We need cleaners and pizza delivery boys as much as high tax payers

Beata (name changed), my elderly Polish cleaner, does multiple jobs at hotels, restaurants and houses to pay for her council house and to meet other expenses. At the hotel, she is required to clean five rooms in an hour at national minimum wage of £7.20. She is efficient, and is thus very popular in my local area where legal, hourly rate cleaners are hard to find.

My friend’s babysitter Anezka from the Czech Republic works as an assistant at a leading fast food outlet and does extra jobs so that she can pay her share of rent for a private accommodation she shares with her friends.

On 23 June, the UK is going to vote whether it wants to remain in the EU or exit (Brexit) its membership of over four decades. Immigration is at the heart of UK’s EU referendum and I wonder what would happen to potential workers like Beata and Anezka who want to come to this country in the pursuit of a better pay.

Workers like Beata and Anezka engaged in low skilled play an important role. By doing the (paid) work they do using their skills and time, they allow people like me and my friend to focus on the tasks we can do with our abilities.

Migrants (not just European) are everywhere, at the supermarkets, workplaces, at the doctor’s clinic carrying out jobs ranging from low skilled to the very high skilled. My local taxi driver is a Pakistani, I myself am a first generation non-EU migrant living in the UK, and my husband’s colleagues at a leading consulting firm in London are from as many as 30 different nationalities including a significant number of EU nationals.

There are different rules of entry into the UK depending on a person’s nationality. EU nationals have a free right to live and work in the UK while non-EU persons are required to qualify an entry criteria for working in the UK, such as having a job that pays over £20,800 per annum.

As a first generation middle class non-EU migrant who often competes with EU workers for work, I feel tempted to vote out in the referendum and wish for a fairer system that assesses potential EU workers on the basis of their skills and income too. But then there are statistics that make me think.

According to a report published by Oxford based Migration Observatory, the largest number of EU born workers living in UK are employed in low paying occupations and industries and are unlikely to qualify for an income linked work permit. The distribution, hotel and restaurant sector was the largest employer of EU workers in 2015, and only 6 per cent of these workers earned a minimum of £20,000 per annum. Industries such as banking, finance and education, that educated migrants like myself fancy, already had a large share of highly skilled and well paid EU workers. This suggests that a Brexit followed by a skills and income based policy (if this happens) would mainly hit lower skilled workers like Beata and Anezka.

For society to function at its optimum, we are going to need pizza delivery boys and cleaners as much as we need millionaires and high tax payers. The key question is who should do these jobs and at what wages and conditions.

Desi groups keep culture alive in foreign land

HT 2016
It has been nearly six years since I moved abroad and in these years my desire to learn more about India’s heritage, traditions and culture and celebrate them have only deepened. My discussions with friends reveal that I am not the only one who feels this way. Thankfully, there are Indian community groups across the UK that bring people of the Indian diaspora together through cultural celebrations and meet-ups and provide them with a sense of familiarity in a foreign land.

Apparently, there are hundreds of such local groups across the country and these are either run voluntarily by members of the community, or as a charity. Some charge a membership fee while most collect a small amount only for attending events. Almost all major festivals, from Durga Puja to Holi are celebrated by community groups with great zeal in the same way as cultural fairs are celebrated in India, complete with stalls selling Indian food, jewellery, dresses and handicrafts. Chants, Indian music and dances complete the show.

Connecting with your roots
Most of these groups were formed several years ago with the simple aim of bringing together Indians living in their local areas. Where I live, a voluntary group of local residents aptly named Prabashi to symbolise an Indian living outside his country, recently organised its seventh annual saraswati puja (a ceremony to worship Goddess Saraswati who symbolises knowledge and learning).

In the run up to the event, one of the members kindly hosted Bollywood dance practice sessions for children at her home. This reminded me of my growing up years in India where one of my mother’s friends in the neighbourhood would teach us kids to perform at local cultural gatherings.

The actual event saw participation from hundreds of Indians living in my locality and surrounding towns and made me feel festive and connected with my Indian roots. With a priest performing the religious ceremonies, women decked up in sarees and children performing saraswati  vandana, dancing on Bollywood songs and playing Jan Gan Man (India’s national anthem) in front of an audience, I forgot for a moment that I was in London.

By organising cultural events, community groups such as Prabashi play a pivotal role in passing on the knowledge of Indian culture to the children of first generation migrants.

