‘If you miss it with the girl child, you miss it with the world’
Scotland-based Nigerian, Shulamite Ezechi, is a social entrepreneur, author and activist. With a career spanning 18 years, she has worked in the education, corporate and health sectors before founding ANYiSO, a non-governmental organisation she is providing support for female refugees and asylum seekers.
In 2019, she became the first black person to receive Scot Parent Awards and her organisation won the Charity of the Year at the 2021 Prestige Awards. Ezechi got a bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Imo State University, a master’s degree in Clinical Nutrition and Health from Glasgow Caledonian University, UK and a second Master’s degree in Policy Analysis and Global Governance. She has been involved in the review of policies about black and ethnic minorities. She serves in various Government initiatives, which include North Glasgow community food initiative where she serves on the board; the first Ministers’ National Advisory on Women and Girls (BAME); Migrant Voice, UK; United Nations Association, UK; Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth Scotland. She authored the book, Unveiling your True Potential in 2020 and won the Prestige Award NGO of the year in 2021 and also ‘the Inspiration to the BME Community award’ by the Glasgow City Chambers, United Kingdom.
In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, the social activist shares how she is providing support to women from over 83 ethnic minorities and through various activities of her founded organization, as well as helping women live up to their true potential.\
You have quite an interesting career path, take us through your life’s trajectory?
I was born in 1977 into a family of nine in Anambra State. My childhood was fun; I still have fond memories of staying with my grandmother for about three years at a point in the village. I had so much fun and made some lasting childhood friends from our village. My mother is a nurse/midwife and has maternity, which is now in the village, while my dad was a businessman. My family was an average family; we didn’t really struggle for upkeep, and we had enough.
My first qualification was National Certificate of Education, NCE, from Federal College of Education Technical, Umunze, Anambra after which I attended Imo State University where I graduated with a B.Sc in Nutrition and Dietetics. I then travelled to the UK and bagged two Master’s degrees, firstly in Clinical Nutrition and Health from Glasgow Caledonian University, UK and Secondly, in Policy Analysis and Global Governance from University of West of Scotland, UK after getting a Diploma in Community Development from the University of Glasgow.
I was inspired by God to start ANYiSO in 2014, and this became easier due to personal experience and passion to help and support people around me, especially women and young people. So, I began having a weekly voluntary support group from my house and that was how ANYiSO was born. It has been a rollercoaster ride. We started not knowing how far we would come or the impact that will be made. It was a step of faith and see how far we have come. Don’t get me wrong, we are still a work in progress, but God has been faithful.
As a social entrepreneur and activist passionate about female in asylum, how are you achieving this?
The team I work with are my support system; they are the backbone for the feats we accomplish in the lives of women and girls. We provide weekly activities with various events each year to promote integration, build their confidence, reduce isolation, and help them make new friends while providing opportunities to help them fulfill their true potentials.
We efficiently and adequately advocate for a better life for our service users through provision of support, training and workshops, provision of aids, advocacy, sponsoring them to return to their countries, family reunion, getting them visas to study or work.
You have earned degrees in nutrition, clinical nutrition, policy analysis and global governance. How have these experiences shaped you and your work?
First of all, my mum has been a source of inspiration and strength to me. She put in me the drive to read, pursue a better life and never make excuses. This is the reason I was able to not only go for courses related to my plan and purpose, but to also keep developing myself and apply my education where much is needed. As a community leader, the community development course really equipped, built, and prepared me on working with people in the community irrespective of their religion, cultural, racial, and individual differences.
Becoming a policy analyst and gaining more skills has built confidence in me to deal with the peculiarities of the people we work with. Also, it has exposed me to be part of the processes where policies about black and other ethnic minorities are formed. It has also equipped me with the knowledge and experience needed in negotiations, policy reviews and policy analysis. The government makes major decisions about us without representation and we are adversely affected. As a community leader, I am involved in contributing to proposed policies that affect us as ethnic minorities.
You run ANYiSO, a foundation that supports women and young people, what has been the impact for you? And what informed the name, ANYiSO?
The name ANYiSO is not an acronym; it is a word from Igbo tribe in Nigeria, which means ‘we belong’. I chose that name as a reminder that black and ethnic minority people belongs to the wider society and should not be treated less or differently. This notion that blacks are inferior or that women are less human or valuable needs to be erased from the consciousness of people and that is why we are working assiduously with the women in our sphere.
As an organisation representing and working with black and ethnic minorities from more than 83 different nationalities around the world, we are making changes in our own little way. We organise workshops, provide emotional support and empowerment, have weekly activities and workshops such as yoga, arts and crafts, drop-in sessions, (to train women who come from non-English speaking countries to speak English and integrate with their immediate environment). We connect them to our partner networks for support and to help them fulfill their true potential. Also, we run a food bank for families every week. While working with them, we take into consideration their individual differences, cultural and religious backgrounds and tailor our programmes to their needs.
It has been a huge blessing watching the women and girls we work with evolve, gain confidence, graduate from school, become volunteers, go for placements, or apprenticeships and gain employment. We have been able to give women a voice and stir up hope in them for a better tomorrow.
What informed your decision to start the organisation from the diaspora, how was the experience?
Starting an organisation in a foreign land, thriving is not easy, but thank God for the enabling environment and the open mindedness of our hosts. Over the years, we have been deeply appreciated. I was the first black person to win the Scot Parents Award and ANYiSO was awarded Charity of the Year in 2021 by the Prestige Awards Scotland. I was also given the Inspiration to the BME community award by the Glasgow City Chambers here in Scotland.
Tell us about your book, Unveil your true potential, what’s it all about?
The turning point in my life and career was believing in myself when I had nothing. The book is my story on my journey from a low point to where I am now. I am still a work in progress, I believe my story is worth sharing to inspire people discover themselves and live up to their true potential.
In the line of your work with women, what do you consider their major peculiarities?
Women are more family oriented. Nurturing comes to us naturally and that is why we are sacrificial too. A woman will gladly starve herself than see her kids starve, when her kids are sick, she is sick too. She is the bedrock of the family, so if you miss it with the girl child, you miss it with the world. That is why when you empower a girl child you empower the family, community, society, and country at large.
I must say too that women are more vulnerable and can be easily disenfranchised. This is the sad occurrence in third world countries, in Africa especially. Women make up about 50 per cent of the population, how can we deliberately want to keep half of the population down and want to grow as a society? That is why it is important we instill confidence in women and inspire them to win despite the stereotype.
What really drives you?
I believe in God and in myself, and I always push for personal growth.
With your goal to impact, what challenges have you been confronted with and how are you able to surmount them?
COVID-19 was an incredibly challenging time for the world. It was particularly terrible for disenfranchised women and children because they could not receive all the necessary support they needed. It taught us how to be resilient. We continued with our weekly food banks where we distributed over 20,000 food packages to families, and we still have our weekly food banks running till date. We also provided online training, and workshops and provided information and supports via phone.
How can we get more women to become successful and rise to the top as you have done?
Women need to believe in themselves, find their God given talent and purpose in life and work towards achieving that. They should build their confidence and start from where they are no matter how little. Just start.
What is your life mantra?
I am God’s masterpiece, and in him I trust.