Empowering Immigrant Women

Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA)

Immigrant women and young girls from CIWA's Summer Culture Club program hold up signs sharing what they are grateful for.

Immigrant women and young girls from CIWA’s summer program hold up signs sharing what they are grateful for. Image source: Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA)

Interview by: Anabia Adnan

In recent years, there has been a substantial increase in human migration. The most prominent reasons that challenge humans to rebuild their lives in a new country are political instability, poverty and economic challenges and climate change.

Though they play a vital role in the global economy, immigrants are faced with many struggles and barriers as they try to adapt to a new culture and assimilate into the workplace. 

The United Nations (UN) recognizes December 18 as International Migrants’ Day and aims to mobilize political will to address challenges faced by immigrants and to celebrate their resilience and adaptability. 

To recognize and honour this day, we are profiling a local, culturally diverse non-profit organization Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA) which has been in the forefront for recognizing and responding to the evolving needs of refugee and immigrant women. It was registered in 1982 and is now recognized as a provincial and national leader in outcome-based, gender-specific immigrant settlement services.  

Rekha Gadhia, Family Services Manager at CIWA

Rekha Gadhia, Family Services Manager, CIWA

Rekha Gadhia has been working with CIWA for 11 years and leads the Family Services department at CIWA. Being an immigrant herself, she relates to many issues faced by refugee, immigrant and newcomer families and is passionate about empowering them.

In this interview, Rekha talks about the organization and how her team at CIWA addresses the critical needs and struggles of new immigrants and their families in adjusting to life in a new country and culture. 

CIWA has more than 50 programs that offer professional support to facilitate immigrant women and their families in different areas of their settlement and integration to Canada and within the community. 

What are the core values and goals of CIWA and what kind of services do they offer?

The core values that form the framework for CIWA are equity, integrity, inclusiveness, leadership and innovation. The support programs and services offered by CIWA are based on these core values. Our fundamental goal is to holistically empower refugee and immigrant women and their families so that they can assimilate into and enrich Canadian society. We offer a wide range of easily accessible programs and services like settlement and integration, language training, employment support, health, parenting and many more.

We also offer services to support senior immigrant women and young immigrant girls as their settlement experience is quite distinct due to their age and level of independence, physical health and surroundings.

CIWA’s uniqueness is also based on the realization that males need to be engaged and supported in order to empower women and girls; and hence, many of CIWA’s programs cater to the boys and men in immigrant families, guiding them towards a successful integration in a new country.

What type of programs and services fall under the Family Services?

The Family Services at CIWA, collectively through its programs acknowledges issues and struggles faced by immigrant women, men, boys, girls, seniors and their families. Right from the prenatal and postnatal phase to senior years, these programs provide culturally sensitive support to newly immigrated families as they adapt to living in a new country and learn the nuances of a new culture. Through this department, CIWA’s clients have access to parenting courses, afterschool-based programing, leadership and skill building opportunities, group and individual counselling supports, violence prevention and intervention support, home visitation, youth mentorship and employment/career supports etc. 

Our programs provide a holistic support towards settlement, empowerment, cultural integration and emotional and mental well being of the immigrant women and extends support to their families including their spouses, children and even grandparents.

Young immigrant girls meet up in a park during the summer

CIWA Youth park meet up

Our team at Family Services provides resources for expecting and new mothers and focuses on their emotional and mental well being and financial needs. Our different parenting programs provide support to parents in understanding family laws in a new country along with cultural norms and expectations. 

We also recognize the importance of the early years and many of our programs are designed for early childhood development in different areas like language, social development, mental health etc. 

The Family Resource Network hub at CIWA is a non-geographic immigrant serving hub in Calgary and anyone from

Calgary can access services through it. It is based on the caregiver building capacity, social connections and well being resiliency framework guidelines outlined by the provincial government.

Family Services also supports youth by creating programs like after school homework help for immigrant girls, career mentorships, social inclusion, culture club etc. These programs empower immigrant youth and encourage them to get involved in the community and reach their full potential. We also arrange for mentorship for young immigrant girls where the mentees are paired with mentors who have similar career/education interest and can relate to immigrant challenges.

CIWA launched their program for mental health support for Immigrants and Refugees in 2019 which has rapidly gained success. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

Supports for Immigrants and Refugees with Mental Health and Addiction Issues project provides resources and services to ensure that immigrants are able to identify and seek support for mental health and addiction issues.

For many refugees and immigrants, life in a new country starts off with concerns and struggles around a long list of integration challenges like employment, housing and learning a new language. Often these struggles combined with isolation, the stress of moving away from home and not having a support  system lead to various mental health and addiction issues.

This program provides individual and group counselling in multiple languages and for many different ethnic groups. These programs focus on providing support and solutions with cultural understanding and sensitivity while also aiming to remove stigma around seeking mental health help.

How has COVID-19 impacted refugee and immigrant women and what are the most sought-after programs/services during the pandemic?

Group of immigrant seniors on an online session of CIWA's Family Conflict Prevention Program

Group of immigrant seniors on an online session of CIWA’s Family Conflict Prevention Program

All of our programs are created keeping in mind the emerging needs of immigrants and are very well received. One of our programs which has been accessed quite a lot during COVID has been the Family Conflict Prevention Program. This program provides professional, culturally-sensitive counselling for immigrant women and their families who are experiencing transition challenges, relationship problems, abuse and trauma.

During the pandemic gender based violence and inequality have become more prominent than ever before. CIWA has documented a significant rise in cases of domestic abuse since COVID started last year. It also provides emotional support to immigrant women and girls in vulnerable situations and helps them recognize and break away from the cycle of abuse through group and individual counselling. We also recognize the great importance of gender equity education for men and have programs that cater to it.

How can Calgarians get involved with CIWA? 

There are multiple ways to support CIWA. We encourage Calgarians to volunteer for different programs at CIWA and facilitate them with specialized training for different departments. Calgarians who immigrated to Canada in the past and are now well integrated in the society can sign up for mentorship for youth. Volunteers with certain areas of expertise are welcome to come to different programs as guest speakers and talk about their experiences and journey. Donations are always welcome so that we continue empowering refugee and immigrant women and their families.

More information about how to support CIWA and get involved with their programs and services can be accessed through their website and all social media platforms.