Health and community

Project UP creates space for Black Muslim girls

When Shama Saleh and Zainab Mahdi first met in grade 9, they bonded over a shared background and a budding passion for public health.

“My family instilled in me the belief that if you’re healthy, you can do anything,” reflects Mahdi (BSc ’19, Health Studies). “My interest in fostering the right conditions for health led me to Waterloo with the goal of going into health advocacy.”

Shama Saleh.For Saleh (BSc ’19, Health Studies), the decision to pursue a degree in Health Studies was intensely personal. “My mother had an undiagnosed health condition, and I learned what it meant to navigate the health-care system as a person from a marginalized community,” says Saleh. “I knew then that I wanted to make a change in the health-care field.”

In their years at Waterloo, Mahdi and Saleh juggled co-op terms and coursework with extracurricular activities. Saleh played intramural basketball, while Mahdi partnered with Umi Mohammed, a friend from Wilfrid Laurier University, to develop workshops for Black Muslim girls in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. “We wanted to carve out a space where girls like us could come together and benefit from collective knowledge and experiences,” says Mahdi.

“The hope was that by providing leadership training and mentorship support, we could equip them to reach their full potential.”

Zainab Mahdi.In 2017, Mahdi and her co-founder created a series of eight-week programs for middle and high school students. Every week, a group of girls gathered to share a meal, create art, participate in career planning exercises, and discuss whatever was on their mind. “We weren't sure what we were doing,” Mahdi admits. “We just wanted to create community.”

Around the same time, Saleh launched a weekly basketball program for Black Muslim girls, many of whom had never found a safe space to play sports. “Eventually, Zainab and I realized that we were serving the same group of girls,” Saleh remembers. The two joined forces to form a new organization: Project Unleash Potential (UP).

With $255,000 in funding from a three-year grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Project UP is poised to expand its reach. Since they initiated grant-based work in September 2020, Mahdi and Saleh have facilitated bi-weekly programming focused on athletics, creative expression, wellness and leadership and mentorship activities.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they were forced to pivot to virtual activities. Undeterred, they leveraged their personal network to help five girls find employment, delivered care packages, created community conversation circles and maintained drop-in services.

Build something new

Mahdi and Saleh know firsthand what it feels like to look for support that doesn’t exist, so there is no chance of slowing their momentum. “If Project UP had been around when I was growing up, I might have had a greater sense of what life could offer,” reflects Mahdi.

Mahdi and Saleh call their experience at Waterloo “integral” in their journey to founding Project UP. “The co-op program in particular provided so many opportunities to meet people from different walks of life,” says Saleh.

According to Zainab, her experience in the Faculty imparted a comprehensive view of health and the confidence to build something new. “Waterloo helped us grow up and step into a new identity that we can be proud of,” she says. “We’re looking forward to helping more girls like us go through the same transformation.”