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A HIDDEN HISTORY:
African Women and the
British Health Service

1930–2000

Zahra Ali

Nursing

Zahra Ali is a community nurse. In the early '90s, she left Somalia with her husband as a refugee and settled in Manchester. She trained as a nurse in the late '90s. In her interview, she discussed the challenges of balancing work, study, and home life. Zahra is also passionate about volunteering and community-building. She is the chair of the Roehampton Cultural Centre, which provides a religious, educational, and cultural space for the local Muslim community.

Interview highlights:

EARLY LIFE & FAMILY

"Growing up back home is totally different from here. Back home, the resources are not there. My dad had a clinic which he shared with a Gynaecology doctor and an EMT doctor. He was the General, so the whole neighbourhood, the whole tribe, everybody who knows somebody – any illness and they would come to our house."


MIGRATION

"Our destination was supposed to be... we were in transit. We were stopped. We were separated. And I was so afraid. They told me "You're not going to any airplane because you're fully pregnant". Somehow I passed all the checks in India. But we also had that transit in Dubai. Nobody noticed; I was very skinny little girl hiding. But because of the eight hours, nine hours sitting, I was swollen – my face, my feet, everything. And then they called us from the line. We were in transit to go to Canada. Our destination was Canada. And then they stopped us. Then they called the doctor and he confirmed that in two weeks, I'm going to have a baby. Then they said "You're not going, why you go into Canada?", "We are refugees. That's where we’re going". And they said "No, you have to stay". I was so afraid. But I’m grateful to NHS and everything. The doctors, they were fantastic. Although I was fearful and shaken, I was fully checked. You know, we were given a hotel. We couldn't believe it. We’ve stayed 30 years now."


COMMUNITY

"We moved to Manchester in ’92. We were there for four years. I moved back to London in ’97. It wasn't a good experience in terms of community. Because of the war, people were fragmented into groups and tribes. Where I was in Manchester, the people who were there came from outside the capital. I was the outsider. I came from the capital. I'm young, I'm studying, same time working, and nobody liked me. They used to call me ‘from the capital’. One day, somebody knocked on my door. A lady who came from another part of the country. Not the capital, but a small city. We had the same dialect. They actually sent her to me, they said, "Oh, that lady, she speaks like you", so you have to go to her. And she was in tears. She knocked on my door, and she said, "Are you Zahra? I'm from so and so. I can't find any friends. I'm new to the country. I talk to people and they keep saying your name and where you live and ‘Go to that person who speaks the same dialect as you’'". Oh, I had to give her the biggest hug. We were sort of in the same situation. So I didn't have a lot of friends. I had that lady but she moved within two years, she ran away from it."


CAREER

"When you're a working mum, or studying, it’s the hardest thing ever. I never thought I would finish it. My third year, I was pregnant – nine months on my own in placement. It's tiring. Five o'clock in the morning, you go into placement and you're pregnant. You just can't get up. You won't even sleep deeply because of the tummy pain or back ache, you’re just sitting in the bed. And then the alarm [goes] off, and you just think 'Oh my god'. A few times, I just wanted to stop. I thought I was killing myself with the family and work and commitment. But thank goodness, I was strong enough to just finish it. I'm happy, looking back. I'm glad I didn't quit. It's worthwhile, but it's hard."

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