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Trekking the Atlas Mountain

Our team of 11 just returned from a successful expedition to the Summit of the Atlas Mountain. We conquered mount Toubkal! 

We reached the summit in -15 degrees wind chill. After 4 days of climbing our enthusiastic and exhausted team dug deep, pulled together, held hands and one slow step after the other made that last 167meters to the top, to 4167meters. It took 1.5 painful hours to do that last little bit. Really really tough. 

We did it though. We stood on top of the clouds took in our view with tears flowing down our frozen faces, we did the trek to celebrate Mental health. 

My personal objective for organising this trek was to mark the end of a 10 year career where I played the lead role in building MHFA England, a social business, a mental health movement, a fabulous community and a successful business.

The 5 day trek reminded me that I love being part of a team and that I am agile and I adapt. 

I felt the strength of human endeavour and the spirit of a group of people on a shared mission. I felt physically exhausted and mentally strong. 

Everyone in this team inspired me for different reasons but my personal hero from this trip is my 17 year old daughter (Picture of her sat under a tree for a rest on our way up). She pushed herself to her complete strength and reached her personal summit at 4000m. Never before have I seen more determination and grit. I am proud of her. So lucky to be your mum. 

You can still sponsor us on 

https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-display/showROFundraiserPage?userUrl=whatthetrek&isTeam=true

Stand Up To Racism

Stand Up To Racism.

Today I joined the march in Parliament Square to #StandUpToRacism. I heard powerful speakers like Nahella Ashraf who’s words reminded me that our identity is not the property of others and it’s not up for debate and discussion by fascist men. Our crowd of a few thousand walked from parliament square to Victoria and the chant that landed with me the most were “Who’s streets? Our streets!”

As I walked the streets of London that I have been walking for 20 years of working life I reflect on the emotions surfacing in me. I find I can’t join the march with my voice. All the words get stuck in my throat. So my husband and I hold hands and walk in silence.

I look over to my left where there seems to be some commotion and I hear some men swearing and shouting racist slur. Their faces angry and their gestures provocative. The stewards guide the march in an alternate direction and the chanting gets louder. People hug and hold each other closer. More smiles and more passion.

I notice that now I am crying. Tears just stream down my face for the rest of the march. I let them. It’s important to hurt and cry when I am hearing words and feeling feelings that haunt me from my childhood. I am sorry we are here again.

#antifacism #sohoradio #womenoftheworld #racism #nahellaashraf #standuptoracism

Pride London 2018!

PRIDE – as I floated through the centre of London on top of a Bus stating ‘Mental Health First Aid for All’ I felt like I was on top of the world.

Not only was I here with my, decade old, friends and colleagues, I was draped in a saree representing Asian heritage and people from my community. Some of those were in the crowd cheering me on. Almost all of them were totally surprised by a ‘woman in a saree on top of the mental health bus’.

As I connected with people who looked like me I smiled with all my heart and pulled my best pose and I stood a little taller in my attempt to reflect their pride. An honour I felt very privileged to have, in those moments.

My heart also sent out love to those who will never find a space to come out or even know the words with which to talk about their identity. I received a gorgeous message from another Asian woman, who took a picture from the crowd, found me on social media and sent it on. she said ‘the whole day made my heart swell up with pride…love is love, isn’t it!’ Yes it is. 

Obviously my pride saree was just amazing! The @mhfaengland crew know how to celebrate.  @prideinlondon

Thank you MHFA England

I’m sat here 48 hours after having a ball at my leaving party with my MHFA England family and I’m reflecting on my week. What a week it has been…

Monday was the bank holiday a beautiful sunny spring breeze in the air and I sat at the top of my garden with 60 post cards, my favourite pen and a bunch of thoughts. I was intent on writing a message to everyone in my team but where do I start? What do I say to people I have spent more time with in the last 10 years then I have my own family? Many of whom I now consider my family. How do I thank people I have respected, learnt to live from and grown with? How do I begin to express how positive they have been for my mental health and how grateful I am that they were there when I was swimming through troubled waters?

