As you speak with Shaida from Keighley, you quickly get a strong sense of her resilience and fortitude as she shares her journey through the many challenges she has faced in forty years of life. She overcame a debilitating illness, journeyed through twelve pregnancies and now has five children ranging from five to twenty-one years old. She has fought hard to raise and protect her family whilst living within an inner city environment; one which she says has had high levels of drug crime, exploitation of young people, littered streets and a general atmosphere of apathy from many residents towards the local surroundings.
For many people, pressures and circumstances like this would get the better of them, yet Shaida has discovered something she says is “vital to life” – this is the incredible difference that community support groups make to life.
There’s a wonderful wisdom that tumbles out of Shaida as she passionately shares about community; that life is meant to be lived within community, that caring for the unseen in our neighbourhoods is rewarding and that without community her own challenges would have been a lot tougher.
Married at 17 and with her first child at 19, she says “I felt very much thrown into the deep end. I was a young mum and I felt lots of uncertainty about raising my son.” It was during this time that she came across a mums group run from the Keighley Association for Women and Children’s Centre (KAWACC). Shaida found a welcoming environment in which she could build friendships, listen and share. “I didn’t feel alone as a young mum anymore. It gave me this enhanced confidence to face life and it also opened up some opportunities for me.”
Over the next ten years KAWACC became a home away from home for Shaida; a ‘grounding community’ woven together from the rich tapestry of her local neighbourhood. “I just loved being there. I couldn’t stay away and soon began volunteering to help others, which then led onto loads of opportunities for courses – things like hairstyling, reflexology and supported exercise for the elderly. Eventually I ended up on the board where I helped to shape the community work and I was involved for many years.”
In 2004, life took another twist when her daughter was born prematurely and was hospitalised for five months. “Her lungs were not mature enough to breathe,” recalls Shaida. ”My grandma also died only two weeks after she was born. It was such a challenging time for me.”
Her daughter had only been home a week when the health visitor spotted that she was still struggling to breathe and was rushed back into hospital, needing an oxygen mask to survive. Shaida spent a week by her bedside and unknowingly picked up an infection. “I started getting severe pains, but no one could figure out why. I wanted to be strong for my new baby and family but within a few weeks I began losing my mobility and ended up in hospital myself with a spine infection.”
“It was such a tough time for me. In the hospital, I struggled to get to my daughter’s ward and couldn’t even lift her in my arms to comfort her. I remember this real feeling of guilt for that. I felt like a child again, I was helpless.”
Fortunately they both recovered, but she remembers being exhausted on returning home with all the responsibilities of motherhood to a newborn and her other kids and simply wanted to stay home and sleep. “I suppose there was an element of denial and embarrassment about what I’d gone through, so I just carried on without opening up to anyone.”
With limited adult contact, her health visitor became a highlight of the week and it was during one of these visits that Shaida was encouraged to try a Sure Start parent group held locally at the Highfield Community Centre. This ended up being the life-line that Shaida needed, a connection to other mothers within the community and providing much needed help and support during that time.
Also, around this time a women’s community basketball group began and Shaida found herself being drawn to it. It ended up becoming an essential part of her life and recovery. “To begin with I was a bit cautious. They used to play like it was rugby and I feared that I’d damage my spine, but I grew in courage and it soon became a highlight of my week. I loved going, it was ‘me time’ away from all my responsibilities.” That group of women continued to play together for over ten years.
Reminiscing, Shaida says, “When we choose to be open about what we’re going through, it opens up dialogue and allows others to also share their feelings. That connection with the community always leaves me feeling replenished.”
This ‘open dialogue’ is something she also witnessed through a Near Neighbours scheme – an initiative that brought together Eastern European, Asian and White communities from her neighbourhood to discuss problems they faced. “In such a mixed group of individuals it was wonderful to see how people began sharing openly. We soon realised that we all cared about the same things, we all wanted to see drastic change in our neighbourhood.”
The local drug culture was a common problem for people. “You could see exchanges openly happening in our streets,” says Shaida. “There were gang rings in the area, helicopters constantly overhead and kids were being groomed into those gangs, but there didn’t seem to be anything we could do apart from stopping our own kids from getting involved”
The other shared issues were litter on the streets, a lack of activities for youth, no work opportunities and a feeling that no-one cared for the environment they were all living in. This led to several litter picks throughout the area, and a greater unity and understanding between the different communities. “Sometimes it’s scary to talk, but unless people speak up the bad things will continue to happen,” she explains.
One of Shaida’s fondest memories of community cohesion was when she attended a two night multi-faith rural retreat to a bunkhouse in Malham. Individuals that would never normally meet shared activities, meals and cleaning rotas. She recalls that “getting out of the inner city into the countryside and working alongside people from different backgrounds and faith opened up so many barriers. We had open discussions about our differences and the whole thing emphasised womanhood over religion. There was such a calmness there which really nurtured me.” Over the years, Shaida’s involvement at the Highfield Centre has moved from firstly accepting support, to then volunteering and she’s now working part-time as a staff member.
One area she really values is working alongside the elderly. “It’s sad. A lot of the elderly people are undervalued, they often don’t feel like anyone cares or their opinions don’t matter anymore, but they’ve got so much wisdom and experience to share. I find that I can relate to what they’re going through, I understand pain and what a feeling of helplessness is like. The isolation they often feel, how they may not want to leave home or get out of bed. I guess I have compassion for them because of what I’ve gone through over the years.”
Her experiences have led her to being a massive champion of community work and its benefits to all involved. “We’ve recently set up a gardening group on Wednesday afternoons in a local council owned space, where we bring the young and old together. We’re going to turn an overgrown space into a garden with flowers and vegetables. I want us all to be able to sit around a table one day and eat a meal with some of what we’ve grown…the conversations are brilliant, it’s so therapeutic gardening together.”
For Shaida, community has been a place of refuge, a sanctuary in the midst of the challenges of life. It’s become home, a place where friendships are formed and lives are strengthened through connection. “I’ve personally felt so much compassion, care and value within groups I’ve been involved in,” she says. It’s these values of care, compassion, empathy, listening and valuing that Shaida continues to model through her work today.
Over the years, Shaida has witnessed the situation with gangs improving and there’s now a real drive on clearing litter within the community – so there have been lots of positive changes. “Bradford is a beautiful place,” she says. “There’s some horrible stuff that happens on the side but there’s a lot of good. The help I’ve seen communities provide through COVID has been incredible.”
She ends with this thought: “I find at the centres I portray myself as more confident than I am at home. I tell the ladies you are strong, beautiful, you can do this. By hearing and saying it to the others, it reinforces it to myself, like a ripple effect.” It’s that ripple effect of value, strength and compassion that we all need in our lives. And it starts when we step outside our homes and unite with others to build community.