"The world's your oyster", said London

Recently, I had the privilege of visiting London (Thank you, British Council). The eight-day visit brought with it a spectacular learning experience, heaps of personal growth and much-needed optimism.

For a little background information, the visit was part of British Council's Active Citizens Program. In a nutshell the program is about building community cohesion. Their tagline 'Globally Connected, Locally Engaged' does well to encapsulate their belief, aim and structuring. They work with a multitude of entities ranging from universities to civil societies and government to forward the importance of citizenship engagement, durable community service and the hope of a better today and tomorrow. Their focus is to validate the forgotten importance of community building through informal education.

With their vast network in Pakistan, I got lucky with the launch of their pilot project at my university. My professor, also one of the facilitators of the program, forwarded a few names, including mine. We were to attend a workshop about which we knew little to nothing about. A tactic commonly practiced with the program, as I was to discover later.

Early January 2016: 

I attended the 5-day workshop with students from different academic years and departments. A side note, my university has over 50 departments. You can imagine how wonderful the mix was. We had students from Business Studies, Psychology to Education. Each from the same campus, but strangers nonetheless. We were put to speak extempore, brainstorm and evaluate on the spot; in short, do everything at the drop of a hat. Often, this involved being in groups.

The workshop at the University

Over the course of the workshop, our evolution involved discovering the 'I' and 'You', and learning the importance of 'We'. Interactive sessions included activities like fish-bowl (critical analysis of social issues), debate vs discussion, among others. And who can forget the extremely fun, everyone's' favorite: the energizers. These were small 2 minute exercises done in order to freshen the minds of the participants. One, for example, was around us running in full circles, only to be stopped by the facilitator into acting out weird animal sounds.

End of January 2016

Our SAP's Logo 
The end of the workshop gave us an opportunity to pick our desired facilitator of the many that trained us. Once that was done, the real grunt work started: the planning for the SAPs (Social Action Projects). Lucky as I was, faith played me well and landed me among the best people to have by one's side. My facilitator, Syeda Hoor-Ul-Ain, and my team members: Anam Minhas, Javeria Waseem and Rutaba Muneer were and are thorough power-houses. What started as an idea, Break Free: Women's Reconstruction of Self, soon became a reality. Our focus was simple: to challenge the stereotype and stigma attached to divorce women and empower them.

The team minus Anam.
Intense planning resulted in us conducting many awareness sessions, engaging with public at large, conducting a workshop with theater, music and panel discussions, conducting support groups, spreading the work through Facebook/Twitter/YouTube, and a research paper. Currently, we are engaged in linking the women we conducted the support groups with organisations that could provide them with vocational training.

(Funny is it not how months long work can be summarized in a few lines. None of which gives the people involved the due share of the hard-work and dedication involved?)

Beginning of November 2016

Our SAP has successfully delivered the hours we committed, and it still continues to fly. We are given the opportunity to apply for an International Study Visit and so we do. Most of us are tense, but only a few will get a chance to compete. Luckily for me, I make the cut.

The call that followed was one of the most nerve-wracking interviews I have ever given. For starters, I spoke too quickly and for that, I was stopped often (at least 5 times. And yes, I counted). My interviewer was a persistent man for he did not let any emotion show and that just added to my anxiety. To his credit, I understand he was only trying to understand the project through my eyes. To my credit,  I was nervous and had for that moment disliked him. (There is a high probability he would be reading this, and I assure you, he is nothing but a really nice man).

End of November 2016 

Flying to London: A story of a missed flight

Before I go on telling about how the ISV went, this bit needs to be narrated. You see, travelling alone brings with a tonne of learning. But nothing teaches you quite as effectively as when you miss your connecting flight and have a deadline to abide by.

For starters, Dubai airport is like a mini-city. When you reach your destined gate, all you wish to do is peacefully wait for your announcement and call out on one of the biggest, stupidest corporate scam that is their "duty-free".
Hyperventilating because this is the first time you missed your flight

Anyhow, according to the boarding pass, my gate was B14. So I sat there for about an hour and a half with other passengers thinking, as they were, that our departure was delayed. Usually, under such circumstances, I would wait for an announcement, but none came. So, I brushed any suspicion aside. After much deliberation, and seeing as how no announcements were made, we made our way to the display screen. According to that dreaded board, our plane's door had closed 4 minutes ago at terminal C, gate C4!