As I started to write the first postcard I discover it was in fact very easy to say all those things, because it’s easy to tell the truth. I realised that it wasn’t the words I was worried about it was the fact that I am going to miss my MHFA family that I was troubled by. Penning each card reminded me of a memory that made me smile and I felt lucky to have been part of something that is this tough to leave.

Tuesday we had a full team strategy day and as I watched the morning unfold starting with our vision and objectives, followed by our new strategy I felt pride and I felt excited about the journey ahead for MHFA England…momentarily I also felt a pang of loss. I heard myself think ‘who could I possibly be if I am not the CEO of MHFA England?’ I felt a little scared about my journey ahead.

Wednesday I met a friend for dinner he is one of London’s famous workplace mental health advocates and he was really keen to tell me a story. He was at the Co-op on Essex Road near Popham Council Estate and there were two young mums with pushchairs and two little ones. They were talking about mental health so he couldn’t help but listen in. One friend was saying to the other ‘I went on this course this week it’s called mental health first aid and it is brilliant you should do it. I learnt loads.’ I was moved by this recounted story as I felt like I had just had the biggest accolade of my career. There are people out there that will not experience the stigma, confusion and shame of mental ill health in the same way I did. My efforts of the last decade has played a small part in changing some people’s lives. I had paid my good fortune forward.

So when Thursday my secret leaving party day arrived I was standing tall (in my heels) ready to be with my team for one huge night out. The MHFA crew did not disappoint; they wrote me a poem (too funny to share), created a book of memories, presented me Rosey’s to encourage me to indulge in my garden, a Jamdani saree from my favourite designer Bibi Russell, we had personalised chocolate cake and they even made up a word to describe me ‘yes-ability’! The event was impeccably planned and delivered with heart – in true MHFA form. Laughter was the theme (with a few tears) and we rocked another evening and made some more memories.

Thank you everyone!

An occasion at the airport

Making an occasion of airport goodbyes has been a thing in my family as long as I can remember.

It’s become a tradition and we expect my cousin to turn up with takeaway containers full of freshly cooked birani! 🍛. We expect to wave our family off until we can’t see them as the airport staff try and clear a path through our crowd to let others through 🙄. We usually takeover a few tables at an airport restaurant and we even have goodbye drop-in guests who just stop by the airport for that one last hug or Salam.

We essentially have a mini party where our people from different parts of our country congregate to say a passing goodbye…just in case it’s the last…

I went through a short phase in life when I used to find it all a bit embarrassing 🤦🏾‍♀️ now I have returned to – I LOVE that we turn up on mass to say goodbye to one person and I love that we bring a picnic and do it properly! 💪🏾🙏🏾

On this occasion we saw my mum, aunty and uncle off to Bangladesh for a long break. I loved wearing my peach cotton gamcha weave saree a signature design originally launched by @bibiproductions and a product of Bangladesh with an @asos top.

In case anyone is wondering a gamcha is hand towel size cotton material that is used for everything. It’s always checked and you see it literally everywhere in Bangladesh; on peoples heads to protect from sun, as towel to dry with, as a cloth to soak and cool down with. I remember my mum always tying her freshly washed hair to dry in a gamcha. Which is why I love this saree. It reminds me of childhood. (https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.thedailystar.net/lifestyle/cover-story/the-life-cycle-gamcha-1566922%3famp)

So this series of pics made me laugh so much on Saturday. I was desperately trying to get a picture of just me and mum and my saree….

International women’s day and the honour of receiving an OBE

Like every year I’m in the spirit of celebrating international women’s day. I have two daughters and it’s very important to me that I shine a light on powerful women and women power, especially today.

