Mohamed Yaffa couldn’t have predicted he would be Coordinator of Diversity and Social Inclusion at Capital Health in Halifax. Having studied linguistics in Malta, he hoped to work at the Foreign Office of Sierra Leone. But instead, Mohamed, his pregnant wife Fatima, and three-year-old son, fled his country’s brutal civil war for Canada in 2000. “You run for your life. I tried to look out for everyone and find a durable solution.”
He knew little about his new home except the historic connections between Nova Scotia and Freetown. But from the moment of their arrival at the Halifax airport, it seemed that things might go well. Their cab driver, sent by ISANS, wanted to stop at the Mosque for prayers, so they went along. “It was a nice way to stop being a guest in this host country,” he recalls.
The family’s first days were spent at the Mount St. Vincent University Mother House where the religious Sisters brought them rice, a traditional staple. Even the security guard showed them around. “I was very lucky; God paved the way for me.”
Mohamed speaks English, Arabic, Urdu, several African languages and conversational French, and became a volunteer interpreter at ISANS, where both he and Fatima took courses. He soon joined the Dartmouth Literacy Network Board of Directors and studied to teach English at the TESL Centre at Saint Mary’s University. He worked as a settlement worker at ISANS and then for six years was coordinator for the Family Violence and Cultural Awareness program, educating new arrivals about domestic violence and parenting in Canada and building bridges for new immigrants with service organizations in the community. “I grew into it and learned a lot.” He now facilitates access to healthcare for vulnerable populations, and deals with cultural awareness among employees. “I love this job because I see results. We do supportive work in the community.”
Mohamed and Fatima now have four children. Raising children here is challenging as in Sierra Leone everyone – neighbours, friends and extended family – looks after all the children. Weather is another issue. “We try not to complain,” chuckles Mohamed. But the most serious difficulty is the lack of trust. “Once people know you, they welcome you. But why not see me as a good person first? The feeling of being watched while shopping, for a example, is not a good feeling.”
Despite challenges, they are at home. Fatima works as a Continuing Care Assistant and the children do well at school and enjoy soccer and Tai Kwan Do and basketball. Mohamed had earned an Islamic Studies degree and is now the Imam at the Centre for Islamic Development. They have visited Sierra Leone, but their connection has evolved. “You go back and you’re not fully the person you were in terms of culture. We’re never quite totally at home there, or here. You keep getting reminded that you are not 100% accepted here as a Black person, an immigrant or a Muslim.”
But Mohamed recognizes that Canada saved their lives. “It was a jubilant time for me to come here. Everyone in the world is looking for justice and this is a just country.”