#ImmigrationMatters in Winnipeg, Manitoba – Breaking the silence around domestic violence

Breaking the silence around domestic violence

October 28, 2022


Zita Somakoko

Zita Somakoko first learned about Canada in a geography class when she was a teenager in the Central African Republic, and she told her father she would live there one day. Although her life took a few turns first, Zita arrived in Canada as a refugee in 2007 at the age of 34.

Zita married her high school sweetheart, but their relationship unravelled quickly when he became abusive. She eventually fled to Canada, where her children were able to join her later.

She now owns her own human resources consulting company. She is also the founder and first president of the Black-Manitobans Chamber of Commerce and the second woman in Canada to have founded a chamber of commerce. Her company helps fund an advocacy and awareness organization that she also started: Breaking the Silence on Domestic Violence.

Zita’s passion for her advocacy work stems from her own experiences with an abusive partner, and the effects of that abuse on her children. But what finally propelled her to become an advocate was a news story she saw in October 2015 about a Winnipeg woman who had been killed by her partner.

Unable to sleep and questioning how this could happen in her own community, she started researching domestic violence in Manitoba, and she concluded that lack of awareness was a big part of the problem. Within a month, she had organized a forum called Breaking the Silence on Domestic Violence. The forum marked the first time she had spoken publicly about her own history with domestic violence.

Zita is a roaring lion—a strong woman who cares deeply about the people around her. There’s no difference between her organization and her. It’s part of who she is.

Dana Smith, survivor

“It’s a heavy and difficult topic, but it’s something we should be discussing,” she insists. “We cannot conquer what we cannot confront.”

Today, Breaking the Silence uses various forms of communication, including art exhibitions, conferences and workshops, to generate awareness on the impacts of domestic violence and to hold both perpetrators and bystanders to account.

Ray Dirks, founder and past director of the MHC Gallery in Winnipeg, met Zita a few years ago. They met through their shared interest in the performing and visual arts, when she was planning the first Breaking the Silence forum. He nominated her for Honour 150, which recognizes Manitobans who have made a significant contribution to their province.

“Zita has been a lifeline for so many people who are in deep pain and don't know where to turn,” Ray says. “She does more than just awareness building. She is willing to talk to people and help in any way she can.”

One such person is Dana Smith, who says Zita helped her “get her voice back” when she was living at a women’s shelter in Manitoba.

“She is a person who just gives up so much of herself,” Dana says. “Even though we don’t talk all the time now, the times we do chat make me feel better. I can’t thank her enough.”

As for Zita, she says that in Canada, she has finally found respite from the terrors of abuse and the hardships of being a refugee, she’s found purpose in contributing to her community. “I was a bird flying from one nest to another until the day I landed here.”

Immigration profile: Winnipeg, Manitoba (Census Metropolitan Area)

Quick facts:

  • Immigrants in Winnipeg represent a quarter (24%) of the population.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 people working in social advocacy, civic, social and giving-related organizations were born outside of Canada.
  • There are more than 600,000 self-employed immigrants in Canada, and over 260,000 of them have paid employees.

Did you know?

  • Charities and non-profit organizations employ 2.4 million people and are the country’s largest employers of immigrant women.

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