It’s Refugee Week and our community hero is Shahnaz from the Alya Ahwazi Women Association.

Shahnaz is a member of the Ahwazi community and she left Iran to join her husband in London in 2003.  He fled under threat of persecution in 1999 following the publication of a history book on the Ahwazi people.

Arriving in London with no English, no friends, no house or job – and with small children – was isolating and difficult for Shahnaz.  But life as a woman in the very traditional Ahwazi Arab community is also not easy, so despite the many challenges she faced, Shahnaz felt a strong sense of freedom in the UK.

A story shared by so many new immigrants, Shahnaz had to start over. She enrolled at college to learn English then a Masters degree while working full time. Reflecting on these difficult early years in London, Shahnaz says a handful of kind and supportive people helped her through – a tutor at her college (Patrick),  Pascal at the Southwark Refugee Community Forum, and two colleagues at her work (Ann and David).

Now settled and confident, Shahnaz has started to support other women from her community and recently set up the Alya Ahwazi Women Association (ALYA). Experiencing multiple challenges such as childhood trauma, discrimination, being uprooted and struggling with a new culture, many Ahwazi women in Southwark struggle with finding inclusive and safe spaces.  ‘Therapy’ she says ‘is about bringing people together to talk, laugh, eat and drink coffee’.  And with over 150 women now involved with ALYA, the value of this is clear.

Her other mission is to encourage Ahwazi women to integrate into British society and culture. Inspiring others through her own experiences, she is showing others how it is possible to embrace two cultures, and the opportunities of life in the UK.