This program aims to help immigrant women to knock down barriers and win at the ballot box - New Canadian Media
Participants in the Syrian Canadian Foundation's Women in Civic Engagement program are learning how to become an elected official, or work in civic engagement directly with elected officials to create policies and bring change. (Contributed photo)

This program aims to help immigrant women to knock down barriers and win at the ballot box

WICE program by the Syrian Canadian Foundation teaches women how to find success in the Canadian democratic system

A group of well-educated women who witnessed and experienced extreme injustice in their native countries are learning democratic ways to have their voices heard by joining a program called Women in Civic Engagement by the Syrian Canadian Foundation.

The unique 18-month program is funded by Human Concern International (HCI). The program teaches immigrant women how to run for office, work with representatives at all levels of government, begin their own ventures, and participate in existing initiatives and organizations.

 “They experience what it takes to become an elected official either, or work in civic engagement directly with elected officials to create policies and bring change in the system,” says Kataryna Patsak, program manager at the Syrian Canadian Foundation.

Program participants already have a broad and impressive range of experience and interests, including politics, human rights, environmentalism and activism. 

Arzo Mohammadi arrived in Canada from Afghanistan with her aunt, leaving her parents and seven siblings behind. 

Mohammadi survived a bombing that killed 18 students at Kabul University, where she was studying psychology, defying a taboo against the profession.At the university, Mohammadi created a students’ committee to do research on psychology, and translate material in Persian language to raise awareness about the subject and mental health among the Afghan people.

After moving to Canada in 2021, Mohammadi decided to leave psychology and instead learn about  politics and human rights. “I want to learn democratic ways of contributing to human rights development not only in Canada but also in Afghanistan,” Mohammadi said.

She is now in Durham College completing her paralegal diploma. The Women in Civic Engagement (WICE) Program seemed to be  “a good start” for her.

According to Statistics Canada, following the 2021 federal election, women comprised 30 per cent of Members of Parliament in Canada’s House of Commons. Meanwhile, Canada ranks just 56th in the world in terms of the share of female parliamentarians.

While the number of women running for office in federal elections has been increasing in recent years, the number of women elected remains lower than the share of female candidates. 


The WICE program’s first cohort of 28 women visited Ottawa to observe parliament proceedings, engaging with several parliamentarians, particularly immigrants.

Amna Shah, originally from Pakistan, enabled her to meet Members of Parliament and discuss issues and challenges faced by refugees.

“I engaged with MP Omar Alghabra and Salma Zahid and I used the platforms to really bring up the challenges refugees face as a newcomer in the country, and what I can do as a newcomer to solve those challenges or to reduce their problems,” Shah said.

While in Pakistan, Shah faced religious discrimination. Her father and younger brother were tortured and ten years ago the entire family left their pharmacy business and were forcefully displaced to Malaysia. Malaysia isa non-signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which means why refugees have no legal rights there.

During those ten years, Shah and her siblings had no education rights; refugees were not allowed to work and had to fend for themselves, and there were fears of facing arbitrary detention.

The family has now been in Canada for a year and half and Shah is enrolled in University of Toronto. Besides completing her education, Shah’s objective is to advocate for refugee rights, “particularly their right to education.”   

That’s why she joined the Women in Civic Engagement program and is learning about Canadian civic and political systems.

Nibal Salloum, from southern Syria, has been a human rights watch expert for more than 15 years. She was the project manager with multiple international human rights organizations and covered more than eight war zones around the world. She moved to Lebanon during the Syrian war, was jailed in 2018 for human rights activism work and was released on the condition to leave the country. She arrived in Canada in early 2023.

Salloum, 35, left her family behind and wanted to learn about Canadian politics while networking with people interested in activism and politics. “My colleagues in this program are an amazing group of independent strong women,” Salloum said.

The WICE program’s Ottawa trip educated the participants about the Canadian political system, the possibilities and methods on how to engage in the system. “They give lectures on research, about advocacy, what responsibilities one holds and about branding ourselves,” Salloum said.

During the trip to Parliament Hill, the program team also connected with the executive director of the Equal Voice – a charity organization working since 2001, on electing women to Politics.

Mock Election Campaign

Equal Voice is a staunch advocate of gender equality in politics and having extensive experience in training women for elections under their program- Daughters of the vote, that runs nationally, provincially and at municipal level for women 30 years old or below.  

Chi Nguyen, executive director of Equal Voice, says that when she started working on this issue in 2000 there were only 20 per cent of women in the House of Commons. Now we are at 30.5 per cent women in the House of Commons, and she believes, “a mere 10 per cent increase in 20 years depicts that pace of change is very slow”

“It’s because there’s a lot of systemic structural, political barriers that candidates face so that’s what we tried to tackle, both in the content, but then also in research and our advocacy.”

A recent report by the Standing Committee on the Status of Women elaborates on biases against female politicians, including harassment, discrimination, a lack of family-friendly workplaces, and difficulties in financing campaigns.

The report also points out that women face other obstacles in participating in the electoral process, including barriers in the recruitment of women from diverse backgrounds as candidates. 

Equal Voice collaborated with WICE to have participants go through a mock provincial election campaign.

In the session, participants formed a campaign team to craft policy statements on crucial issues, self-assign campaign roles and work both individually and collaboratively on the assigned tasks, giving them the experience in running an election campaign from start to finish.

Gabriela Covaci was approached by some political parties to join them, and this program she believes is offering her exposure and knowledge before she decides if she is willing to try her hand at politics. “Joining the program will help you to take the decision,” Covaci said

Covaci is from Romania, a former communist country and a relatively new democracy.

She has a chemistry degree, and two masters degrees, in business administration and in education. Covaci is  associated with the Halton district school board and is the board chair of the Halton Newcomer Strategy group. She advocates for women’s abortion rights and runs a not-for- profit to help newcomer women.

Replacing the Lords with Immigrants

On the national level, Shah wanted to learn why the Senate is made up of mostly elderly former politicians. 

“It’s [like the] British version of the House of Lords,” Nguyen, from Equal Voice, explained

“We know that these aren’t systems that were designed for us,” Nguyen added. 

“They were designed by men a long time ago. White men have a particular class life experience and to represent Canada today we need it to look more like us.” 

Patsak, of the Syrian Canadian Foundation, says all of the program’s participants have been shaped by their life experiences and share a common goal of breaking down barriers to help themselves or others get elected.

The current WICE program will end in January 2025. The next cohort is dependent on funding.

— This article was updated on March 14 to correct minor fact errors.

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Tazeen is based in Mississauga and is a reporter with the New Canadian Media. Back in Pakistan where she comes from, she was a senior producer and editorial head in reputable news channels. She holds a master’s degree in Media and Communication and a certificate in TV program production from Radio Netherlands Training Center. She is also the recipient of NCM's Top Story of 2022 award for her story a "A victim of torture, blogger continues fight for human rights in Pakistan"

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