SHIRINA ALI'S EXPERIENCE OF COVID WAS REAL WHEN TWO COLLEAGUES OF HER HUSBAND AND HER COUSIN DIED. FINANCIAL LOSSES ARE ALSO IMMENSE.
Born to a first generation Bangladeshi migrant family, Shirina is the eldest of 'many British siblings.' A self-confessed ‘Tower Hamlets girl’ was born and brought up in this borough. Little did she know then that she would also marry in Tower Hamlets. At the age of 17, she was married off to a man chosen by her grand father.
As a teenager, the world of motherhood was hard for her at first. She had to cook, clean and learn new ways of living with her husband. During her A-Level exams, she was fully pregnant with her first girl. She missed going to the cinemas, gossiping with her friends and learning to drive. These are many of things her friends did whilst Shirina embraced her new life as a wife. She confessed that as part of her marriage contract her husband would be the bread winner.
‘It was kind of built into my head that I won't have to work. At that time, I did not know anything about money. I just assumed that we could live on what he made - so romantic and rosey. It was like a Bollywood film. I use to wear my sarees and I enjoyed my life as a mum. I did not have a clue what was out there or the cost of living. In a way, I did not have any ambitions either. An ambition has a price tag on it.’
Once her second daughter was born, they moved into a bigger home. Her friends spoke about their work and colleagues they worked with. Having a big and expensive wedding were also on the agenda for them as they prepare to settle down and get married. It dawned on Shirina that her two girls needed a role model. There was no one else to turn to for inspiration. She knew that education was the stepping stone to a better life. She went onto do an access course. Once she finished the course, she carried on with her education at London Met University. She studied community management and after three years of full time education, she obtained a 1st. Whilst studying, she worked part time and looked after her two children and a husband. She pursued her career in the charity sector.
‘A lot of people I met before work were just surviving. They get their three meals and they are happy. Then, I met these people who had extraordinary lives. Even when they are working full time they had hobbies and have expensive holidays. I have not been exposed to that world until then. I did not know about helping people, tutoring and mentoring. I suddenly realised - wow! It might sound naive but you have to understand the bubble I was in: protected by my parents and then husband. My bubble was very small.’
Shirina works as a part time money adviser at Limehouse Project and trains residents all over London on how to manage money. She feels that this job has given her the opportunity to engage with people on many different levels.
‘My entire family fell ill…for ten days (during the Christmas break) . Every single siblings were ill. I don’t know what happened. I don’t usually fall ill. Everyone was unwell,’ she says.
She was not sure whether it was Covid-19. When she went to work after the break, she heard about the virus but did not take much notice of it. When the lockdown was implemented, she did not prepare for it either.
‘I knew I was going to struggle. I knew I was disciplined enough to stay home. In the first week I was making lists and trying to keep a timetable. I was trying to get my daughters motivated. The first week was really good…By third week I had my first few dark moments and I was crying. And I was crying because I was crying. I could not believe that I was that weak. I had not seen my mum, nephew and grandson.’
During her twenty years of marriage she and her husband rarely been home together at the same time. He was workaholic. In the third week of the lockdown he was going through a mental health crisis. His savings had also ran out. As a restaurant worker he gets paid weekly. He was not furloughed. She could not plan ahead because no one knew how long both are going to be in the lockdown. There are other horrific impact too for them:
‘My husband lost two colleagues who had underlying health conditions. I’ve also lost an aunt. My daughter and I were helping a family who had the virus. As a family we know it is very real to us and it makes me so angry when people question Covid-19’.
Her job requires working with people who have no income due to the Covid-19 pandemic and a lot of people are having money problems. Many of them are worried about feeding their children.
‘In this community a lot of people have language barriers. Many of them do not understand social distancing either. Currently, any work I do are on the phone.Our clients have been very calm and accepted that we are going to do self-help.’
Shirina felt the impact of the rise in food prices during the month of Ramadan. A lot of people have ran out of money. Ramadan is a community event. Usually, everyone would fast together during this time. Her daughters are fasting in isolation instead of doing it together with their friends. They are finding it very hard. ‘Mosques are closed. It is so hard for men especially because that is their community time. Mosques play such a big role in the community. That is not there.’