Talking to Shahla Raza, Community Centre owner in Istanbul

Here is an exclusive interview with humanitarian Shahla Raza, whose story is one of the most inspirational that we have had the privilege to hear.

This Real Powerful Woman has worked, starting singlehandedly, to bring education, security and freedom to Syrian refugees, particularly children and women. She has achieved this by educating the refugees about their human rights as well as their capacity to support themselves financially.

If you want to change your perspective on what can be achieved by a single person, then read on.

OW: This is Team O Womania talking to real powerful women. Can you briefly introduce yourself?

SR: I’m Shahla Raza. I live in Istanbul. I moved from India to Istanbul in 2015.  I run a community center for refugees there. Also, here I run a community centre for street and slum children. I was a documentary film maker in India for 20 years. While making my films I would travel around India a lot, my films dealt a lot with gender issues, equality, things like that. So I have closely seen the situation in India with poverty and inequality.

But I felt that filmmaking was not having the impact that I wanted, so it got frustrating. I decided to do more work on the ground so I set up this community centre in Mumbai.

I feel that education is the opposite of ignorance. Ignorance is one of the biggest issues any human faces. I wanted to start from the bottom and teach children about basics, their rights, what to expect from life. etc

So, the community centre is a non-formal learning centre in Versova, Dhai Akshar. We also put the children into formal education and we teach them skills to support themselves if they are not educated.

When the situation in Syria was getting worse, we didn’t hear much in India, it just seemed like vague reports about some far away land. But then the refugee crisis happened and children suffered so much. I started reading reports and news, the media called it the largest humanitarian crisis of all time.

I felt that if I hadn’t done anything with the power that I had, I would feel miserable. So I volunteered in Turkey to help out however I could. Personally also, I wanted to move to Turkey. I was living on the border in Hatay, where I had volunteered at a community centre. It was an overwhelming experience and I realized then, that it was a huge crisis.

But it started getting dangerous with shells thrown from across the border, and South Turkey had a civil war raging!

So I moved to Istanbul and started working at a place which had many families coming in and I realized that much needed to be done. For instance, refugees didn’t know their status, they didn’t know how to register, their rights to protection, how to get an identity card, that the children were entitled to education, medical health, etc.

There were a lot of things available for them. Individual families that I would visit, I would go with them to the doctor, the pharmacy and tell them what they could use, what services were available to them. Also, language was an issue for them.

So I thought instead of going to individual families I would set up a community.

Of course, as a foreigner I found it difficult but I didn’t think too much. I just got up and did it!

Fortunately, others were also looking for a way to help, so I got a lot of volunteers and people started joining. First it was me in one room, trying to do everything at the same time. Now everything runs efficiently, we are also officially registered with the government.

OW: Please describe your current position in life.

SR: My center is a year and a half old. A lot of the problems early on have been solved. Its more streamlined and things have settled down. Now I can set up something new- reaching out to the community, establishing our place in the neighbourhood-all those things have been sorted out. Now we know exactly what we are doing and what they need. Now that our children’s programmes are running smoothly, I would like to pay more attention to the women. How to make a living, ways to run a business etc. Maybe make the work of the centre a little more expansive.

I secretly hope that the centre will not be needed.

OW: When you were planning to follow this ambition, what are some of the biggest challenges you faced?

SR: The biggest problem was that I was a foreigner in a foreign country. I did this first in India and it was so much easier, I knew the rules, policies. I had so much support from everybody. Things like funding, getting a place, getting volunteers, getting registered, it was much easier. I didn’t have a problem with the language. Over there the biggest challenge was that I didn’t know anything. My language skills were poor, I didn’t know the country situation, just about everything was a learning experience. Every day I had to learn something new. It took me a year and a half just to settle down! Also there were three languages to deal with English, Arabic and Tukish which got quite complicated!

It was very very very stressful! It was hard work, I’d barely sleep for 3 hours every night, I practically got thrown out of my apartment! That happened because people would bring donations to my house like books, clothes, toys- and I’d sort through them at home and take them where required. So the neighbours complained that people keep coming and going, so the manager said ‘please leave’!

This was good though, it goaded me into setting up my own place. I realized I needed a place to do these things.

OW: What pushed you through these difficulties?

SR: I knew that people needed these things and I couldn’t just throw up my hands. I think of my children and I think ‘get up and do it’. I just cannot stand seeing children suffering. If I see adults I think, they’ll have to sort it out themselves, but children, no!

OW: What personal challenges did you encounter?

SR: First of all, convincing my family that I wanted to go to Turkey. I didn’t tell anyone this was my plan, I just said I needed a break and wanted to relax, I just want to get out. ‘They said ‘But your center is here’ and I said that I’ll come back and do it!

Another huge challenge was that I didn’t know a single person there. To go somewhere and have nobody understand your situation. Of course, online I constantly has people available to talk to and stay connected. But the physical loneliness was something else. Like travelling on the bus, even the Turkish people did not want to travel, with terrorist activity present like the PKK, but I just got on the bus and went about my way!

Dar ke aage jeet hai! If you stay in your comfort zone, you’ll just sit there and won’t get anything done!

OW: How did you overcome these significant personal challenges?

SR: Sheer determination. I’ve set out to do this thing and I’d better do it! I’ve never just given up because things are difficult, I don’t do that. I don’t try to prove anything to anybody, I try to prove it to myself. What’s the point of just sitting there doing nothing? What’s the point of life? Or just thinking of yourself? Ok you’ve had your breakfast, lunch and dinner and done whatever you needed to please yourself, then what? Is that what life is all about? Just that?

OW: What is the one thing about you, which helps bring you success?

SR: The one thing about myself I think would be my never give up attitude! My determination. I wouldn’t say I’m fearless, because I’m not, but I believe in getting over that fear. In my family, I’m the most cowardly person! If you ask my sister, she’ll say I couldn’t sleep in my room without my light on.

So yeah, I do get afraid and then I push myself and say ‘what is there to be afraid of’.

So there were many things I was afraid of which I’ve gotten over now. I just think I’m a very determined person. I don’t want to have regrets that there are things I could have done to help, but I didn’t do them because I was too afraid or too lazy or too self-centred!

OW: In Syria, how have you seen gender equality?

SR: Of course, the women from the capital and big cities are educated and liberal minded. But women I work with come from very oppressed backgrounds. They come from rural areas which are very traditional.

They been taught that men are superior and women cannot do certain things, that they should just cover up and sit at home.

That has also been a challenge. Not telling them at once that their ideas are wrong from the start. But showing them that things don’t have to be like this. You can go out, you can do certain things! I tell them, if I believed the things you believe, then I would just sit at home and how would I set up this centre? I don’t believe in preaching a lot, I believe in showing them.

I’m trying to empower them in a more conducive way, gradually introducing change.

OW: Finally, do you have any message for women across India?

SR: Just go out and do it. Don’t give into society’s expectation of what women should be like. Girls can be whatever they want to, they can go out there and use all their strengths and not waste them! Don’t follow these outdated rules about what a woman can do and what they can’t do, they can do whatever they want.

Don’t listen to the men! Men don’t have any right to make rules and laws for women!

Interview by

Khizra Gore, O Womania Team

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