We made a run and were greeted with one of the most unpleasant men I've had the misfortune of talking to. Can't say the same for the other Pakistani I was travelling with.

*(For no purpose of anonymity and because I do not know that man's name, I'd call him Mr IDC: I don't care. And the other Pakistani guy as M)

The conversation that followed went something like this:

I: " Did the flight take off? We were waiting at the gate mentioned at our tickets"
IDC: "Sorry, the gate's closed a few minutes ago. We don't know where you guys were. The gate changed two hours ago"
M: "Habibi, please can't you do something"
IDC: "I can't"
M: "Please, can't you call the pilot?"
IDC: "It doesn't work like that"
I: "Is this a common practice, of changing gates? Why were their no announcements made?"
IDC: "We made announcements. We even sent  people to look for you two but you weren't there"
I: "We've been sitting at that gate for more than hour. There is no way you sent someone and they didn't spot us. Also, why would you need to send someone if you made announcements?"
IDC: "We sent them, you weren't there"
I: "This is an airport, right"
IDC: *looking confused* "Yes"
I: "Well, I bet there are cameras everywhere. Why don't you check and see if I was sitting there or not?"
IDC: "..."

This was his face.

We followed by asking him directions to the office where we could have our new tickets issued. Surely enough, they cost us a lot. Time limited us to care about what we were spending since people in another continent were expecting us. All in all, I think, reaching just an hour late was not half bad.

This particular incident did however make me confront a more determined side of mine. Even though I am an unusually calm person, who doesn't mind looking past mistakes, there was some angst in my conversation with the airline representatives that had no sense of customer care or sense enough to register this gate change policy with people, especially people who are not frequent travelers.

I thought this incident was an eventful start to the week.

The vicinity was beautiful indeed

To London on time

Reaching London on time was a relief. We checked in the hotel with just enough time to throw our luggage in our rooms and meet everyone at the Kensington Room (Our solace to be for the coming days). Old Windsor, a countryside, was true to its nature: isolate, calm and beautiful. On reception, we met Catherine and Edward. Their warm welcome made the haste of the missing flight fiasco a little less worrying.
Kensington Room
First day's meet and greet brought with it a lot of new faces and an incredible wave of learning.

Scottish, Ukrainian, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, Polish, and so many others all under one roof were exchanging greetings with smiles and trying to remember each other's name with little success. Mike and Michael, our facilitators for the program, did a little exercise asking us to introduce ourselves by defining the story behind our names. Did it help? In a way, yes. For me, I couldn't for the life of me remember all the names, but the stories they brought with themselves made me laugh nonetheless. Some even left me in awe. Some names were so poised and powerful, I felt a tinge of jealousy. Others didn't know what their names stood for, which was relieving.

The first official day's about to start

This little, seemingly simple, activity did, however, give a solid insight into what we were to experience. Lots of informal learning. 

This day ended with a sweet dinner where we got our first glimpse of just how sweet worry could look if it were in a human form, all thanks to Catherine.

So posing
Because she was managing the logistics, she practically worried about everything. I mean it. Everything.

The conversation that followed through the dinner table revolved around the many programs British Council takes pride in working on. Many shared their reason for association with the organisation and others, like me, shared our SAPs.





Market Place: A cultural treat 

Pakistan's Market Place

Day 2 was about introductions, preparing and hosting the country marketplace. What was it about? It was about showcasing your country. The good, the bad, the future and the present. All that you could and wanted to was yours to say.


Once preparations were done, the final display of tables was incredible. The colors, the life and the energy were awe-inspiring. And in that moment, sharing about your culture came with pride. Talking about the flaws in your society came with no judgement but care, love and
Bangladesh's
curiosity. The intensity of the combined generosity was one of the most heart-warming aspects of the journey for me.

