In every second question I pose to Shahla Raza, I try to get her to make connections that will explain the chain of events that brought her to the place where she is today.
Raza and I have been chatting intermittently for two weeks, leaving messages for the other to find as soon as we glance at our phones again. Raza lives in the Balat-Fatih area of Istanbul, Turkey. She works with Syrian refugee families.
When I first knew her two decades ago, Raza and I were colleagues in the youthful newsroom team at NDTV in Delhi. She was pregnant with her daughter then, and I remember almost writing her off in my mind for that reason. I was too young and unimaginative to have any clue of what life after motherhood might look like for a professional mediaperson. Raza’s husband, Habib Faisal, was a popular and talented cameraperson and, as his junior, I followed his work with devotion.
We stayed in touch loosely over the years, as the couple moved on to become independent film-makers and later settled in Mumbai. Faisal became an award-winning Hindi film director and screenwriter and Raza established Dhai Akshar, a learning centre for street and slum children in Mumbai.
Facebook is where Raza and I became friends again, reading each others’ notes and updates and finding a rare resonance in the words of the other. We had a lot more in common than we had discovered earlier.
And then Raza moved to Turkey. It was 2015, she was 49 and her daughter, Sheena, had just moved abroad for higher studies.
“I feel like a 15-year-old again,” she blogged from her room next to the sea in Fethiye, on Turkey’s Turquoise Coast. “I am having a sensory overload moment right now sitting in a café on the promenade, with the water sparkling in the bay, a hot Turkish çay warming my hands, the bittersweet taste on my tongue…. I still cannot believe I live here.”
I was hooked to her story. For years Raza had bided her time, knowing that when her daughter was old enough to move out, she would start travelling too. In Turkey, she made an 18-hour bus journey to Hatay on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Despite warnings that it was unsafe, she spent a month in Antakya, meeting refugee Syrian families who had witnessed bombings, killings and torture.
“I remember crying every single day,” she says. “To see children who had endured such horrors was heartbreaking. My time in Antakya made me determined to stay and help with the growing humanitarian crisis.”
Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Raza drew inspiration from the words of Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet.
When we witness someone else take her destiny in her hands, it makes us believe in possibilities once again. It jolts our own imagination awake. I read and shared her blog regularly, sending it privately to friends everywhere.
Less than a year ago, Raza began to set up the Yusra Community Center, a support centre for refugee families. She and her team organize informal classes for children and have set up livelihood projects such as catering, knitting and upcycling for refugee women. In one year, they have enrolled 60 children into regular school and supported them with uniforms, books and tuitions. They have art, music and photography workshops.
“Every decision I took, every step, every heartbreak, every success, every failure, every tear I shed, every time I cursed my luck, everything that happened in my life led me here,” Raza writes to me.
“What is the difference between you and others, Shahla?” I ask her. “Everyone has secret fantasies but we rarely have the agency to take risks that destabilize the status quo in our lives.”
“I am the eldest of three sisters,” Raza tells me. “My mother was very nervous about raising us right. It was her personal mission to ensure that we were seen as good, virtuous girls. Every time I expressed an opinion or questioned norms, I would be labelled selfish and rebellious. I internalized that criticism but now I want to set myself free. I want to reclaim who I am born to be, not succumb to being old and regretful.”
“In a way, Shahla,” I say to her, “you embraced the label that you had tried to fight off all your life. If it is selfish to do what you please, then it is okay to be this kind of selfish. The time has come to believe in what you really want to do.”
“When I think about how different my life is from last year, I am astounded,” she says. “I am friendlier and bolder. I am more adventurous. I hear myself say yes to all kinds of experiences. I am clear about what I don’t want in my life.”
As word spread in Istanbul that an Indian woman had set up a refugee centre, help began to pour in. People donated furniture, artists helped to paint walls and other volunteers joined her. Trust was built and funds were raised.
“Do I make it sound like it has been easy?” Raza asks me. “I had heart-wrenching bouts of self-doubt. I would cry and listen to Hindi film songs. My biggest fear had been sleeping alone in the house. I had never been alone before. I would sleep with all the lights on in the apartment.”
Gradually she turned the lights off one by one. Her days began to fill up with so much activity that she would fall asleep, feeling exhausted and at home.
“I love it when my daughter Sheena says that when she is anxious about life decisions, she thinks of me,” Raza adds. “Her mom went in so many different directions in her life and then she ended up exactly where she wanted to be.
“So as a last thought,” Raza typed into the chat window, “just say yes. Yes to living life on your terms. Teach yourself to ignore the nagging voices in your head.
“I look at myself in the mirror sometimes and say, See, you did it, Shahla Raza. You said you couldn’t, but you did it.”
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. The writer tweets as @natashabadhwar