Recreating India’s communities
Several groups go beyond celebrating festivals and serve a larger role in the community. For instance, there are groups that organise meetings for the elderly where passages from the Bhagvad Gita (Hindu scripture) are read and language related assistance is provided in filling forms. There are others that host monthly gatherings for women. Activities like yoga and meditation workshops are fairly common too.

To my mind, such initiatives help one feel at home in a new country. The greatest pleasure is simply in knowing that there is a familiar community that understands your culture, your yearning and will always be your home away from home.

(First published in Hindustan Times on 19 Feb 2016)

Living with uncertainty as a cancer carer

breast-cancerIn the summer of 2015, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I still remember that day very clearly.

It was a Monday morning, and right there in front of my eyes on the computer screen was a biopsy report that confirmed malignancy.

The previous Saturday, my mother had got a needle biopsy done for a breast lump she had for nearly two years. My mother did not complain of any symptoms but recently she was worried that her lump had started to grow in size. She had continued to have routine mammograms done and her recent one was borderline suspicious. The mammogram screening coincided with a random (or rather god sent) visit from a doctor cousin who upon examining the report and the lump literally pressed for mother for having a biopsy the very next day.

I spent the next two days searching online for causes of breast lumps and kept telling myself and my parents that my mother’s lump wouldn’t be cancer. My mother, a very religious lady, had complete faith that her lump would be just a piece of fat.

I was in complete denial, my mother couldn’t be suffering from cancer. I quickly emailed the report to my doctor cousins in India who suggested that my mother was in need of urgent treatment. I was still not ready to believe it, perhaps there was a sampling error. But there was no getting away from it.

The hardest part was to break the news to my parents. I called up my parents and calmly told them that some cells in the biopsy didn’t quite look alright and further investigations were needed. I didn’t want to highlight the cancer word a lot.

The next two days then seemed the hardest days of my life, I couldn’t sleep at night as the thought that it was our neglect that caused this haunted me. Being far away from my parents at this time didn’t help. Thankfully, I was able to find a lot of information, contact numbers and emails of oncologists in Delhi and most of them were quick to respond to emails. Treatment depended upon the stage of the cancer and more tests were required. I was on the plane to Delhi a day later.

My mother’s illness restored my faith in the doctors. Cancer treatment across hospitals in Delhi follows international protocols and it is reassuring when different doctors do not vary a lot in their opinions. We met a couple of oncologists and finally decided to proceed with the one who made my parents most comfortable. Many more diagnostic tests followed in the next week to plan for the extent of surgery but even then the onco-surgeon maintained that it all depended on what they discover during the operation.

The uncertainty made us anxious but this was just the beginning. There were question marks all along, and one could only tackle it step by step during the course of the treatment. There was no way to know it all. Had the disease had spread? How curable was it? How likely were the chances of having a disease-free survival?

It made my insecurities about career and future etc seem trivial in comparison. I remember once asking the oncologist if my mother would be totally cancer free after the recommended treatment and he smiled and said, “With cancer, you can never be 100% sure.”

That’s the thing with cancer treatment, it teaches you to learn to live with doubt and be grateful for what you have.

I am thankful that my doctor cousin visited when he did, I am glad that my mother’s disease could be treated and I am grateful to everyone who supported us with their uplifting words along the way.

Being a cancer patient or even a carer can also teaches you to deal with your demons yourself. I had the full support of my husband, extended family and friends every step of the way but the stress I went through while awaiting scan or biopsy results, or the sheer helplessness of watching my previously active mother now weeping in bed due to radiotherapy induced burns was only mine to deal with.

World Cancer Day was on February 4 and Geneva based Union for International Cancer Control that works towards preventing cancer is running a three year long campaign under the theme “We Can. I Can” to promote cancer awareness. I am no doctor but as someone who has experienced cancer closely I can say that don’t take yourself too seriously in life but when it comes to health, one shouldn’t take themselves too casually either.

Finally, I do hope and pray that my mother remains cancer free and healthy for the years to come.

(published on the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.in/ruchi-hajela/living-with-uncertainty-a_b_9163874.html#)

Be the change you wish to see – BBC 100 Women

On December 1, I was invited to participate in an online debate organised by the BBC for its ‘100 Women’ project that aims to better represent women’s voices in its news content by highlighting their inspirational stories and challenges. In addition to featuring special stories, debates and interviews, the BBC also names 100 inspirational women, a mix of public figures as well as others. Needless to say, I felt more than privileged and excited to be associated with this project.

