Nabiha Atallah: A Chapter Closed After Nearly Three Decades at ISANS


Nabiha Atallah has been a long-standing pillar at ISANS. She has worked at ISANS for over half the time the organization has, in one way or another, existed. After 28 years, she is retiring, and the impact she has left on ISANS, and the impact ISANS has left on her, is undeniable.

Nabiha started as the Manager of the Immigrant Entrepreneur Orientation Program (IEOP) at Metropolitan Immigrant Settlement Association (MISA), one of the two organizations that would go on to form ISANS.

“Immigrant entrepreneurs continually impressed me with their determination, flexibility, and risk tolerance. Many established successful businesses, but many also struggled. Those who took the program found it very helpful and often stayed in touch with us for many years,” says Nabiha. She says one of the most rewarding aspects was seeing newcomers from different backgrounds supporting each other and sometimes even going into business together.

When she began her career, the province had no designated office responsible for immigration. Her work, in partnership with The Halifax Chamber of Commerce, raised awareness among business leaders and Nova Scotia at large about immigrant entrepreneurs and their impact.  

In 2003, the MISA Board of Directors organized an Immigration Partnership Conference and invited 200 stakeholders to consider a broad range of issues. That conference had a significant impact on all who attended, and those discussions contributed to the province’s decision to establish the Office of Immigration in 2005. 

In 2009, she became the first Manager of Communications and Research for both MISA and Halifax Immigrant Learning Centre (HILC).  Later that same year, MISA and HILC officially merged to create Immigrant Settlement and Integration Services (ISIS), known now as ISANS.

“Kristy Read came on staff as our first full-time web designer, so we were a team of two and we set up SharePoint, a new website, and a visual identity plan. The graphic designer we hired told us that our flyers, brochures, and posters looked like they had come from 40 different organizations!” says Nabiha.

Nabiha Atallah speaking at the 2nd Annual Immigrant Entrepreneur Showcase in 1999.

During her nine years in that position, she learned and grew. She took on managing the outreach team for a few years and learned a lot about intercultural competence and cultural humility. In 2016, the arrival of Syrian refugees became a major priority of her and her teams' time. Then in 2018, ISANS experienced many more changes. Gerry Mills, ISANS’ Executive Director, retired after 30 years, and Jennifer Watts became CEO. 

Having worked with Nabiha for the last six years, Jennifer had this to say:

“Nabiha has been a joy to work with – the breadth of her experience and history of working in the settlement sector is unique and incredibly valuable.  She has successfully championed research and community-based evaluation in our organization and in the settlement sector in Canada, which will have a lasting impact.  We have benefitted immensely from her immigrant-centred approach and her commitment to plain language in communication.” 

The same year Jennifer came on board, the position of Strategic Initiatives Advisor was created as part of the organization's new Senior Leadership Team (SLT), and that is the role Nabiha has held since 2018.

“My focus has been on leading ISANS’ involvement in research, developing an evaluation framework, supporting the CEO and SLT in government relations, and managing various special projects. I’ve worked closely with Jennifer and the leadership team, trying to build our organizational capacity.  During these years we’ve managed through COVID without ever stopping our work and welcomed thousands of refugees from Afghanistan.  It has been a time of more growth and change than my previous 22 years,” she says.

Nabiha Atallah at ISANS' 2022 Open House.

ISANS has changed considerably in the time Nabiha has been here. When she joined MISA, there were 11 other staff members, and now, at the end of her time at ISANS, she has over 300 colleagues.

In the past, she tells us, “We had phones in our offices, on various floors of the same building, but calls could not be transferred. Every few hours we would go down to reception and collect the pink paper slips where Maria Ramos [ISANS' office coordinator] had written our messages."

And like most other settlement organizations at the time, everyone was learning on the job. The sector was new, and Nabiha and her co-workers were constantly creating programs in response to client needs in real-time. “We supported all categories of immigrants and always worked in partnership. Clients often became volunteers, friends, and colleagues, as it still happens now.  In every area of our work, we had begun by trying to orient immigrants to life in Canada.” 

Over 28 years, Nabiha has impacted the lives of so many clients and staff who have walked through our doors, and in turn, she herself has changed.

“ISANS has been such an important part of my life! I have had the privilege of working with people who are dedicated, compassionate, hard-working, collaborative, knowledgeable, skilled, and genuine.  So many people have been wonderful role models for me. I have enjoyed the diversity we share and have seen the importance of our values at work every day. Working in an organization where everyone whole-heartedly supports the vision and mission is very special,” says Nabiha.

She says interacting with clients and partners outside of ISANS has also had a significant impact on her. “I have been inspired by many ambitious and innovative newcomers who’ve had a great deal of courage and perseverance," she says. "I have been humbled by meeting people who came as refugees and hearing the stories of their struggles in their home countries and the huge adjustments they have had to make here.”

When asked about a favourite memory from her time at ISANS, Nabiha could not pick just one. Yet many of her favourite memories came from times of celebrations when laughter was shared and camaraderie was reveled in. There were also the times she was able to collaborate with colleagues at ISANS and other partners. She loved being a part of a synergy and building caring and respectful relationships in the process. 

Nabiha will be greatly missed at ISANS, but we wish her all the best in her retirement. She looks forward to playing with her grandchildren, spending time with family and friends, and continuing to learn and contribute in different ways. 

Nabiha Atallah while working at MISA.

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