A few blocks from Southwest Montreal’s Verdun metro station, in what looks like an old elementary school turned into a makeshift community centre, an Afghan woman and a young French Canadian man sit opposite each other at a large table with a plate of cookies in between.
“Salaam, chotor astyn?” the woman greets him in Dari, one of two official languages in Afghanistan.
“Tashakar, khub astem,” the young man responds.
The teacher is Makai Aref, a 59-year-old former girls school principal from Kabul, Afghanistan. For the last 10 years, Aref has been running the Afghan Women’s Centre of Montreal, which offers Dari classes to any Canadian going to do humanitarian work in Afghanistan, as well as many services for members of the Afghan diaspora living in Montreal.
“Our people need more change. Change to rebuild because they’ve destroyed our country,” Aref said. “The Canadian government needs to help women in Afghanistan. They have a problem accessing education.”
Education is one of the most pressing issues for Afghan women and Aref uses her background as a teacher and principal to educate others, while shining a light on the lack of access to education for women and girls inside Afghanistan.
After fleeing her war-torn country in 1992, due to the changing political landscape, when the Soviet-supported communists from the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan were replaced by the fundamentalist Islamic State of Afghanistan. Aref fled. Fearing for life, she quickly headed to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where her daughter was living and studying.
During her time in Kazakhstan, Aref found the situation for Afghan refugee women unbearable, so she began meeting with foreign diplomats in Almaty and was able to secure financial contributions for an organization of women known as the Afghan Refugee Women’s Association. The Canadian embassy contributed funds to her cause, which allowed her to buy a few sewing machines for the group.
The Afghan women were quickly able to make a few extra dollars from the sewing and stitching work that they received, which helped them make the most out of their living conditions. Right away, the Canadian diplomats took notice and offered Aref a chance to immigrate to Canada.
Her family supported the idea, so Aref quickly packed their bags and moved all their belongings to Montreal in 2000, where her younger children could begin new lives and continue their studies, with one attending Concordia University and another, Dawson College.
After two years living in Montreal and the death of her husband, once again Aref felt like she was needed in her community. And she most definitely was. The Afghan diaspora in Canada has continued to grow since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by the Canadian and American militaries and according to the 2006 census there are over 48,000 people who claim Afghan ancestry in Canada. In Montreal, the population is somewhere around 5,000, while the majority live in the Greater Toronto Area.
As for any new immigrant group to Canada, most Afghans socialize within their community because they feel alienated from Canadian society. Montreal Afghan women needed a place to call their own, because of the completely different culture here, so Aref once again decided to do something to help these women and bring her experience from Afghanistan and Kazakhstan to Canada.
“I saw again there was no centre to come together and I got a job as a community worker in the Southwest,” she said. “In 2002, I established the centre for Afghan women. The reason. Afghan women need to come together and speak their own language and open their hearts. They have a long story, a sad story, they suffered during the war.”
And suffer they did under a repressive Islamic state, which showed no sympathy toward women. In fact, women weren’t given the same rights as men under the new government in Afghanistan. They were treated unequally and unfairly and it got much worse under the Taliban regime, which made many of the best and brightest leave the country and flee toward the West.
Aref’s story reflects a growing trend of women leaving Afghanistan over the last ten years. However, what sets her apart is her passion of creating a better society for women, no matter where she is living. When she established her Afghan women’s centre in Montreal, she ended up battling just as hard as when she first came here to keep the doors open and find a permanent home for the centre.
“From 2002 until last January, we moved around the city, sometimes the west, then another place, finally they put us on the street,” she said.
Aref ended up back at the Southwest Mission in Verdun, which is a big community space which helps considering the amount of women members continues to grow since founding the centre almost 10 years ago.
The new home for the Afghan Women’s Centre of Montreal gave them the kitchen space needed to expand their growing catering service, which has empowered these local Afghan women and gave them the chance to find work in a city where knowledge of English and French is a must.
“I decided to bring the women together and cook traditional Afghan food,” Aref said. “Then I decided to organize a catering service like a cuisine collective. It was a chance to get jobs for a group of Afghan women. Now we’re going to offer a cooking class.”
Upon relocating, people from all over Montreal started contacting her and requesting that the women cater different functions with their traditional Afghan cuisine. This has given Aref and the women a chance to share their culture with many different Canadians, who may only know Afghanistan as a country where the war has claimed the lives of many Canadian soldiers.
Standing inside the kitchen, making a pot of coffee, Aref reminisces about her last visit to Afghanistan and the hope she feels for the future, and how her own government can help rebuild her former country by putting women in positions of power.
“I wish that the government of Canada would replace the economic problems with projects. Give the local people projects, especially for women. To learn and give them training for leadership,” Aref said, then gave an example of how she’s helped rebuild Afghanistan. “I collected money from my own family and used these funds to start a tailoring shop in Kabul.”
According to Aref, this tailoring shop does, in fact, only employ women.