Bangladesh brought in their famous sweet and stealth. Stealth because they offered us any item on their table if we took pictures with one of their national wears: the dhooti. And boy did that ease the crowd. Their history was rich and it showed. They were proud of their music and food. But most importantly, in the three representing Bangladesh, there was energy that resonated hope.


Ukraine's

The Ukrainian's brought the party to life. They opened a table full of Ukrainian candy and a special home extracted honey (thanks to Anastasia's father). They quizzed us about Ukraine and gave candy to those who got it right... or for that matter wrong (What can I say, they are generous beyond reason). They wrapped their presentation up by singing, which is apparently a big thing in Ukraine and offered to translate our names into their language. *collective awe*

Vietnams'



Vietnam's table was a piece of art. They showcased more than just their culture, they showcased their social project. Stuff made by the underprivileged people they work with gave their stall a life of its own. Their strength showed the brightest.

Polands'

Poland's humble stall was hosted by a beautiful being. She introduced us to the Polish culture. I never realized just how difficult Polish is. One activity revolved around her asking us to pick a piece of paper with a Polish statement on it. She'd help us learn it. The phrase I got was a 'legless table' and boy was it a long word. Thanks to my horrible memory, I do not remember it now. But I do remember being astonished at how extensive Polish vocabulary is. I mean they have a word for 'legless table'!


UK's
That's just Ana being herself
The Mexican table was a brave front. The ladies were not afraid to showcase the problems of the country. They discussed how the country was progressing. And also, how their own personal projects were part of making Mexico great.

The Scotts showed us their dance and that lightened hearts. The UK people represented perhaps the most diversity of all table. They showcased their culture and social action plans in the most passionate demeanor possible.  

The River Activity: Charting the course of learning

        

Pakistan, Ukraine, UK, Pakistan

Yay, more photos. 
Smiling faces were a persistent feature


Vietnam showcasing their political history



Day 3: The funny tour guide and our visit to the parliament 

Mind-mapping: how to engage policy makers in our SAPs

Our day started with much excitement. We all knew the visit to the parliament was a big thing. To have us be prepared, Mike gave us a quick lecture on the political history of the United Kingdom. This helped familiarize us with the host country. The 'World Cafe', another activity for the day, allowed us to sit in groups and debate/discuss various critical questions that helped us discover the various challenges and necessary elements to a successful social enterprise.
Lecture Time: Here's a little to know about the UK

This, along with brief profiles of the various MPs each group was meeting helped us prepare some questions to ask them. Our heads were soon brimming with potential questions we were to ask.

Lunch that day was a quick affair. But not before learning a little Bangla! I now know how to say "My name is Rutaba" and " I love you in Bangla". Amar naam Rutaba. Ami tomar ki bhalo bhaashi. (Proof for all the skeptics out there)

The parliament
 We left our hotel soon after and were dropped at a little walking distance from the parliament. The first cool wind took me by surprise. And unlike most, I enjoyed the cold a little too much. Our walk down the parliament was a short, sweet one. Of course, a lot of selfies and picture taking was involved. The architecture took me by surprise. It is one thing to see stuff in pictures, other to witness them personally. I don't think a single visit could ever do justice to the history and architect of London.
The UK Parliament



After the airport style security check, we were greeted in a giant hall, the Westminster Hall, with a  huge stand alone Christmas tree and our funny little guide. I won't bore you with the details of the tour, but much of the history told by the guide revolved around the words 'died... executed...potty....died...killed....rebelled....took over...killed...pled...killed'

It is safe to say the history he told us was very ghastly. I kind of liked the guide, though. He was odd, and that made him funny.

