Refugee women escape conflict to start over as caterers in Montreal

Palestinian mother of four Hend Elhouseny says she’s starting over in Canada “from zero,” or even in the negative, but the community is helping bolster her dreams of creating a new life and helping other women do the same.

Women Weaving Their Dreams cook for Saturday interfaith holiday celebration

Hend Elhouseny, left, is from Palestine and cooks with a group of refugee women. She hopes to open her own restaurant one day. (Submitted Hend Elhouseny )

Hend Elhouseny fled Gaza with her four children and says she's starting over in Canada "from zero," but the community is helping bolster her dreams of creating a new life, and one day, she wants to help other women do the same.

She's part of a group called Women Weaving Their Dreams that includes about a dozen refugee women in Montreal who cater events.

Their next meal is for about 100 people at an interfaith holiday dinner in Cartierville at the Al Rawdah Mosque.

The 40-year-old Elhouseny arrived in Montreal in June 2017 and started doing volunteer work at PRAIDA, the provincial government organization that helps refugee claimants in their first months in Quebec.

The Montreal City Mission, working in affiliation with the St. James United Church, helped her make money and form a community through the catering group.

Her chapter includes women who fled Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Jordan and other countries.

They meet about twice a month and also check in on each other over the phone and online.

It offers her a kind of grounding that she left behind when she fled her home.

"I'm out of three wars, and a siege, and a lot of difficulties and conflict, but [I'm] still alive, and here in Canada," she said.

"I have to work, I have to start my life."

She said she's honoured to cater the upcoming Celebration of Light event.

The director of the hosting Al Rawdah Mosque, Samer Elniz, is proud to be able to provide a catering opportunity for her and the other women.

"It's better than buying from restaurants because we're helping them," he said.

The 2017 edition of Celebration of Light brought together members of different religious groups, along with the general public. (Laurentien Community Centre & MAC/Facebook)

Christian, Jewish, Muslim, First Nations celebrate

The event is in its third year, and Elniz says it's a chance for different religious communities to celebrate what unifies them rather than what divides them.

"Every organization has a vision, and we have a lot of common visions," Elniz said.

The dinner is open to the public and will feature food, music, speeches and dancing.

Last year, members of the Mohawk community were among those in attendance and they welcomed everyone to the land.

Members of the Mohawk community performed at last year's event. (Laurentien Community Centre & MAC/Facebook)

For the executive director of the Montreal City Mission, Rev. Paula Kline, the most moving moment was the lighting of a menorah.

"I don't think it's been too often where you have the Jewish community lighting a menorah in a mosque, together with Muslims and Christians," she said.

She said the event came out of an invitation from the Muslim Association of Canada to St. James United Church to come celebrate Christmas with them.

"We said, 'OK, let's do that. But let's make it an interfaith affair,'" Kline said.

Since Women Weaving Their Dreams is affiliated with St. James United Church, it was a natural fit to ask them to cater the event.

'I know the suffering they face'

Elhouseny said the women in her group are always actively searching for work.

"I know the suffering they face, and they need to earn money," she said.

Kline said the language barrier provides an added struggle to getting these women into the workforce.

Last week, Quebec Premier François Legault said he would reduce the number of economic immigrants entering the province and focus on integration.

Kline hopes to meet with Quebec's new immigration minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, in the new year to discuss the Montreal City Mission's integration model, which she says has proven very successful. 

"A lot of these women are too shy to go to a language class," she said.

Elhouseny has so appreciated how the Montreal City Mission has helped her, that she hopes to take the concept behind Women Weaving Their Dreams further, and open a restaurant that only employs refugee women.

Elhouseny at an event she catered for 30 people that her children helped her with. (Submitted Hend Elhouseny )

She wants it to be a place for these women to earn money and get to know others like them.

She's not sure where she might want to open it, maybe near a CEGEP, or another location with a lot of pedestrian traffic, she said.

For now, she's taking things one day at a time and is happy to see her children speaking French, English and Arabic, and to be reunited with her husband in Montreal.


Elysha Enos


Elysha Enos is a journalist with CBC Montreal.


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