Q&A with Elyas & Rozina:
Newham Community Project
We asked Rozina Iqbal (Director of Operations) and Elyas Ismail (Founder and Chief Executive Officer) to talk to us about their work with Newham Community Project.
How long have you lived / worked in Newham?
Rozina: I have been studying and working in the London Borough of Newham since November 2018.
Elyas: I have spent my entire adulthood in the London Borough of Newham. I came to Newham in the 80’s and have fond memories of the evolving times.
How did Newham Community Project start?
Elyas: I grew up watching my father and was inspired by his ability to help others with his diplomat, sentinel, and explorer personality from a young age. Following in my father’s footsteps, I wanted to help others and started working in the charity sector as a volunteer in the community.
Newham Community Project (NCP) was established in 2008 by a group of concerned Newham residents to surmount the increasing racial, gender, and religious inequalities in education and social welfare within the London Borough of Newham. The concern around the lack of facilities for youth and increased youth crime directed me to interject by hosting youth clubs to create an outlet for youth to engage.
Over the years, NCP has continued to interject in times of crisis.
At the start of the pandemic, March 2020, everyone was learning and coping in different ways. As NCP had done in the past, we responded to the immediate crisis and need; food insecurity, which rapidly escalated to offer wraparound services for those with no recourse to public funds.
NCP run an incredibly wide range of projects. How do you manage to fit everything in?
Elyas: We have allocated roles for staff and volunteers in different projects. The Newham community of residents, businesses and visitors are all looking for assistance in varying ways. We have interjected in the most challenging areas to expand our reach and support the Newham cohort. As a volunteer-led organisation, we have allocated roles for staff and volunteers to manage the projects we have committed to. This has helped us manage our work and projects effectively. We have weekly meetings and monitoring forms completed by project leads. The executive team guides project leads and is available for any queries regarding each project. They step in as and where needed. We have a wait list of volunteers and enrol them as and when required for the various projects.
Tell us about the role of volunteers in NCP?
Rozina: We have over one hundred dedicated volunteers in our various project teams. In each project, there is a project lead; the project lead will allocate job roles to volunteers and execute the project. Any complications or issues we work together to resolve or overcome.
You have had high-profile media appearances - including the Financial Times and Sky News. Can you tell us how that happened and your experience with media organisations?
Elyas: Certainly, high-profile media appearances, including those in the Financial Times and on Sky News, have been significant milestones in my role at Newham Community Project. These opportunities arose through a combination of strategic outreach and the growing recognition of our charity’s work.
Our experiences with media organisations have been overwhelmingly positive. These appearances provided valuable platforms for raising awareness about our charity’s mission and reaching government-level discussions. They allowed us to highlight the issues we were addressing and the impact we were making, resulting in increased support and engagement from the public.
It’s important to note that media engagement also comes with challenges, including careful message management and interview preparation. But overall, our interactions with media organisations have been instrumental in advancing our cause and amplifying our efforts to positively impact the communities we serve.
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How did the Covid pandemic change the nature of NCP?
Elyas: Newham Community Project has always responded to the community in times of crisis. The pandemic meant the community’s needs rose immediately with little or no help, and the entire infrastructure and dynamics of Newham Community Project had to adapt to support the current conditions.
We witnessed an escalation in difficulties faced by the community; innumerable BAME, disadvantaged, and underprivileged local people and those with no recourse to public funds found themselves struggling - all highlighting various inequalities.
Newham Community Project responded to the adverse effects of the pandemic by initiating a foodbank, which has now been operating for over three and a half years, distributing weekly groceries to over 3,000 individuals per week at the peak of the pandemic. Currently, we are supporting over 650 families with children.
Newham Community Project realised the extended adversities, discrimination, and disadvantages within the community and initiated a wraparound service in addition to the food bank to help overcome many of the adversities the community were facing.
Rozina: As a volunteer-led organisation, NCP has rapidly grown in different areas in the last few years since the Covid-19 pandemic, responding to community needs.
During March 2020, we were blindly responding to the needs of the community approaching us, which mainly focused on food insecurity. We then began to learn about the wider complications from our service users. We initiated talks with individual authorities, including the London Borough of Newham, Universities UK, United Kingdom Visa and Immigration, and many universities. We realised the extended need for mental wellbeing support when we received suicidal messages at all times of day and night. I was well-versed in trauma-informed and mental health concerns and had access to mental wellbeing and trauma services. Also, as a trauma-informed and mental health practitioner, I was able to escalate emergency situations for immediate help and treatment.
Newham Community Project continued to rapidly grow, and we continued learning and rising to the community’s needs. We instigated a community hub and began offering social development clubs, employability skills, life skills courses, and a women’s advice hub, amongst many other projects.
How do you see the cost-of-living crisis currently impacting on residents in Newham?
Elyas: The cohort we support has no recourse to public funds and has been severely affected in the wake of Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis.
