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Creating a Community of Care

By Gilary Massa

Sunshine, Self-care and Sisterhood
I had just completed working my first year as the Advocacy Coordinator at the National Council of Canadian Muslims. It was no joke. In my first week, Trump instituted the Muslim Ban, the Quebec Muslim Community—and by extension the rest of Canada—was living in the aftermath of the Quebec Mosque Shooting; one of the bloodiest attacks on a place of worship in Canadian history. We had seen a rise in white supremacist activity across the country and Muslim women, especially those who wore the hijab, were bearing the brunt of anti-Muslim hate.

My work defending the rights of Muslims in Canada, left me tired and burnt out. In fighting the fires I had little personal time to process, debrief and destress.

I remember visiting my native country of Panama with my family and a few friends who are also activists and community advocates, all of us Black women, dreaming of how we could really have an experience to pause and regroup. Our areas of work felt heavy, and while self-care was the new buzz word in activist circles, putting it into practice felt out of reach and selfish.

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My own relationship with self-care was complicated. I cringed at the thought. There was too much work to do. Doing things to unplug felt in direct competition with the needs of my family and community: work, school, motherhood, activism, side hustles, and more, without needing anything in return. I, like many of the women around me, had developed a toxic, one-sided, relationship with community work.

The Sisters’ Retreat
I was inspired by an Audre Lorde quote about self-care: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” (A burst of light and other essays, 1988)

With this quote, I began to understand that self-care was not in opposition to community work, but as a necessary part of it.

I had come to the realization that if I was going to continue to care for community I needed to take care of myself and identify what that looked like. For me, it was to connect with other like-minded women. I needed sun, I needed movement, and I needed to get out of my city.

Sisters’ Retreat was a response to those needs, coupled with a desire to reframe the way we think of and experience wellness and self-care.

Self-care has always been framed as white, wealthy, and singular – something you do alone. And while it’s true that the purpose of self-care is to try and heal one’s self, I began to reflect on when I feel at my fullest and realized it’s always with community.

On April 7, 2019 we embarked on the first ever Sisters’ Retreat; with the help of my friend and Toronto-based poet and arts educator Timaj Garad. She too had been on a similar journey – thinking through how to create spaces for women to heal. Together, we took a group of seven Muslim women on a week-long retreat in Panama: beach days, visits to mountain waterfalls, private salsa lessons, Monkey Island and a visit to the Panama Canal with Afro Latino Travels. In between, we created moments for our participants to heal through writing, movement, yoga, and meditation.

The space was de-politicized. There was no organizing of rallies or plans of action against regressive government policy. In fact, many evenings by the pool were spent talking pop culture, faith and relationships. What we did was create space for our participants to relax, laugh, make new friends and take time for ourselves.

The seven women that came started the trip as strangers and left as friends. Each came on the trip escaping different stressors: kids, work, relationships, and all expressed their need to escape the harsh Toronto winters.  

As retreat organizers, this first retreat confirmed the immense void that exists in community work. We aren’t taking care of the women that take care of us.

As community organizers, hosting this retreat was one of the most meaningful things we had ever done. There was something powerful and transformative about creating space for women to build a community with the simple purpose of supporting holistic well-being. We felt that so many retreat experiences promulgated the idea of “wellness through escape” and we wanted to offer something new; something real – an opportunity for wellness through exploring inwardly as we explored outwardly.

Our excursions were deeply rooted in community. We wanted our guests to experience Panama through the eyes of locals. We visited with Local Panamanian Muslim women who shared their stories and struggles of being Latina Muslims. Our excursion with Afro Latino Travels, who gave us a tour of the Panama Canal and the Afro Antillean Museum, reminded us of Panama’s colonial roots and the legacy it’s left on Panama’s Afro-Panamanian communities.

We wanted our guests to be given the space to not only travel to ‘escape’ but to expand their awareness and learn about the communities and stories around them.

In addition, guests were invited to explore their own histories and stories through our arts-based wellness programming Tales & Tapestries facilitated by Timaj. In these sessions, participants were guided through activities that helped them reflect on their wellness goals. They wrote reflections and poetry, exploring and re-imagining themselves through their experiences in Panama. In the sessions, we laughed, shared, reminisced, and collaborated. Our group was given permission to come as they were, but also gave them space to grow into who they were becoming.

In our productivity-obsessed culture, we seldom take a moment to process the shifts constantly taking place within us. The retreat gave us a moment to sit with ourselves in the perfect juxtaposition of nature and city life in Panama; slowing down, taking in new sights, sounds, experiences, and doing all of that in a supportive environment that mirrors the kind of community we want to build around us. Doing so has rejuvenated our purpose as community builders and artists. As changemakers, we often focus on the bigger picture – the macro-level revolutions, but rarely investigate the revolutions within us and what’s revolving around us to inspire them. This was more than just a vacation, it was an opportunity to be present with the little moments that create smaller revolutions within us so that we can have the capacity to take on the bigger challenges the world inevitably throws our way.

To learn about future retreats: www.thesistersretreat.org, @thesistersretreat


Gilary Massa is an Afro-Panamanian Muslim, based in Toronto, Canada. The co-founder of the Sister’s Retreat, Gilary is also the Advocacy Coordinator for the National Council of Canadian Muslims. This summer Gilary is set to begin her Masters in Leadership and Community Engagement at York University.

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