I’m on my way to BBC Radio Live 5 to do an interview on Leaders and Babies on the Emma Barnett show. Last year I was invited by Verena Hefti CEO of social enterprise Leaders Plus, to give my personal views on the challenges faced by people with young children to balance career and parenting. After the interview I will be joining the Leaders Plus fellowship who are meeting at the House of Commons for a conversation on this issue, which primarily disadvantages women, I am super excited about this event, as the Leaders will be bringing their babies into work this morning. I can’t wait for lots of cuddles!

A couple of days ago I was at Buckingham Palace for the Investiture of the honour of receiving an OBE. I thought it was personally symbolic that this event was so close to International women’s day.

I had the most amazing day at the Palace with my family. Every last detail had been considered and having a few moments to continue a conversation with HRH Prince William on mental health was really special. In fact I was so completely in the moment with him that I forgot what I was supposed to do once (the cue) he held his hand out to shake. I think I slightly stumbled and rushed out of the grand room blushing!

The investiture experience was made extra special for me by two women who I’d like to give a shout out to this morning.

The first is the woman who created the gorgeous saree you can see on the images above. I really wanted to wear something special. Something that represented my country of birth. So a couple of weeks ago, I made contact with Bibi Russell on Instagram. I asked her, if she had any Jamdani saree’s, a handloom cotton weave only made in Bangladesh. She got back to me straight away and we began swapping images and ideas.

And then – it gets even better! – she offered to deliver the saree to me in person, right here in London – all the way from Dhaka! She was flying over to take part in London fashion week and the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange, which was hosted at Buckingham palace by the duchess of Cambridge.

BiBi is a former model and world-renowned designer, whose ethos is ‘fashion for development’. She employs more than 30k local artisans from every corner of Bangladesh. Her aim is to preserve her cultural heritage, empower women and help eradicate poverty.

When we met for the first time at the V&A, Bibi gave me a huge hug of congratulations and handed over this beauty. So thank you Bibi Russell for creating such a stunning saree for me to drape.

The second woman that played a significant part in the saree journey is my friend and colleague Monira Rahman.

Monira founded the Acid Survivors Foundation in Bangladesh in 1999,This is an organization dedicated to raising awareness and preventing acid attacks. She created a social movement which resulted in 75% reduction of acid attack’s by the year 2010. Monira won the Amnesty International Human Rights Defenders Award and is currently the CEO of Mental Health First Aid Bangladesh.

Monira insisted that this saree designed by Bibi was a gift from her, as she could not be here in person, she wanted me to feel that the Bangladeshi work family were here in spirit. Thank you Monira for such a thoughtful gift.

I’ve been fascinated by my inner dialogue and the conversations I have been having triggered by the honour of the OBE. My family and friends are so proud, it’s been a truly humbling experience. We’ve had lots of Obi-Wan jokes, lots of curtsy practising and I’ve really enjoyed fuelling my inner megalomaniac by regularly ordering ‘off with their heads’ in my best Queen of Hearts voice!

However there has also been deeper more thoughtful reflections that I’d like to share today. Last week – while stuck indoors by the stunning but disruptive snow – I spoke with someone from the British Bangladeshi Power and Inspiration. They called to invite me to an event to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Altab Ali a 26-year-old man who was murdered in a racist attack in Brick Lane on the 4th May 1978. Altab Ali’s murder was a turning point for the British Bangladeshi community. It brought us together and forced us to stand up and make our presence known. To demand the right to be a respected and protected part of the society we lived in.

The impact of all this on my family was typical. Over the past 40 years I’ve seen my family shift from living out of a metaphorical suitcase – to settling and laying down roots in this county. My dad ran restaurants and dealt with racism pretty much every day of his working life.

He would say to me: “This is not your home. We are not here to build a life, we’re just visitors working away from home”. And as a child I remember thinking, “but I don’t know any other home”. It’s difficult to describe how it felt growing up as a ‘visitor’, not a citizen.

But the benefit of seeing the world through tourist eyes was curiosity – I was interested in everything – and in search of my place in the world. So when I was approached about the OBE, I was a bit conflicted. George Santayana, wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It took me a bit of time and many conversations with friends to reach my decision to accept the honour.

