November 7, 2015

Background

My name is Leena, I was born and bred in Britain. I’m a British Indian, my parents immigrated to Britain in 1980. My dad was born in Mwanza, Tanzania and my mum in Mahajanga, Madagascar. Both my parents are Indian, many Indians resided in parts of Africa, Madagascar and neighbouring islands because many were sent there when the British ruled India. Having been back to both countries, I found Indians continue to live in these countries but are the minority.

My parents had a arranged marriage, my mum was 28 and my dad 33. I never had the opportunity to meet my granddad on either sides. My dad has an older brother who took the father role so to speak in their family and my mother got married soon after her father passed. They got married in London in 1981. At which point both my dad’s family and mum’s family were living in London. This was short lived however and my mum’s family moved back to Madagascar and my dad’s family moved to Australia. They continue to reside here and we have been over to visit a few times.

Education was not free or widespread in either Africa or Madagascar. Girls were not educated past the age of 12 or 13. My mum’s older sister got married at 17 consequently, my mum had responsibilities and duties to learn and carry out in the home.  Her main priority was learning how to cook and supporting her family. My dad went to college and left with O-level’s. He trained how to be a book keeper in London but never went to university.

Thus, upon learning that education was available and free in England, my parents were keen for my two sisters and I to study hard. Education is a priority for many Indian families. Education is perceived as the gateway to great employment and in turn, a brighter and better future. When my older sister, Rhaynukaa graduated with her politics and sociology degree from Brunel University, my parents couldn’t be prouder. She had accomplished something many had not in our family, she had gained a bachelors degree. Thankfully, my parents never pressured us into studying information technology, medicine or business. I had many friends who had their degree choices pre-determined by parents and whilst some embraced it, others struggled. I graduated with a bachelors degree in history from Queen Mary University. Most of my friends knew what they would do next, whether it was a masters in history or a PCGE (teaching qualification). I initially applied to do a PCGE however, then realised that all I really wanted to do was to help people. So I applied to do a masters in social work.

My graduation ceremony for my bachelors degree in History - with my dad

My graduation ceremony for my bachelors degree in History – with my dad

This degree changed and shaped my life in more ways than one. I applied to several universities in London and sat three interviews at London South Bank, Royal Holloway and London Metropolitan University. I enrolled at London Metropolitan University and studied full time for two years to complete my masters. During my first year, I was exposed to several theories, learnt a great deal about social work law and child development. My first placement was with a NGO supporting women affected by domestic violence. I learnt to become resilient and not to save clients but rather support them in a client led manner and to empower them. I saw the difference I made everyday during this placement and the appreciation I received was immense. During my second year, I moved out and lived in student accommodation. It was my dream to move out and experience uni life in student halls. Most my friends moved out whilst studying for their undergraduate degree. My time however, came whilst studying for my masters and it was quite the experience.

Most people move out to socialise, to drink, to go out, to gain independence but for me, it was for freedom. I moved out, lived by myself for seven months and felt nothing but free. I didn’t socialise a great deal more, I didn’t drink heaps more, hell I didn’t even go out that much but I felt so liberated.  I didn’t cook, I lived of frozen meals and my mum’s cooking. My parents did struggle with me moving out, they didn’t understand it, they had never done it and they would much rather I stay at home too. It was hard. Sure I could have stayed at home and studied but I wanted something different. I knew had I not moved out, I would regret it when I turn 50. I drew a line in the sand, I stood up for what I believed in and it was worth it. It’s not always easy but if it was then everyone would be doing it. I had support from friends and managed to find some inner strength. 

My second placement was in Camden council. I was part of a front line child protection team for over six months. I completed core assessments, child in need plans and child protection reports. I learnt how stressful front line social work is and how much bureaucracy is involved. Many social workers had a high case loads and consequently, social workers burn out and the turnover of staff is high. Initially, my case load consisted of child in need cases and I worked with several young people. But towards the end, one of my child in need cases became child protection. The three children were placed with a foster parent in Cambridge. Removing children and placing them in care is by no means easy. Social work as a profession isn’t viewed favourable by many in England for several reasons. Many deem social workers to be baby snatchers. Media portray the great failures of social workers and rarely the successful outcomes. If you remove a child too soon, social workers are criticised for breaking up the family and if they are left and then reported dead or abused, social workers are criticised for not acting sooner. So you’re doomed if you do and doomed if you don’t. I realised upon completing my placement that I didn’t want to police or assess families. Whilst one of the core values of social work is to be non-judgemental, social workers are judgmental, we all are. I wanted to help people, empower individuals and more importantly wanted to build a connection.

My graduation ceremony for Social Work - with my two sisters, Rhaynukaa and Seema

My graduation ceremony for Social Work – with my two sisters, Rhaynukaa and Seema


So upon completing my placement, I realised I wanted to work for a NGO and more specifically, I wanted to support women affected by domestic violence. Thus, I applied for domestic violence advocate positions with several charities. I was lucky enough to get a position with the same organisation that I completed my placement with. I worked here for one year and then worked for a similar organisation for another two years in West London. During these three year, I worked with some amazing, supportive, inspiring, kind, funny, confident, determined, hard working women. I learnt not to get attached to my clients, to hold and bare their stories, work with them and empower them. I became resilient to their stories, some however affected me more so than others. The transformation many of my clients had was amazing, their confidence grew, they were empowered and able to make choices for themselves. I didn’t meet all the clients I supported in person but I received an abundance of appreciation. My clients were thankfully for my support, understanding and patience and this moved me. The fact that I was able to help women everyday made me love my job and got me through all the stressful and difficult hurdles.

Some of the ladies I worked with at the domestic violence NGO - with Thien, Birte and Alejandra

Some of the ladies I worked with at the domestic violence NGO – with Thien, Birte and Alejandra

I studied a masters in law, part time for two years at Birkbeck University. I thoroughly enjoy studying and gaining knowledge. Working full time and studying part time doesn’t really leave time for much more. I didn’t complete this masters to be a solicitor, it was more that law amongst other things interest me. I studied modules like children’s rights and youth justice and crime and control. For my dissertation I discussed the accountability of male perpetrators of domestic violence. This of course linked into my work and enabled me to research the accountability on a social, legal and police base. I argued how on many levels, male perpetrators are not held accountable.

Come what September 2013, I submitted my dissertation and completed my masters. I spent three years working as an independent domestic violence advocate. I had three degrees, a bachelors in history, a masters in social work and now in law. For me, it was time for a break. I wanted unpaid leave from my job but as I had only been with the organisation for three years, it wasn’t possible. As a result, I decided to hand in my resignation. I looked into pursuing my dream of volunteering aboard. I chose to leave everyone and everything I knew behind. I was nervous, anxious and excited. Having never travelled solo before, I was apprehensive about to expect. It’s not the done thing at 26, my parents would have much rather I was getting married which would have been fine if I was in a relationship with a great guy. The way I see it, I wasn’t destined to get married in October 2013, I was destined for Vietnam. We all have choices, I could have stayed and continued working in London but instead I chose to give it all up. It was scary and hard and I had no idea if it was going to be worth it, all I knew , is if I didn’t go, I would forever be left wondering, what if. To avoid such feelings, I embraced the unknown, took a leap of faith and left the rest up to the universe. I went as far as way as possible, escaping the nine to five set up, marriage and social norms. Essentially, I ran away, only I didn’t know this at the time. I didn’t know I was soul searching so I didn’t know what to expect. In hindsight, I left searching for many things, with many questions and no idea how I was going to resolve it and if it wasn’t for the amazing friends and family I have back home or on the road, I don’t know how I would have continued.