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Spotlight on Souad Talsi, Al-Hasaniya Womens Centre

Al-Hasaniya was founded in 1985 to act as a bridge to help Moroccan women access local services. The centre provides support to deal with issues such as housing or domestic violence and aims to promote positive citizenship and greater understanding among communities. The centre recently celebrated its 25th birthday. Here founder Souad Talsi talks about its development and also the changes she has seen in the voluntary sector over the years.

What is the story of how Al Hasaniya came about?

I started community work when I was 14 or 15 as a youth worker. Then while studying law I got involved in the Citizens Advice Bureau as a trainee advice worker. By virtue of being Moroccan and able to articulate my community’s views I got really quite involved in community issues and was voted a member of the management committee of the Notting Hill Social Council, known now as the Kensington & Chelsea Social Council.

It was there as a trustee that I felt something ought to be done for the Moroccan community and that’s when we thought of setting up the Moroccan Co-ordinating Committee, the MCC. That was back in November ‘85. The idea for the MCC was to be an umbrella organisation but within it we decided we wanted a specific project for women and that’s how Al Hasaniya came about. We pulled out quickly from the MCC to become completely independent and we have been serving the needs of Moroccan speaking Arabic women ever since.

Has the mission changed over time?

I think the ethos of bridging the gap between Moroccan speaking women and service providers remains the same. Obviously things have moved on. The original Arabic speaking community were Moroccan migrant workers and some Egyptians, now we have the refugee situation and people coming from Palestine and Iraq due to the invasion. And so you have to change your way of working as matters evolve. We are always working with the women in order to tailor our services to meet their needs.

Al Hasaniya certainly remains a grassroots advocate for women, we don’t speak on their behalf we speak with them. We have become by default I think a mouthpiece for women, not only in our area but also on an international level, for example we were very much involved in the campaign in Morocco to give equality to women.

We have also been instrumental in setting up other organisations, such as the Migrant Refugee Communities Forum and we have been very active in sitting on a range of committees, both locally and nationally.

Looking back have you seen many changes in the sector?

I’ve seen changes that I have not been very happy about. Voluntary organisations are not businesses and I get very angry when we are being pushed to function like that. I think the quality of voluntary sector services will be decreased if we keep on this road.

Where do you think that pressure is coming from?

I don’t know, maybe it came from Maggies era. This idea we have to think business to become middle class and rich is rubbish because it hasn’t worked. I think we ought to go back.

Some of the voluntary sector has become quite cleaver in that they might not be delivering the service to those that need it but they are fantastic at report writing and that gets me very angry because it’s not about how you project yourself it’s about the people you’re serving.

As an advice worker I’ve seen the CAB change so much because of the pressure being put on us. I’m not here to justify my salary I’m here because I’m committed and I’m trying to help people. If you are going to take my time and ask me to produce reports and tick boxes then obviously I’m going to see less people and I’m going to produce perhaps on paper more results but I won’t necessarily give a better service to people. I think we should measure the success of projects by the results we see in people not on paper.

Have you seen changes in regards to groups working together?

That’s one of the changes that I actually like because the way that funding has evolved is that pressure is put on you to work in partnership and that’s fantastic because it eliminates duplication. What we had in the old days is that you had groups doing exactly the same work and not being aware of each other.

And the spidersweb that brings everybody together is the Social Council. They are forever linking groups together, if I go to them and I want some help they say ‘oh by the way this particular organisation’s doing similar work why don’t you talk to them’. They are a very good source of information.

Are you aware if there have been any changes to do with levels of activism?

Yes absolutely, there is less. People now come into the voluntary sector, do 9 – 5 and go home. We were more committed, for us it was a political drive in those days. We didn’t care about the hours we did and we didn’t care about the pay either.

Do you think the relationship with the statutory sector has changed over time?

Yes, it’s become much more businesslike and we have had to become like business managers. Everybody’s getting into Powerpoint, but that does not necessarily mean you are giving a good service. I think the distance is growing between the local authority and the voluntary sector and the people we are trying to serve because of the increase in bureaucracy. Before we would just go and see a Councillor and explain our project to them. Now it’s so formal and the structures have changed, it’s much more complex.

However, I’m quite an optimist and I’m hoping by working closely with counsellors they will continue to see the important work the voluntary sector does to serve the needs of the community, especially those that are hard to reach. I think we are fortunate to be in Kensington and Chelsea. Councillors here do listen and they actually care I think to a certain degree.

Is the recession having any impact on your organisation?

No it hasn’t. 9/11 had an impact, as an Arabic speaking organisation it became harder to get funds. Now it’s the opposite but we do not use this term ‘prevent extremism’.
So it’s like they are expecting you to use language you don’t want to use? Yes our political views and our principles can hinder our pockets but that’s fine, that’s the attitude we have always adopted. It’s almost like when so much money was poured into the health service to prevent HIV we didn’t think that was the problem we thought cervical cancer was the real problem among Moroccan women but we didn’t get funding for that. We simply look at our women, see what the problems are and we state what it is.