SAINT JOHN – For her first Halloween in Saint John, Hebatalla Mohamed took the opportunity of her kids trick-or-treating to also introduce herself to her new neighbours.
The Egyptian woman who lived in Saudi Arabia had only arrived in Canada about 10 months ago. So far, she’s found herself not only making friends but, along with business partner Lamis Hijazi, who came as a refugee from Syria, she’s also opening a shop that provides space for other women to socialize.
“I’m so excited and a little bit nervous – me and my business partner Lamis – because it’s the first time for us to have a business here in Saint John,” Mohamed said.
Women’s Zone, located on 134 Lansdowne Ave. in the north end, sells headscarves and long dresses called abayas that are typically worn by Muslim women, the first to do so in Saint John. It also sells lingerie, pyjamas, sportswear, purses, and other clothing pieces brought over from Turkey, where Hijazi’s siblings live.
The shop, which had its grand opening Tuesday, also has a kids area and a place for women to gather over coffee and tea.
Mohamed said while she found that people are welcoming and accepting, there was a gap in options when it comes to clothing that many Arab women like to wear. She said the women she has spoken to would often bring clothing from their own countries or order online, but the shipping could be expensive and the order may not match what was bought on-screen.
But that wasn’t the only need that Mohamed and Hijazi saw. They also saw an opportunity to create a space for newcomer women to socialize and gather the way they do in their own cultures.
Mohamed herself is a social butterfly, actively making connections everywhere from her neighbourhood to her kids’ after-school programs, but that’s not the case with all newcomer women.
Besides, newcomers, especially refugees, may have language barriers and cultural learning curves. Women with children in tow often end up staying home and becoming isolated.
“[These ladies] have no place in the morning to go, when they sent their kids to school or something. And they need to be in a place to chat and communicate together and feel like it’s their home,” Mohamed said.
“It’s too difficult and expensive to be at the mall in the morning, and the park, it depends on the weather. So it’s a place feeling like home and to have the chance to chat and communicate with her mates. There must be a place for kids who are five years old or younger, to take care of their kids while they have a chance to live.”
Mohamed and Hijazi also want to give off a different cultural vibe by playing Arabic music and serving Arabic coffee, for example. They also serve tea, juices, Canadian coffee and there’s a cat to play with. They don’t serve food, but customers can bring their own food to the shop.
“I think our place makes it easier for Arabian people to [be inspired] and [flourish] in the community quickly. Because here you can exchange your culture without [being embarassed] and you can become a friend easily with anybody here,” Mohamed said.
While at first the pair’s target audience were women in their own Arab community, it turns out, the clothing option is attractive to Muslim women from countries like India, Pakistan, Somalia and others as well. And their Canadian friends liked the idea of a space where they too can come, socialize and have cultural exchanges with newcomers.
Mohamed, who had worked in the garment sector and had stints of self-employment prior to immigrating, was looking for a clearer career path a few months after her arrival. The mother of three came without her husband, who is still working overseas.
“I had some struggling at first, but once I arrived here…I made a few hours volunteering for a few months in YMCA as a teacher’s assistant.”
She met Hijazi through The Hive, Saint John’s Business Immigrant Mentorship Program, which is funded and initiated by the provincial government and delivered by Economic Development Greater Saint John.
“I can say that it’s an amazing program. It’s the most important thing that happened to me since I arrived here,” Mohamed said.
Meanwhile, Hijazi, who came to Saint John three years ago, had been selling clothes she brought from Turkey from her home and through an online group. The pair planned out Women’s Zone for about three months.
“We already had our customers before we opened. That’s why we are encouraged to have a physical place for our business,” Mohamed said.
The Hive director Matt George has been working with Mohamed and Hijazi to set up their business. He said the social space in the business could be an “underrated aspect” that’s very important to the newcomer community.
“In New Brunswick, we gather in pubs. But that’s not always appropriate for everyone. And there are very few spaces that are welcoming spaces that offer different services at different times – where people can just have tea, chat and play cards into the night,” he said. “When you think of what makes a community welcoming, it’s being able to dress how you dress, worship how you worship, all of that and also gather how you want to gather.”
George says the business also comes at the right time for Saint John, which is welcoming more newcomers. The city welcomed 835 newcomers in 2018, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.