We were given a few minutes to ourselves before we had to reassemble with our group and onward to our designated MP. In the meanwhile, I, Julia and Ed planned a secret rendezvous that the entire group had been unaware of (at least until now). To be fair, it was a little spur of the moment decision. I wanted to see the Chambers and the idea was appreciated by Julia. Ed just offered his help because he had already seen the place. Our attempts to get a peek into the House of Commons was but shattered because of the long queue. However, we did manage to make a quick run to the House of Lords. While Ed handled our backpacks (did I not already tell you how kind he is?), Julia and I went to the guests' gallery of the Chamber. If I thought the exterior of buildings in London were fabulous, boy! was I in for a treat with what I saw inside. The chamber was glorious. They were apparently discussion something about pensions, but I was too preoccupied with the beauty of the place to be too keen about the discussion. I was in awe and I was touched. I suddenly felt I knew the UK a little better. We had a total of 4-5 minutes that flew by too quickly. We had to be ushered by the staff on Ed's request because he had been conscious of the time, unlike Julia and I.

Our meeting with Baroness Mobarik

Our meeting with Baroness Mobarik was a peaceful one. The questions we asked were more pertinent to her experience, more in line with social projects than politics. Nothing too controversial and nothing too easy. I was more interested in how (because she had worked for programs that catered to cross national issues), she managed to create a holistic approach when working with people from different countries/regions.

Westminister hall


Our day ended up with having dinner at the British Council Headquarters (HQ sounds so much better than office). The view outside the office was spectacular. It made the whole dining experience more pleasant, even the conversations ended up being more lively.

British Council HQ

Adam in his natural form: discussing.

Members British Council 

No dinner went without some intense discussion

Ukraine and Poland. <3

I just wanted to add this because its such a cool picture

Day 4,5 and 6: Cold London, the warm company and in between a mosque and a synagogue. 

These were busy days. This was when the group had to divide and take their taxis/trains/planes to different centres within the UK to engage with the local communities. Before and at lunch, we had the brief fortune of meeting our community hosts.

Christmas was just around the corner

Our group of four was to taxi off to main London. The cold colder coldest London. I, Ameera, Adam and Ana-Isabelle were in for really eventful three days.

On our way to the new accommodation: a travelogue, we had this wonderful chat with the driver. It kept our minds off the London traffic. Our check in was a quick affair. We met Iman and Youkeu and head out immediately after. Where to you ask? The East London Mosque!

The biggest in the vicinity, the mosque was a serene place. Unlike, myself and Ameera, Ana and Adam were new to the concept of Mosque. Somewhere, in my heart, I wanted to monitor their reactions, too. It was sort of a side experiment I was conducting. Of which, if they read this, they would know of only now.
*taking notes at the mosque*

The welcome was warm. A quick documentary revealed a fascinating history of the mosque. From the agreement between the Jewish and Muslim community over the land: the fact that there is still a tiny synagogue between the two wings of the mosque. The build up of community cohesion to expand the building and create a more inclusive, more progressive society. The fact was, the mosque played a bigger role than just a praying place. It offered help of all sorts. Educations, domestic counselling, charity drives, etc.

In my mind, as I looked at the building and talked to the people at the mosque, the traditional concept of a mosque was coming to life. The one that depicts a mosque as more than a praying place; a community center, a school, a safe haven for all, a place for festivals and remembering the God.

The mosque was an exception, in short.

At the synagogue. 
Synagogue
The next day, the visit to the synagogue had me intrigued. I had never been to a Jewish praying place and this was my time to discover. Surprisingly, the very first conscious connection I made with the place was with regards to their security. It seems that there was a sense of insecurity that surrounded the place. Something the Muslim community is very well aware of. We were told that the Rabbi would soon be seeing us and that we were allowed to roam the hall. It was not long before the lady Rabbi greeted us. We knew in that instance that this synagogue, too, was an exception.

 The next hour was intense. My information intake had quadrupled. We were told about the progressive nature of the synagogue, its many charitable and interfaith programs, the concept of Bar and Bat-Mitzvah, we were shown around the praying hall, we were introduced to symbolism in the faith, and the Rabbi was kind enough to recite from Torah, too. Did I not tell you about the experience being overwhelming?


