A matter of solidarity: the Chingari platform

Mahwish Yousaf has guided, counselled and mentored female immigrants in need for over two decades. She believes that more women could be supported through community-based partnerships and volunteerism.

I’m only one person,” says Yousaf. “To help more women, I knew I would have to build a network of resources to reach them all.”

With a strong commitment in helping women change their lives and find independence, Yousaf founded the Chingari Women’s Support Group earlier this year.

“Chingari is a Hindi or Urdu word that means spark,” says Yousaf. “I wanted to use another language with an ethnic feeling that would trigger hope in my clients.”

Finding her feet

Mahwish Yousaf, founder of Chingari Women’s Support Group. | Photo courtesy of Mahwish Yousaf

The Chingari platform connects and empowers women through education. The platform focuses on the legal rights of women, mental, physical and emotional health, community resources, crisis management and creating business opportunities for self-sufficiency.

Yousaf, known by family and friends as Mona, left Pakistan to start a new life with her husband in the United States when she was 19 years old. She then immigrated to Canada in 2006 with her husband and child.

As a Pakistani women and newcomer to Canada, Yousaf found it difficult to connect with community groups because of her language and cultural differences. When she felt the need to leave her husband, she had no prior knowledge of her legal rights, nor did she have the know-how to access the information she needed to start a new life.

“I didn’t know my legal rights in the divorce process, nor my custody rights,” says Yusaf. “As a result, I went through a lot of injustices by others.”

25 years later, Yousaf is now an established business woman. She’s managed or owned a range of businesses from mobile phone retail stores, a catering company, and a day care. Most recently, she works as a consultant in project management in quality assurance services while running what she describes as a judicial marketing agency that offers business development and social media services.

“With all these skills, I feel I’ve got a lot to give back,” says Yousaf.

We’re a helpline, a resource and a place for women to connect

The business model for Chingari Women’s Support Group consists of Yousaf’s strong network of 30 business partners that includes lawyers, counsellors, social workers, community agencies and approximately 15 volunteers that help organize workshops in professional development and assertiveness training.

Carolina Barrocas volunteers at Chingari providing expertise in social media. Back in Brazil, she’s a university professor in human rights. Barrocas understands the power of education and how it can change lives.

“If you don’t know your rights and you don’t know where to find help or what to do, you are totally disarmed,” says Barrocas. “You don’t even know that you are able to do something to change your situation.”

Through local support and resources, Yousaf was able to assist a woman and her four-year-old daughter who had immigrated to Canada only to find themselves homeless in an unfamiliar country two months later. Yousaf and her team of volunteers were able to reach out to the community and find three options for more stable housing.

“We’re a helpline, a resource, and a place for women to connect,” says Yousaf. “Often these women are abused or depressed and can get easily discouraged when they don’t find what they need.”

The Chingari Women’s Support Group, which will meet at the City Centre Library in Surrey from July to September, offers women a safe place to ask questions and access resources that will help them start on their path to independence. Some women prefer networking sessions where they can share their challenges and brainstorm ideas to resolved issues. Others are looking for ways to upgrade their skills or develop a home business.

“I want to give back as much as I can each day. So, if I can help one person or at least put a smile on their face, I feel as though I’ve accomplished something,” says Yousaf.

To learn more, visit www.chingari.org.