Shakila has not only enjoyed a greater freedom in Canada, but her harrowing experience has turned her into an activist.
Last June, she flew to Ottawa, where she was invited to speak at a national conference of women working with survivors of domestic violence. In halting English, she delivered a message of strength — a warrior from a faraway land using words as weapons to inspire Canadian women.
“Do not be silent in the face of violence. It is up to you to fight and you can. I am proud of all women. We are the superwomen,” she said, winning a standing ovation.
She did not stop there, carrying the energy from that room to a meeting on Parliament Hill with immigration minister Ahmed Hussen. Shakila, who was once a woman who with no power, was now walking the halls of power.
But before she met Hussen, she saw another Afghan refugee: Maryam Monsef, at the time the minister for the status of women. Monsef embraced Shakila and the two fell into an emotional, excited conversation in Dari about the plight of Afghan women.
“You are so strong,” Monsef said, praising Shakila for speaking out against violence.
Once Hussen entered the small meeting room just below the House of Commons, Shakila wasted little time, informing him of a list of needs not being met for many refugees. For one, access to therapy for victims of trauma. Shakila has had just 10 sessions with a counsellor in the time she has been in Canada, courtesy of a pilot program. Unlike other nations, such as Australia, there is no dedicated funding to provide longer-term intense treatment for refugees who come to Canada with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Shakila also shared a first-hand account of the financial challenges. As Government Assisted Refugees (GARS), people like her are entitled to roughly $1,100 each per month for 12 months, including a transit pass. But in February, they lost the federal support, and now live on roughly $700 each. Since the family’s rent is $1,600 plus utilities, money is tight.
The Zareens are on the list for subsidized housing, and given Shakila’s medical challenges, she is a priority. But there are 20,000 others also waiting, and there is no certainty about when they will find affordable shelter.
Shakila wants to work, but her condition makes that impossible. Sharman wants to find a job as a cook or in a garden centre, but her English is limited. Her younger sister is in high school, and has done some part-time work in a restaurant.
Hussen listened, but offered no promises. Shakila left Ottawa buoyed by her new role as an activist and advocate, but flew back to Vancouver with a still uncertain future.
The return to reality included a trip to the local food bank in a church basement in a Vancouver suburb.
Always on her mind: when would she get the surgery that would restore her face?
Volunteer Theresa Rasquinha welcomed Shakila and her mother with open arms, quickly discovering they could communicate in a shared language — Hindi, which the Zareens had picked up during their sojourn in India.
“I’m glad you are visiting us,“ Rasquinha said, gesturing toward a table with two boxes filled with tinned foods, rice, beans and other items. “This is what we have for you, because I’m not sure what you would want.”
Rasquinha took them into the pantry where the shelves were filled with more tins of food. Shakila moved in close to be able to see what was on offer. She chose the chickpeas.
The food bank’s generosity extended to basic items the Zareens still didn’t have after months in Canada — sheets and blankets among them. Shakila also asked if she could take a giant stuffed toy bear for her sister. She smiled as she carried it out.
What really moved them, though, was Rasquinha’s special effort to go out and buy traditional Afghan flatbread for them.
“Thank you,” said Sharman as she looked over the bounty.
Shakila smiled as she picked up one of the boxes to carry out: “I am strong.”
Throughout all of this — the trips, the high-profile appearances and the day-to-day life in Vancouver — one thing Shakila was almost always on her mind: when would she get the surgery that would restore her face?