Do women feel they have to conform to what is considered to be the ‘right way’ to behave? What are the pressures and expectations faced by women? Are ‘beautiful women’ more likely to succeed? How important is your image? What is a ‘good girl’ or ‘ideal woman’? Most of us women grapple with such questions frequently, sometimes within our minds, but to be able to talk out aloud about these on BBC’s worldwide platform was a great opportunity.

Here we are, all set for the event:

(Left to Right) Safeera Sarjoo, Chayya Syal, Sara Khan, Hasina Dabasia, me, Aina Khan

On the day of the debate, I, along with five other South Asian bloggers, focused on the themes of leadership, image and relationships to analyse the pressures and expectations faced by women. We explored examples of how women across cultures were scrutinised for their behaviour (assertive women be damned), looks (so you’re pretty, you must be dumb!) and choices. Public figures such as Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton and Aishwarya Rai are constantly analysed by the media for their appearance. There are endless instances of women being bullied for their weight or shape. Managing a career while looking after children is a constant struggle for a lot of women like myself. And then, there is a constant complaint about not having enough women in leadership roles.

During our discussions that lasted nearly two hours, we also opened up about how our own families encouraged us to be well educated and financially independent but still play second fiddle to a man. There is the famous, publicly cited example of Pepsico’s CEO Indra Nooyi whose mother reminded her that her professional accomplishments should not interfere with her duties as a wife and mother. We realised how this mindset was not limited to individuals, households or specific cultures but was prevalent at a much larger level. As a snapshot example, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2015 report estimates that the global pay gap will close only by 2133, nearly 118 years from now. Even a multilateral organisation like the United Nations has never had a female secretary general since it was formed 70 years ago.

Statistics might be gloomy but change is imminent. The 100 Women project itself stands for that change. There were women from all corners of the world sharing their stories online in the run up to the debate. The group I was a part of included smart, witty and outspoken South Asian women who did not hesitate to share their views on a global platform. Thank you BBC for giving women from all corners of the world a platform as big as yours to make our stories heard.

Here’s my concluding message to (myself) and others:


Fundraising goes innovative

Fun and innovative ways of fundraising have become the norm as charities compete to engage individuals to not only invest their time and resources but also promote the cause as ambassadors. Until a few years ago, receiving cold calls, emails or visits from representatives of big charities was common whereas these days new initiatives spring up on social media every other day. As I write this, my Facebook friends are posting images of comic book heroes to spread awareness about childhood cancer. Such initiatives make even fundraising marathons appear archaic.

As an MBA student, couple of years ago, my husband, along with his batchmates participated in the Movember challenge initiated by the global charity named Movember foundation. Participants are required to grow moustaches throughout the month of November to spread awareness about men’s health. Motivated by the spirit of camaraderie generated by Movember, my husband and his batchmates sported their overgrown moustaches for a month and even donated to the cause, despite living on a tight financial budget and hectic schedule that involved juggling studies with job search.Clearly,one doesn’t necessarily have to be rich or too old to make a contribution.

It is not just the big or global charities that are trying to innovate but smaller organisations are promoting creative campaigns too in order to attract donors. A few months ago, a London based charity (Be Kind Movement) organised a fun saree draping event to raise funds for vulnerable women living in the UK and India. In addition to a brief pledge about the charity cause, the event also included a talk about the evolution of the saree in India, a workshop about learning to drape a saree in different ways and raffle prizes too, giving it the feel of a vibrant cultural event while raising some £1100 (roughly Rs 1,10,000) through entry and raffle tickets. In my opinion a telephone call or a letter requesting for donation is unlikely to bring people together in the same way as these events.

The message is loud and clear. If an organisation wants to stand out and make people take notice of its cause and mission, it has to engage with them in a fun way. Gone are the days when big charities raised funds for causes of mass appeal through traditional ways. As newer and niche causes emerge, charity organisations will have to find fresh ideas to attract donors.

Street Art in London – a great leveller


London has as much creativity displayed across its streets as it has in its famous public galleries. In London’s streets, you can find art painted by the man known for being the first person to have painted on the Berlin Wall.

While most of us might think of graffiti as street art, some insist there is a difference between the two. Unlike the big bold letters and tags that symbolise graffiti, street art depicts more detailed work such as wall-mounts, murals, sculptures and stencil art forms. Colourful and bold, artworks range from political to provocative.

