Case study: Muslim dads in Canada

13 September 2008

Immigrant men learn how to broaden paternal role

Participants of all ages share concerns about fatherhood as program pioneers shift to mosque

May 17, 2008, Andrea Gordon, FAMILY ISSUES REPORTER,Toronto Star*

Sagheer Chatta’s children are just preschoolers, but the Pakistani immigrant is bracing himself for "big time" culture clash down the road. Once his daughter, 4, and son, 18 months, are in full-time school, they may balk at speaking Urdu at home. They may pull away from some of the Muslim traditions they are being raised with. In a decade, they’ll be forging their own identities, merging their Pakistani roots with Canadian teen culture.

"There could be resistance, there’s no doubt about it," says Chatta, 33, who came to Canada in the mid-1990s and now lives in Maple. He’s prepared to negotiate and give the kids freedom to make their own choices. But he realizes it might not be easy.

That’s one reason why, on a sunny spring evening, he and about 40 other men have assembled at the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Canada Mosque in Maple. Outside on green fields, children frolic and swing cricket bats, their shouts floating across the air. Inside, fathers, grandfathers and young men hoping to one day become dads gather in the men’s prayer hall.

The event is the first of its kind at the mosque. It’s a six-week program on fatherhood, run by dads and for men only. During the 90-minute Monday evening sessions, the men discuss such topics as reading and playing with young children, discipline without physical force, postpartum depression, and the cultural and spiritual aspects of child rearing.

The series is co-sponsored by the Catholic Community Services of York Region, which runs a program called Focus on Fathers, and the Social Services Network of York Region. Focus on Fathers has been providing free community programs for dads of all ages, circumstances and cultures for nine years. But, for the first time, the program is being delivered in a place of worship, in hopes of reaching more dads who need support. It will soon be launched in a synagogue and in Sikh and Hindu temples.

"This shows respect for their traditions," says Ed Bader, co-ordinator of Focus on Fathers. "You’re actually setting up a framework where people can learn easily because the surroundings are familiar."

At the Ahmadiyya mosque, five of the six sessions are in Urdu. The accompanying workbook What a Difference a Dad Makes is also in Urdu, and can be shared with grandparents and other caregivers. It is also available in nine other languages including Farsi, Cantonese, Korean, Tamil and Russian.

To Ijaz Rauf, the mosque’s education director, this approach makes sense. Many fathers are more comfortable talking about personal issues in their first language and with men of similar experience. For example, 31 men showed up for the first session at Ahmadiyya, and more in the following two weeks. A dads program offered in the fall at a largely Muslim local school attracted fewer than 10 men. 

"Coping with cultural differences causes a lot of stress," says Rauf, who came to Canada from Pakistan in 1992. "Most (parents) who move here are kind of at a loss."

Adjusting can be particularly jolting for fathers raised in cultures where extended families were the main source of support and advice, and where fathers’ roles were primarily as authoritarians and breadwinners.

In Canada, they are expected to be nurturers and equal partners in child rearing while also trying to find work and settle the family. Often, they have lost their economic and social status. They may face discrimination. It’s not uncommon for their wives to find employment more quickly, and establish a social circle faster. They watch their kids soak up the new language and culture and quickly become translators for their parents.

David Este, a professor of social work at the University of Calgary who has studied the impact of immigrant status on fatherhood, says it can be debilitating to be unemployed or underemployed as a result of foreign credentials that aren’t recognized here.  "It affects the essence of who they are," he says in an interview. "It undermines their self-esteem and leads to a sense of hopelessness."

Dads in this situation lose confidence and worry they can’t provide their kids’ material needs and aren’t good role models, says Este, lead researcher on immigrant dads for the Father Involvement Research Initiative (FIRA) project, a cross-Canada initiative run by the University of Guelph. He has done several studies of newcomer fathers in Calgary’s Sudanese and Russian communities.

The stresses faced by immigrant fathers have come to light following several family tragedies in the past six months. In December, 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez of Mississauga was strangled. Her father, a taxi driver, remains in custody, charged with murder. In the aftermath, the girl’s friends said Aqsa, the youngest of eight children, had clashed repeatedly with her father over her rejection of certain Muslim traditions such as wearing a hijab, and had left home several times.

A month later, in Delta, B.C., Lakhvinder Kahlon was charged with first-degree murder in the death of his 2-year-old daughter in the Vancouver suburb of Delta and ordered to take a psychiatric assessment. His wife later told reporters the unemployed drywaller suffered from depression.

Support for immigrant fathers who may be stressed, isolated and coping with the inevitable teenage rebellion is badly needed, says Hesham Sabry, a writer and public speaker who is active in the Muslim community in Kitchener and emigrated from Egypt 20 years ago.

The trick is how to provide it. Call it "family counselling" or "parenting classes" and many won’t come. They see it is an admission of failure. Some are not comfortable sharing personal issues in mixed company, he says.

His wife Gehan Sabry, founder of Cross Cultures magazine, organized a panel this year at the Kitchener-Waterloo Public Library on raising children between two cultures, which drew almost 70 people. "I think in all communities there is a big demand (for information and support) for parents of teens," says the mother of three.

Hesham says establishing an involved, trusting relationship with kids from the beginning is critical to help weather adolescent debates over academic choices, parties, fashion, and dating and sleepovers. "If you have communicated and built bridges with them from the time they are very young, then you are directing them, but they are choosing (their path)."

He counsels immigrant fathers to cut work hours and nurture their kids because it’s a better investment.
"Whatever you make in money will never bring back that time with the kids."

At the Ahmadiyya mosque in Maple, Chaudhry Rasool, 74, arrives at the dads program to support the younger men and pick up some grandfathering tips. "I think this is very good," says Rasool, who has nine children and 19 grandkids. "When I was young, I used to lose my patience very easily. How to handle them, how to deal with them – this is very important."

For Chatta, the wisdom of elders like Rasool is invaluable. Chatta works in the heating and air conditioning business and says his big challenge is managing his time and warding off exhaustion.

"This (program) is very helpful. There’s something about listening to others’ experiences. You learn different ways."

* This article, which is reproduced with the kind permission of the Toronto Star, was brought to our attention by the excellent FIRA (Father Involvement Research Alliance) e-Bulletin of Canada.  To subscribe, click here

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