A Letter from Newly Appointed CEO Afrah Qassim

On the 11th August of this year Savera UK will celebrate its 10-year anniversary. Due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, we are unable to celebrate in the way we hoped, but we will celebrate through our ongoing events and we are planning to mark the occasion and look towards the next decade with a special gathering later in the year.

I held the Chair role for the past 10 years and during those 10 years, I experienced many highs and lows. When we started, I had very little experience in leadership or running a charity. What I had is passion and commitment to address the issues that Savera UK set out to tackle. I also had the most amazing people around me who guided me and supported me throughout this. There have been so many throughout the years and I can’t thank them enough.

There is one in particular who has stood side by side with us since day one and still, Marie Wheldon. Marie has been a rock to me and Savera UK.  I also want to say thank you to my family, who have been there through everything. They celebrated my achievements and picked me up when I felt things were falling apart. They are always there to help and I made each one have a role to do for Savera. They are my biggest supporters and there at every event Savera UK holds. Most of all they provide me with the love and encouragement I needed to believe in myself and what I do.

Savera UK (formerly Savera Liverpool) was established as a result of the work I led in my role as a Community Development Officer within the NHS Primary Care Trust. The work was improving inequalities within mental health services for Black and Minority Ethnic communities and I was the lead for Women, Children and Young People. This was a dream role for me and I was excited to develop it. One area I wanted to look into was domestic abuse and the impact of mental health on those affected.

After meeting and consulting with services, specialist agencies and the community. I came to realise there was so much fear on both sides – from professionals and also the community – to question or seek help due to cultural beliefs, religion, discrimination, not being understood, the social service system and lack of appropriate support. With my manager’s support, in 2008 I decided to set up a group of statutory professionals, specialist agencies and voluntary groups working within their communities. We called it the Domestic Abuse & BME Communities Group. Within that first year we undertook a number of projects, including a community consultation and a conference that focused on BME communities and Domestic Abuse. More than 100 participants attended. A year later, a school monitor contacted me to seek advice for a group of young women who wanted cultural support around arranged marriage. I met with the group and found out how their lives had been controlled by their families – it was already planned for them. For some of them being in school was just a temporary measure, others were told if they want to carry on in education they have to achieve high results, so that they didn’t bring shame to the family. If they didn’t achieve those high results, the family would take them out of education.

This group of women were aged between 13 and 15 years old. The one thing they had in common was they came from similar background and that they knew their families would arrange their marriage for them and that they would not have a choice in the matter and without out any questions they were happy to accept as they thought they had no other choice and mostly didn’t want their family to be talked about amongst the community. I wasn’t shocked to hear that. I was angry that these young women had no one or a service to talk to who understood their culture and where they were coming from. No one let them know that they did have a choice and that they had rights. These young women were British born, but they didn’t feel British or have the rights to make their own life decisions. I tried to find services who would provide this kind of support within schools, services or the community. There was none.

This was discussed with the group and in 2009 we decided to hold an event about forced marriage. It was the first time a conference like this was held in Liverpool, we invited the Forced Marriage Unit to speak and they told me this was the first time they came to Liverpool as no one had ever invited them before.

Many questions arose from this event and I didn’t know what to do with them. We decided to set up a sub-group focusing on forced marriage, but I knew this was turning into something more than I expected. This showed me the in-depth needs and the gaps in service provision, but also at the time, they saw someone from a BME background leading the groups, not afraid to question culture and tradition. This gave them the confidence and opportunity to develop their knowledge and equip themselves with the understanding of what we mean by cultural sensitivity and cultural blindness.

After discussion with the group, we decided to hold a development day to look at establishing an independent specialist service tackling these issues, if it would be feasible and appropriate. I got so excited that this could actually happen. For the development I arranged for a number of people to come and speak to us about what we needed to set up as company/ charity and as we didn’t have any budget. I went to the people I knew who had the skills and knowledge (but would also be free of charge) including my father, Taher Qassim and my then mentor Manjet Sign.

On 11th August 2010, Savera Liverpool was born. After a long discussion about the name of the organisation, two of our community participants, Kiran and Shashi, suggested the name and its meaning. I just fell in love with the name and what it stood for – ‘new beginning’. The work in setting up as a charity followed. The Board was set up and I was voted as the Chair. The original Board members then were also part of the Domestic Abuse and BME Communities group; Gill Moglione, Kiran Sharma, Shashi Gupta, Kerry Nugent, Tara Thomas and Marie Wheldon. They stood by my side and together we built Savera Liverpool. I thank them and every single person (there are too many to name) throughout the years who have supported and been involved in making Savera UK what it is today.

Roll over 10 years later, here I am, stepping out from the Chair into being the Chief Executive. I am blessed to hold this position for the first time and to oversee the next stage of Savera UK’s journey and mission.

I admit switching roles will be a challenge, but challenges have never scared me. Some may think I have nothing to worry about, because I have been doing it for so long. That is not the case, I feel even more responsible and accountable to the role. I have even higher expectations of my own self, before even considering the expectations of the Board and the team. I am always willing to learn and never be afraid to ask. Having the passion, commitment and willingness to learn from your mistakes is the key to a successful leader.

Just taking on the CEO role is a challenge, but it is even more so under the current circumstances around COVID-19. Despite all this, I am very excited to see what the future holds for me as an individual and for Savera UK as I lead it into its next stage. Together, with the commitment of the team and the Board, I know that we can overcome anything.

Afrah Qassim

Founder & CEO