The most excellent Order of the British Empire – of which I am now an officer. I guess I, and many others, don’t necessarily agree that the Empire was wholly excellent. But I do know that I would not be here today representing Bangladeshis, women, and mental health had it not been for the East India Company and the merchant navy, which recruited my grandad and I’m incredibly proud of my British Bangladeshi identity.

The OBE is for my service to mental health and I take only part credit for that recognition. The entire Mental Health First Aid community has played a significant role in making that bit happen.

What I do take full credit for is consistently remaining curious, and always wanting to make sure my children felt home was home. I wanted to be a role model and encourage others to believe that anything is possible.

I was born in a house made of mud and straw with no electricity or running water. A couple days ago I was at the palace. This morning I will be with powerful young leaders in the House of Commons.

I guess I took Dad’s words as a challenge to see if I could build, and not just visit. I took Santayana’s words to remember the past, and take pride in representing difference today. I honour the memory of Altab Ali, and feel I am part of his legacy.

I am a proud British Bangladeshi woman and I’m committed to celebrating today and every day all the compassionate women in the world and the men that stand beside us as our equals.

Have a wonderful International Women’s day everyone!

Paying it forward 

Last day in Seattle and seeing the city from the water is on my mind. I’ve already had 3 awesome days in this stunning place.

So on this last day my absolute highlight was going to the Seattle ferry ticket office and asking ‘when is the next ferry out of here? where does it go? How long will it take?… Bremerton? 1 hour? 8$? Perfect!’ I’ve always wanted to do that, one day I’ll go to an airport and do the same! (Except with Brexit the choices might be limited)

When I arrived in Seattle last Friday, I had money (having learnt from my last trip abroad) and my first purchase was an ORCA card to get me around and I’d even taken my planning one step further by organising to meet family that evening! Pleased with my preparedness I boarded the train to downtown Seattle.

I got chatting to a fellow passenger Kito, who informed me that I needed to tap in and tap out with my ORCA, which I had failed to do, which means I may be fined (not feeling so smug anymore)! Oh well, I’d just have to deal with consequences when I exit.

Now Kito was very interesting he was a ‘Vietnam Era Veteran’ he wore a cap that said so. This meant he served during the Vietnam war era but not in Vietnam. In fact his job was to service aircrafts and he managed to avoid doing this by joining a choir led by the General’s wife who held rehearsals most days. He loved to sing  and he found a way to do what he loved all through his life. He was a proud man and he told me he came to Seattle for a weekend and never left, the air quality here was just too good! At my destination I thanked him for all the local ‘must do’ tips and for the friendly welcome to his City.

At the exit, the barriers were open and luckily I got away with my mistake. I made a mental note to pay my dues (my mums voice in my head reminding me to pay it forward).

I left my hotel late this morning hoping the opportunity to do so might arise. Seattle it would seem is as big on brunch as it is on portions! This afternoon’s food of choice was delicious noodle with tofu served in a box the size of my head!

As I found a sunny bench overlooking the water and began my brunch, I noticed a man with a brown cardboard sign, on it one word ‘homeless’ I placed the lid back on my enormous box and asked him if he’d like some food? ‘Hell yes! I’m starving!’ A few feet away there was another man who met my eyes, hopeful, I gave him what change I had. Opportunity ceased, dues paid (I could see a relieved look on my mums face. She believes bad things happen if you don’t give back)!

Arrived in Bremerton and sat drinking tea in The Coffee Oasis in a pint size cardboard cup. This happens to be a very quiet place with a big naval base. On my way to this cafe, I (literally) bumped into a man as he came out of the barrack security gates, after an apology he tells me his wife is about to give birth to their baby in hospital. I wished him well as he rushed off up the hill. He’s excitement was infectious and I’m still smiling wondering about the  gender of the baby.

