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Life assignment

A Q&A with Outstanding Community Service Award recipient Dr. Zainab Jerrett

By Heidi Wicks

When Dr. Zainab Jerrett (PhD’98) arrived in St. John’s in August 1992, she was met by Dr. Diane Goldstein, head of Memorial’s Department of Folklore, and the late Dr. David Buchan.

“They drove me to what I later learned was Signal Hill. … They inspired me to be more caring and hospitable to others, especially to newcomers, the vulnerable and underprivileged,” remembered Dr. Jerrett, who will receive the Alumni Tribute Award for Outstanding Community Service during a special ceremony on Oct. 5.

Since that day, her folklore education has propelled her to study cultures and traditions from around the world, and to play a key role in supporting, showcasing, celebrating and promoting cultural diversity and inter-cultural understanding in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Her generosity of spirit and devotion to her community has had a ripple effect on everyone in her wake.

In this Q&A with the Gazette, Dr. Jerrett shares some of her most influential experiences and valuable lessons.

HW: What was your childhood like?

ZJ: I came from a royal family in Nigeria. My father was a traditional ruler, with many towns and villages under his jurisdiction.

Growing up, I observed and learned from my father the importance and the joy of devoting oneself to community service. He would feed the hungry, ensure that children whose parents were poor attended school.

He was not a trained lawyer/judge in the Western sense, but he successfully settled conflicts between spouses, land disputes between neighbours or farmers and more. He had the wisdom of Solomon.

HW: You have made many contributions to the international community here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Can you walk me through your career?

 ZJ: I am so inspired working in the non-profit sector in Newfoundland and Labrador.

From 2006–09, I was volunteer president of the now defunct African Canadian Association of N.L., and was then the event co-ordinator for the Multicultural Women’s Organization of N.L. from 2007–11.

Four people stand wearing fashions from Nigeria.
Canadian Multiculturalism Day Event, 2022: Nigeria fashion show.
Photo: Submitted

I witnessed the challenges that newcomers faced trying to integrate and settle here. For example, the cultural differences in parenting. Many new immigrant parents did not know that certain ways in which they treated their children in their countries of origin are not acceptable here in Canada.

Here some of those treatments are considered to be child abuse. As a result, children of new immigrants were taken away from their parents at an alarming rate.

As one of the leaders in the new immigrant community, we mediated between new immigrant parents whose children were taken away and some of the government officials responsible for that. We worked to educate new immigrants, especially new immigrant parents.

I participated in meetings between government social workers, child welfare staff and law enforcement agents to discuss and address this culture conflict and its resultant problems.

Dr. Jerrett is smiling, wearing a pink sweater and patterned dress, in front of a number of happy school children.
School children receiving supplies from We Care Foundation of N.L. Dr. Jerrett is in the foreground, with camera.
Photo: Submitted

Some newcomers felt discriminated against. Others felt culturally isolated and could not find basic items, like their ethnic groceries and body care products locally.

Many newcomers started to leave for other provinces, so we started to organize multicultural events and activities that would bring newcomers and immigrants together, allowing them to showcase, celebrate and share their unique and diverse cultures in a festive atmosphere.

Our main goal was to promote cultural diversity and inter-cultural understanding between new immigrants, service providers, policy-makers and the local population, as well as enhance integration, settlement and retention in Newfoundland and Labrador.

HW: I know there are other organizations you’ve been pivotal in establishing.

ZJ: In 2012 I created International Food and Craft Expo Inc. as a for-profit, small business, and also registered Tombolo Multicultural Festival Newfoundland and Labrador.

Two women stand behind a table and stands with crafts and jewellery.
Craft vendors at the Tombolo Multicultural Festival in 2021.
Photo: Submitted

One of my goals for both ventures was to provide opportunities for local and new immigrant artists, heritage performers, and food and craft vendors to showcase, promote and sell their products and/or services to the public, as well as to promote inter-cultural understanding, anti-racism and immigrant integration and retention.

HW: Can you tell me about the We Care Foundation of N.L. (WCFNL)?

ZJ: My initial goal was to provide scholarships and other educational support for young women and girls in northeastern Nigeria who were victimized and denied education by the Boko Haram militants.

By December 2019 we had provided scholarships to 300 girls and made it possible for them to go back to school.

Dr. Jerrett stands with a number of thankful, smiling students who have received scholarships
Scholarships awarded to victims of Boko Haram by We Care Foundation of NL and Women’s Inter-Church Council of Canada, 2019. Dr. Jerrett is at the far right.
Photo: Submitted

During the COVID-19 pandemic, WCFNL support programs and services expanded and diversified, receiving emergency funding support from the Government of Canada through the Canadian Red Cross, Canadian Women’s Foundation, Black Business Initiative, Food Banks Canada and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The foundation now provides services and programs that address gender-based violence, economic, social and mental challenges experienced by immigrants and the racialized and LGBTQ community.

WCFNL has also been providing material support for Ukrainian refugees, including food hampers, Metro Bus passes, body care products, home cleaning products and supplies for children.

HW: What are your words of advice or wisdom to those who might aspire to work similar to yours?

ZJ: Please go for it. Others can do it, and even better. It will give them joy and a sense of purpose in life.

It requires putting in many hours of work almost every day, but I don’t consider it as a burden. It is my own calling and assignment in life.

I enjoy doing the work I do and feel happy when I see positive changes in the lives of people who have benefited from our support, programs and services. The same principle will apply to anyone who might aspire to do similar work.

The 41st annual Alumni Tribute Awards take place on Wednesday, Oct. 5, at the Core Science Facility. The event will be livestreamed; follow along on Twitter to view.

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