Digital gathering spaces for marginalized groups help spur connections during COVID

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TORONTO — When much of society was under lockdown earlier this year and prolonged periods of solitude began to take a toll, Ghassan Miqdadi would log onto the website Yalla! Let’s Talk to connect with fellow Arabs in Canada and abroad.

They’d chat about everything from current affairs to ways of coping with the pandemic, and the conversations helped ease the feelings of isolation he was experiencing.

“Digitally speaking, I have a whole community by my side,” said the 28-year-old who described himself as a queer man of Arab descent.

“I’d go into virtual cafes, and it was always such a welcoming experience – I felt heard and seen …We needed an inclusive, digital space that welcomed all kinds of Arabs.”

The website is among several digital gathering spaces where marginalized groups can make connections as the pandemic wears on. Some of their founders say they’ve seen a clear need for the support such online platforms can provide, and plan to continue offering the virtual services as society reopens.

“I think what we’re really offering is a sense of community – people coming together to have these discussions, putting forward thought-provoking content, and of course, just having a good and safe time,” said Hani Dajane, who co-founded Yalla! Let’s Talk.

The site – which began as a YouTube channel from London, Ont., in 2017 before growing into a larger digital service – hosts articles, videos, links to podcasts and virtual cafes. Topics discussed among its users include intergenerational trauma, feminism in the Arab world and queer rights issues.

In May, when the conflict in Gaza escalated, the site started offering weekly “virtual healing circles” to help users work through their thoughts around what was happening.

“I felt that we had an obligation toward our community members,” Dajane said, noting that the healing circles were inspired by Indigenous communities and are moderated by volunteers, many of whom are training for careers in mental health support.

“We realized that mental health was deteriorating from this kind of burnout, and a lot of people, including myself, needed help.”

Allison Hill, the founder of Restore – a Black-focused online wellness platform – said she also saw a clear need for a welcoming digital space for marginalized communities emerge during the pandemic.

Hill used to offer yoga, meditation and counselling services at a physical studio in Toronto but those programs moved online when COVID-19 hit. She said her programs have since grown in popularity, with growth accelerating during Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S last summer.

Moving online allowed Black women across Canada to connect and engage in discussions that were important to them, Hill said, noting that topics talked about include racism in the workplace, pregnancy, and family support.

“It’s really about us coming together and sharing the different experiences that we’re having as Black people and using those resources to share and solve our problems within our own community as best as we can,” she said.

While her physical studio is set to open at the end of the month, Hill said her online offerings will continue.

“There are so many opportunities to be innovative at this time … and to really ask questions like ‘what do our people need and how can we get it to them?'” she said.

Dr. Tayyab Rashid, a clinical psychologist in Toronto, said there was merit in such communities coming together online to discuss issues of importance to them. But he cautioned against using the virtual spaces for “quick fixes” when it come to mental health.

“My worry is that mental health advocates, who might not have the training of a counsellor, will not be able to correctly handle situations where someone describes themselves as suicidal or in harm during a Zoom call,” he said.

“As long as these platforms don’t attempt to substitute themselves for therapy, they are a good avenue for people to seek a sense of community.”

Rhythm Sachdeva, The Canadian Press