The group with the Rabbi


This is where the sacred texts and artifacts were stored

Torah

At SOAS meeting with other Active Citizens and chilling with the guru


On day 6th, we found ourselves at the 3 faith's forum. An organisation engaged in inter-faith and community building. Our hosts treated us to some good cake, coffee, fruits and company. They also conducted a unique 'safe space' session that showed us how storytelling could prepare grounds for building effective community/interfaith cohesion.
3FF had the best food :D 

The people behind 3FF

PIZZA KNOWS NO CULTURE

By early evening, we had some time before dinner and we headed to Primrose Hill. The walk to the venue was refreshing but the walk to the top of the hill was painful. The end result, however, was a beautiful sight worth all the pain.
A little meditation en route Primrose Hill

Atop Primrose Hill. The view was to die for.

The sad 9 3/4

Dobby is alive guys. This was inside the gift shop at Kings' Cross
On our way back to the hotel, my request to see 9 3/4 was accepted and we made a quick stop to Kings Cross stations. After having my expectations burn to the ground because it was basically half a trolley glued to the wall, we made our way to our hotel, checked out and head back to our original living. Technically, this was not our home, but it sure felt like it.
At the King's Cross Station: our real oyster. :D 


*festivities on high*

Day 7: The sharing and our special theatre 

Today was all about greeting everyone back. Friends you made prior to this three-day rendezvous were more missed than realized. So we hugged and laughed and shared our experiences right away. At the Kingston Room, the official note was out and we had to think of a way to showcase what we had learned in an hour.
The Belfast Group

The Cardiff Group

This ones' Durham

Most of the presentations were heartfelt and there was one thing very common to all: the genuine way the trip had touched our hearts and inspired us. No one, and I mean it, no one was left unaffected.
Ameera in no action. :D

Our group decided to do a theater to showcase our journey. Adam's brilliant idea, Micheal's wonderful narration, Ameera's oscar-winning performance and Anna's improv made the quickly prepared theater a joy to perform. And like everyone else, we felt what we were showcasing. We felt our journey burn into our hearts. But this burn was a sweet kind.

Re-enacting the visit to the mosque

The London Group <3

By mid-day, we were taken to main London for some sightseeing and alone time. Mike guided us through some of the many historic sites, letting his inner encyclopedia out and blessing us with some usual and other unusual facts. Did you know that the usually considered entrance to the Buckingham Palace isn't the front at all? In fact, it is the back side of the Palace.
Somewhere in London


Somewhere in London again. :D 

It was immediately after sun-down that our little tour ended and we were allowed to roam the streets of London on our own. At least till dinner, by when we had to meet the group at a Thai restaurant.

En route Oxford St.
After a great struggle of deciding whether to go to Baker's Street or Oxford, we settled with the popular choice: the Oxford Street. We walked our way, guided by the valiant Jawaria (our protector) and *drum roll* google maps. We walked through the crowd, shopped, rejoiced, shopped more, talked more so and before we knew it, it was time to return. It would be a shame not to mention the mesmerizing Christmas decorations that made the street and all of London basically magical.

The dinner was a light, happy affair that night. Upon return, we were given the Kingston Room to party. A cultural night of sorts that included
few but very loud people, a lot of music, some very interesting Scottish, Ukrainian and Indian dance.


*A serious rolly polly competition raised the stakes at the party*
 
*Dance was involved*

Day 8: Saying hello when it was time to say bye 

When good things end, it's always bittersweet. This day was just that: bitter freaking sweet. We shared our experience, small love letters, some tears and a lot of hugs. Oh and the Boda Boda!

Last group photo
Someone famously said, 'this too shall pass'. A holistic phrase and the only I know that encompasses the good and the bad both at the same time. While the goodbyes were painful, the journey was not. In our hearts, we knew it was a beginning of something bigger.

As I write this now, I not only feel confident... I feel happy! I feel more aware of my abilities and the world around me. And my optimism has skyrocketed. There is nothing I do not feel I cannot do, and that my friend, is a super power.

So for that and much more that this little blog post would never be able to communicate, I would like to thank British Council, my mentors, friends and other active citizens for making a mark in my life. You've left a little bit of yourself in me and for that, I have nothing but gratitude and a promise: a promise to continue trying to make the world a better place.


And here's my sign off to you: Locally engaged with a global promise.