To end this adventure I wondered back to my hotel through Pike St Market and noticed a shop with an Arabic sign, I popped in to see what it had to offer and guess what? Yes, my favourite Sesame Snaps! Perfect ending to a balanced trip.

When you arrive in a country, 24 hours away, with no money…

So being Bengali and more importantly from Portsmouth, I refuse to pay the extortionate exchange rate at the airport and decide that 40 Australian Dollars from the cashpoint is going to have to get me to Parramatta from Sydney and I’ll deal with my cash-less issue there later.
As directed by a lovely lady (who thought I was a student) with a big smile, smudged lipstick and a mother like demeanour, I go find my place at the bus stop. Second bus is the number 400 to Burwood, my next destination, except I have notes and the big beardy driver doesn’t take notes. However, from underneath all that facial hair there is a smile and he says ‘you’ll just have to go take a seat!’ ‘That’s very kind of you’ I say (my English sounding really English!). My new best friend tells me all about his travels and Egyptian wife and 30 minutes later I’m in Burwood.
This place is full of Thai and Chinese food and lots of hair dressers…full of older men being groomed…fascinating, I wonder if the bus driver ever tends to his beard using such services!
I’m very tempted by the food smells but bearing in mind it’s only 9.30am I decide to stay focused on my mission to get to my hotel. I have a lunch time meeting with a minister from Ireland. Besides I’m still full from DimSum breakfast.
I head to the shopping centre thinking there must be a money exchange place here. A nice young man in a bed linen shop tells me there isn’t and I should go find the bank. He even googles the exact location…three shops down…(I don’t think he goes to the bank very often!)
So to the bank. another lovely lady with smudged red lipstick (there is a market for quality lip liner here!?¿). She tells me that the cashier bit is closed and I can’t take any cash out on Saturday however there is a money exchange place next to the bed linen shop!
I’m thinking I should forget the money thing today and just get the hotel. She points me to train station across the road. Great. Direct trains! Ahh nowhere to buy tickets. I start talking to a young woman (no lipstick). Who kindly calls the ticket guy. Who tells me they are short staffed and he’s on the platform seeing a train in but he’ll be down in a bit. (It’s like Southern are following me around the world).
He turns out to be very helpful. Instead of 5dollars on a single I get an Opal card for 20 for the week – I can now travel on everything! I’m very excited by this concept and the icing on this little adventure is I find my favourite Sesame Snaps in the Opal shop too!

So 20 and a bit dollars, a few nice Australians and a sugar boost later I am here. Personal mission for my stay will now be to get every last moment out of my Opal card! Love having time for small adventures!

Bringing ‘colour’ to Blue Monday

Two experiences that have made my morning colorful today:

1. The cash machine outside the station is broken and so disappointed I initially walked away, without my breakfast from my favourite morning cafe Daisy’s. Then i felt like taking a different approach. I went back to the cafe run by two lovely people and asked if they would consider an IOU and they did! I really was not expecting that! Thank you for my pasty and tea…

  2. Sat at station enjoying my warm pasty, when a couple walked in & started chatting to me about how yummy my pasty smells. I noticed the gentleman had a watch that was very old, beautiful!  Anyway, I learnt that the couple had been together for a few years after the gentleman was widowed 47 years into his marriage. It was clear he was deeply in love with his wife and he missed her.

 I asked how the both of them met and they told me the story. He was contemplating death and an unusual encounter led to him attending a gathering. There across the room was this beautiful woman who he knew his heart could love, so he took courage and one step at a time considered himself and what he was about to do, talk to another woman. A tiny bit of life growing where darkness and death had resided for so long.

Apart from the story being so romantic (tears on my pasty) what struck me was they both gazed with trust, strength and what I can only describe as a bit of magic into each other’s eyes as they told me their story. It was such a privilege to experience their intimacy for a few moments (whilst still scoffing my now soggy pasty). They both told me that love is acceptance and life is about the journey not the destination. The old watch on his wrist is over 100 years old and its still going as people have loved it in all its different states…wow!