Meet the ex-child refugee empowering BAME women to have their voices heard

As a child refugee from the Somali Civil War, Zahra Ibrahim saw poverty, death and destruction of her community and the disempowerment of women as a result. Galvanised by her experiences, Zahra set up Excel Women’s Association, a women’s charity in East London dedicated to helping women find their voice and become campaigners in their own lives.

Excel Women’s Association (EWA) was set-up by Zahra with the main aim of supporting women in Barking and Dagenham, by providing a safe space to come together and talk. Now, 25 years on, and thanks to a grant from The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funding of community activity in the UK, this generosity of spirit remains at the heart of the centre, and the group continues to help women feel empowered, enabled and encouraged to excel every day.

“EWA is here to empower women to feel strong and brave in the pursuit of their rights; to increase their self-esteem, to enable women to pursue their goals rather than to just dream of achieving them and when our women begin achieving their goals, we want to push them further to excel in their cause,” said Zahra.

“I founded the charity because no one knows better about the difficulties women face than those who have been through it themselves. You are not defined by your circumstances, I am a former child refugee, but that label is not forever, and I didn’t want it to hold me back. I think we can all use our experiences to help others do better and unlock the potential we have.”

Despite the difficulties of her early life, Zahra also witnessed the capacity of many ordinary people to help others and was inspired by female role models patiently and tenaciously helping rebuild community life in any way they could.

Using a £55,000 grant from The National Lottery Community Fund’s Leaders with Lived Experience programme, EWA is ensuring that experts by experience are involved in all aspects of its work. The funding is being used to run its East London BAME Leaders programme, which will help over 100 women take control of their lives and tackle entrenched issues and barriers they’re experiencing now and in the future.

“The project, made possible thanks to National Lottery players, is going to empower women and girls to make a difference in their community, bringing women of different backgrounds together to share their knowledge and skills, and give them a voice. Many local women possess a wealth of lived experience – refugee/asylum seekers, domestic abuse, gender stereotyping – and we will train and support these women become activists and leaders for other women facing similar issues.

“Our strap line is ‘Women that look like me’ – we want all women to have someone in leadership that they can relate too, look up to and connect with. There are women leaders everywhere, but they often find themselves outnumbered or silenced. Our new project looks at this and how women can create the environment they need to have their voices heard.”

Through peer support groups, workshops and training – all currently being held virtually – local women will begin to realise their own skills, talents and voice. Throughout the pandemic, the centre has been a great source of help and support to women and families in the area, which has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the country.

“This area has a very large migrant population, there is a lot of deprivation and poverty, people with low income who can’t afford the basic PPE like face masks. The cultural and language barrier also meant people didn’t understand the information the government was publishing, so we worked with local authorities and other organisations to make sure information was localised, and more accessible to people.

“This new funding from The National Lottery Community Fund is so important and really came at crucial time for us as a charity, it means that we are still able to connect and bring women together despite the crisis and pandemic. We are physically closed at the minute, and although it’s not the same online, we are still providing respite over zoom for women to connect, switch off from other issues and have some time for themselves.”

Excel Women’s Association is just one of 48 organisations awarded funding as part of The National Lottery Community Fund’s Leaders with Lived Experience programme – an initiative set up to enable charity and voluntary organisations to better embed experts by experience in all aspects of operations – including making it central to COVID-19 response, recovery and renewal. It will also enable the Fund and the wider sector to continue learning about how people with first-hand experience can become leaders, and how funders can support them.

Cassie Robinson, Senior Head of UK Portfolio at The National Lottery Community Fund, said: “Thanks to National Lottery players, people with lived experience will use their unique expertise to lead social change and help their communities to thrive. This is vital in the response to – and eventually the recovery from – COVID-19. We know that supporting those with first-hand experience to become leaders is a key enabler for civil society to do more, help more people, and for the sector to continue to make a positive impact.”

National Lottery players raise £30 million a week for good causes. During 2020 The National Lottery Community Fund distributed over £650 million to community projects across the UK*.

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