Shahla Raza is the founder of the Yusra Community Centre, a shelter for Syrian refugees established in 2016. What started off as a donation program soon expanded as an important operational community centre. From fundraising to prepping volunteers to serve food, Shahla is keeping her roots strong. We caught-up with Shahla to know more about her work.

She says, “Before Yusra, I was running a Center for underprivileged children in Mumbai. I studied filmmaking in the US and returned to India to work, first in NDTV and then went as a freelancer. I made films on gender and development issues.”

What interested you to become an Activist-turned-Entrepreneur? 

After several years of working as a documentary filmmaker, I felt frustrated with the medium. My reason for making documentary films was to bring to light the issues that were neglected. Also, I was feeling unhappy with things I was seeing around. Moreover, as a documentary filmmaker, I felt that many problems our country faces are due to ignorance.

Yusra Community Centre

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This might sound naïve, but I’m not much of a thinker, I’m more of a doer. So, I decided to open a centre for the children I saw begging on the streets. We started in Versova and we had children from the neighbouring slums coming in for informal learning. It’s named “Dhai Akshar”, derived from a popular doha (couplet) by Kabir.

When the refugee crisis started, I was busy dealing with the Center. But as the news kept getting worse, I started reading more about it and I felt that this crisis was bigger than I had thought.

The media was calling it the biggest humanitarian crisis of this century. As I found out more, I felt like I couldn’t just sit and do nothing. I decided to come to Turkey to volunteer.

At first, I volunteered in Hatay, near the Syrian border. Afterwards, I moved to Istanbul and opened the Yusra community centre.

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Wouldn’t call myself either an entrepreneur or an activist but just a sensitive human being. One who feels that we are all collectively responsible for each other and we cannot close our eyes to the suffering around us.

Starting-up ‘Yusra Community Center’ , what’s your vision behind it? 

At Yusra, children come to the center and get access to knowledge and recreational activities. Through activities like art and music, gardening and yoga the children get a chance to work through their traumas. We also prepare the children to go to the local schools. Additionally, we provide assistance throughout the process of enrollment and settling into the school system.

Yusra Community Centre

Your future plans with the centre?

Currently, we only work with children and their families. In the future, we would like to take this to set up activities for women and teenage girls as well. We would like to give psycho-social support to the women in the neighbourhood who have no support system.

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What market gaps you are trying to address with Yusra?

Before setting up the center, I had been working on an individual basis. I noticed that there was a gap in services that the families could access. They had no access to information about their rights, or the services available to them as refugees. No access to information about how to register as refugees, to enrol their children in school, where to get medical aid, etc. We also wanted to fill a gap for the children, give them a space to explore their creativity, get some knowledge as most of them are not in school yet.

How hard is it to raise funds for the children?

It was very hard. The center started with funding from families and friends and other volunteers. Now it is a little easier as our work is getting known. We are now registered as an organization with the government so we are now legitimate. That said, funding is always hard to come by for work like this. But as a documentary filmmaker, I am used to working with limited budgets.

Yusra Community Centre

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What were the initial days like – what kind of challenges you’ve faced and are still facing?

As the word spread in the neighbourhood about the center being set up, we had a stream of people coming to ask for help. They needed assistance with finding a house, work, they needed medical help, household goods, clothes, shoes, they needed help registering for their identity cards, for enrolling the children in school and with many more issues.

We run on volunteer service. Sometimes, I was the only one handling everything, from answering questions, administration work to making lunch for the children and washing the bathroom after 70 children had used it.

I would start my day at 7 am with cleaning and setting up the centre and wrap up at 2 or 3 am. The volunteers and I have done everything, from painting the walls to set up neighbourhood children’s festivals. Our work is more streamlined now, but as the centre depends on volunteers, it is hard to find committed individuals. We are lucky to have a core group of volunteers who have dedicated a lot of time and energy to this project. Also, volunteers who have heard of the work and come from all over to help out.

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Patience and dedication are the key requirements for this work. Humanitarian work is not something you can do as a job. If you don’t have the motivation, you drop out after the initial enthusiasm has faded.

How does the centre empower children?

The children we work with have gone through war trauma. Many have lived directly through bombings and have seen their family members die in front of them. We work with trained specialists, through art therapy and play therapy. Our programs are run by experts who have worked with children in these special situations. Finally, through these programs, we teach children skills to deal with their new environments.

Yusra Community Centre

What’s the core mantra to educate the kids about gender and development issues?

We are planning on starting workshops for women and teenage girls on women empowerment.

The community we work with has gender issues like early marriage and pregnancy, domestic violence and gender oppression that need to be addressed.

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