“The aim of a street artist is to put as many products out there and have many people recognise it as their work without having to ever mention one’s name,” a tour guide at the London Street Art Walking Tour explained.

The Shoreditch area in East London, once the centre of English furniture trade, is the now the hub of street art in the city. Creations varying from a few centimetres to large paintings stretched across building walls can be found at every nook or corner of this busy town as if it were an outdoor gallery of unconventional art. Most artists have unique styles that makes their works identifiable. Just a few hundred metres away from the Shoreditch train station, a huge mural of a hedgehog occupies the wall of a double storey building. This was painted in 2012 by a Belgian artist named Roa who is known for his giant black and white animal art.

Not all artists are Londoners and not all are famous. In that sense street art is a great leveller. On the streets of Shoreditch, you can discover the work of Banksy (a leading British artist) and the lesser known in the same area. Some of the international artists include a fine art student from Belgium and a French artist (named Thierry Noir) known for being the first to paint the Berlin Wall in 1984 as a sign of protest. In fact if you walk through the streets of Shoreditch area during the day you are likely to see artists in the middle of creating new images on the walls.

Most of the works are uncommissioned and thus illegal, but continue to dominate the walls, perhaps indicating an acceptance for street art’s role in portraying the area as London’s creative hub. Tour guides in the area say that new pieces of art emerge every day so there is always something new to explore. Artists routinely paint over each other’s work and whether or not one’s art stays untouched depends on how much respect the artist has earned in the community. According to the street art tour guides, no one will touch Thierry Noir’s or Banksy’s work.

Opinions remain divided on whether street art is acceptable or criminal but it is impossible to ignore its presence in contemporary visual culture.

Virtual Mohallas: How Facebook Groups Empower Migrant Indian Women In The UK

Settling in a new country, getting adjusted to its different ways of life and building your social life from scratch is as much daunting as it is exciting. I first moved abroad in 2010 and made some lovely friends from all over the world. Still, I longed to have Indian friends just to have a sense of familiarity in an unknown country.

Fast forward to 2015! I have discovered Facebook groups targeted at migrant Indian women living in the UK that allow womenfolk from different walks and stages of life to connect with each other and seek advice on everyday matters.

The Indian Women in London group on Facebook with over 3,000 members is one such platform where discussions range from the best place to find a specific Indian grocery item in a London suburb to more serious domestic issues such as finding help with childcare among others. Picture this. You have recently moved to London and are keen to find out if any one from your home town lives in your local area. Unfortunately, Google can’t help in this case. On the Indian Women in London group, you are likely to meet many from your home town living in your local area.

Deepti Belwal, the founder of Indian Women in London and a mother of two young kids, formed the group last year. “I could closely relate to those isolated women who migrate from their homeland, sacrificing every wish of theirs for the sake of their husbands’ career. The realisation that I sacrificed my social life to an extent and had no friends when I needed them drove me to create this group,” Belwal said.

Sharing similar interests, many have extended their friendships offline by regularly meeting for Bollywood themed dance parties or for cultural events such as learning to drape the saree in different ways. Members also help each other send small things for family in India or bring items from there. This sets the group apart from popular online forums where discussions largely remain virtual.

A different group targeting Indian mothers, aptly named Indian Mums in UK, has emerged as the one-stop online destination for parenting queries. Traditional home remedies for children’s illnesses, travel and vaccination advice before visiting India with kids or experiences of raising children in a multicultural environment are all regularly discussed on this forum.

We were looking for a primary school for our daughter and my husband spent hours switching between rankings, browsing school websites and reading online reviews. I, on the other hand, simply browsed through the Indian Mums in UK group where this topic has been discussed several times. An hour later, I could compile a more relevant list of decent primary schools in and around my area, recommended personally by other mothers.

The groups also provide opportunities for migrant entrepreneurs to reach out to a relevant demographic and develop friendships along the way. “I wanted to help fellow mums through the journey of motherhood, sharing our experiences and also to provide mum enterpreneurs a platform for their business,” said Mini Yadav, the founder of Indian Mums in UK.

These groups have gone beyond providing a platform to find Indian friends to providing solutions and fixes to expat life issues.

To my mind, these groups are the digital avatars of local ‘mohallas’ where women can freely share their migrant experiences, thereby empowering each other.

(This post was published by Huffington Post India, here’s the link)