Shamila Dhana wears a British Red Cross jacket with the refugee women's group sitting at a table in the background

Shamila Dhana, an ‘ordinary’ woman doing extraordinary things

“I believe in … making ordinary people extraordinary.”

Every day, Shamila Dhana does this as a volunteer at a women’s group for refugees and asylum seekers run by the British Red Cross and our partners Stop Domestic Abuse.

Together, they tackle some of the most difficult issues these vulnerable women face.

Hate crime, honour, domestic and gender-based violence, social isolation, mental health and education are all on the agenda.

“To me, ordinary women are unsung heroes,” Shamila said.

“They are the woman that must get up and take the kids to school despite her period pains.

“The woman struggling to put food on the table because she is unable to work.

“The woman who is trying to navigate a complicated asylum process when she speaks little English. These women inspire me every day”.

As someone who considers herself to be an ‘ordinary woman’, Shamila felt shocked and honoured when she won the Pamodzi Creative ‘Inspirational Women’ award.

Many people had nominated the 36-year-old for Portsmouth’s first Inspirational Women Award to mark International Women’s Day 2019. 

“Women should know they matter”

Many people had nominated the 36-year-old for Portsmouth’s first Inspirational Women Award ceremony to mark International Women’s Day 2019. 

Shamila’s dedication to helping others is known across her community.

“This comes from me thinking I was nobody for a long time,” she shared.

“I realise now that I have something to give. So, if an ordinary girl like me can realise that I have a voice and that I matter, other women should know they matter too.”

Shamila became a full-time volunteer with the British Red Cross refugee service in Portsmouth in 2015.

Originally from Zimbabwe, she came to the UK to be with her brothers sixteen years ago. After spending some time in London, she moved to work in Portsmouth in 2012.

Unfortunately, she experienced many challenges after that. “I was destitute for about two years.

“When I was homeless, I would wait for anybody to say, ‘would you like to come and spend the night at my house?’. It was very degrading to have absolutely nothing, and need to ask for basic stuff all the time.

“I reached a point where I contemplated suicide. From being a very confident, strong woman, the situation I found myself in made me spiral downwards really quickly.”

With the help of her family, her church and the British Red Cross, Shamila began to rebuild her life. Volunteering within a professional team became a lifeline.

Volunteering saved my life

“Volunteering led me out of the difficult times I was facing.

“It gave me a reason to get out of bed and the opportunity to learn new skills and make connections. On a personal level, volunteering saved my life.

“Having experienced many hardships, I could see the enormous benefit of the organisation, its humanitarian vision and values.

“I believe entirely in the fundamental principles, especially impartiality. The Red Cross is an open door for anybody and everybody to get the help they need, no matter what their circumstances.”

The women’s group is a safe space

Shamila Dhana leads a support group for women refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants

“Many of the women we support at the women’s group are socially isolated, so having the opportunity to meet other women experiencing similar issues is hugely important.

“The women might be victims of domestic violence or FGM (female genital mutilation).

“All have escaped some form of persecution. As well as going through the asylum process, they are dealing with these other huge issues, as well as trying to make a new home in Portsmouth.

“The women’s group is a safe space for us all to acknowledge we have gone through tough times, but also to say we are here and we are not alone.

“It’s about empowering the women to know their rights. To know what the law says about domestic violence, or where to get sexual health advice, or where they can access mental health support.

“You’re not alone”

“When I went through hard times, I thought I was the only one experiencing something terrible.

“My volunteering work has shown me that I’m not the only one. I know that every woman has a story.

“When I was nominated for the Inspirational Women award I thought ‘Wow. People see me. People hear me and what I say matters’.

“Seeing, hearing and really listening to the women and their stories is what comes across in the women’s group.

“We all experience things that might make us feel ashamed. You feel the situation is only happening to you, that somehow it’s your fault.

“Through my work with the Red Cross and the Women’s Group I want to give women a voice to tell their story. To say ‘this has happened to me too. You’re not the only one. You’re not alone’.