans these parents a car seat,” she said. “And the parents are very proud to bring their new Canadian home.”
Linda Hildebrandt, the postmistress at Woodmore, and a member of the local WI for over 30 years, said she was so interested to meet these women and hear about CMWI.
“I’ve always been interested in other cultures,” she said. “And the ladies at our table were just so delightful and informative. We’ve been talking about where we’ve all come from. It just brings us all together.”
That’s how Emita Mahamat felt too. She came from Chad a decade ago, and why she joined the CWMI would sound familiar to rural Manitoba women too.
“When we came to Canada we had no family,” she said. “It was just me and my husband. We knew no one here. It was very difficult.
“Then I heard about the Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute and I said, ‘that sounds like a place I can visit,’” she said. She’s now a staff member.
She was very excited about coming to Roseau River and meeting the Woodmore women, she added. The day trip reminded her of how much she misses the countryside. She grew up in a city.
“But I always remember when I was in Nigeria, my mom would take us back to Chad to visit my grandma,” she said. “It’s so different to go out in the country. You can run out there and play and don’t worry about the traffic. And people know each other. In a small place you know each other.”
Ali and Kroeker hope the potluck and introducing their two groups helps make the world a bit smaller.
“This was meaningful for us to come and meet other Canadians outside of Winnipeg and bring our clients to see the people and the life around them and other Canadians,” Ali said. “We all sat around the table and talked about where we all come from. We have the same dreams and goals that everyone has. We all have that in common.”