A few of the main concerns we are seeing and that are having a major impact on our service users and the wider residents in Newham are as follows:
- Financial hardship: Having no recourse to public funds is often associated with difficulties and poverty as they are unable to access welfare benefits, but the financial challenges of this cohort have been intensified given the current economic climate.
- Food Insecurity: Meeting basic nutritional needs can be a struggle, particularly for families with children. Access to food banks and charitable organisations becomes vital. Many parents miss meals so they can provide extra food for their children. Having no recourse to public funds limits access to more comprehensive services.
- Housing Issues: Without access to public funds and low incomes with zero-hour contracts giving minimum shifts, housing is a serious concern. Many homes in Newham are overcrowded, with sometimes at least five families living in three bedroom, two reception homes, one kitchen and one bathroom.
- Mental Health Struggles: The stress and uncertainty associated with financial instability, food insecurity, housing concerns, and lack of access to essential services are all leading to mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, and in some situations, our service users have become suicidal.
- Violence against women: The pressing need for a women's hub has become increasingly evident in light of the surge in violence against women, especially domestic violence. The escalation of domestic and other forms of abuse against women persists. This is particularly prominent among women from ethnic minority backgrounds in the UK, posing a significant barrier to them receiving the support they desperately need. Many endure abusive relationships due to the absence of support networks.
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- Connectivity Issues: Given the financial hardships that our service users face with no recourse to public funds (NRPF), they struggle to pay for wifi, broadband and other network connections. Many sit outside local cafes and restaurants with free wifi to do their student assignments and other online work. This also restricts job opportunities and attending their classes, giving them limited engagement and restricting their expected engagement in university.
- Support Systems: When our beneficiaries first arrive in the UK, they have a culture shock and have no support system, no family, no friends, or other means of discussing any concerns. Social anxiety is increased, and stability is affected.
- Physical Health Concerns: Although many of our beneficiaries are international students and have paid the NHS surcharge, they still have restrictions on some medical care, causing critical health issues.
- Suicide: Due to severe economic hardship, we hear from many people expressing suicidal thoughts. We have received numerous messages containing threats of suicide. This can be difficult to manage; some cultures use such language figuratively to emphasise the severity of their problems. Consequently, we have established a protocol where all such communication is immediately referred to the Shout Crisis Helpline and the Samaritans. Whilst waiting for a response, we do have a safety plan of action which includes constant contact and home visits where necessary by trained support workers within our organisation.
- Digital Divide: The shift to online services and remote working during the pandemic highlighted the digital divide. Many of our beneficiaries had barriers, including language and digital literacy. The majority of our beneficiaries have no access to laptops or other digital devices. Many students were studying on their phones. They require assistance in developing digital literacy skills to navigate virtual spaces effectively, including university engagement.
- Legal and Immigration Challenges: Navigating the complex legal and immigration system can be daunting without access to legal aid or support, which can result in individuals facing deportation or detention. Furthermore, many international students are reported to the United Kingdom Visa and Immigration department for several reasons, including delays in paying their university fees. We have an immigration solicitor who attends our community centre one day a week to provide free legal advice and assist with any forms or documents that require signing.
What new issues have you observed? What new problems are your service users experiencing?
Rozina: The issues that we have mentioned above have all been exacerbated. However, there are also long-standing issues that have been concealed for various reasons that are now emerging.
- Existing overcrowding in many homes has grown, and more international students and those with no recourse to public funds are living in homes with up to 35 people in one house. Eviction suspensions were lifted post lockdowns, and this has caused many of our service users to become homeless or forced to live in unsafe homes. Landlords continue to exploit those with no recourse to public funds by not giving tenancy agreements and excessively over-occupying small homes. Increased housing instability among this cohort continues to grow.
- Charging Safety: Charge Safely is an initiative that we've undertaken in collaboration with the London Borough of Newham and the London Fire Brigade due to the high number of recent fires. Due to economic challenges, individuals often seek alternative methods to secure employment and navigate legal loopholes. To enhance their earning potential, delivery drivers modify their bikes to increase speed and therefore the number of jobs they can undertake. However, this alteration demands additional battery power, leading to the need for more recharging. Unfortunately, the charging process has given rise to serious safety concerns. Overcrowded living conditions and the use of cheap, substandard chargers have resulted in excessive electricity loads that exceed the capacity of UK households. This has culminated in a significant risk of fires.
- Healthcare access has been further limited, with many pregnant ladies refused access to additional support that they have needed during their pregnancies.
- Income loss continues to affect the most destitute, who are reliant on jobs to pay their university fees and manage their cost of living. Their families back home are also dependent on them, sending funds back home to support their family. They have also taken loans from their home countries and are expected to repay the monthly agreed loan amount.
- Loan sharks have taken advantage of those with no recourse to public funds and offered loans at exorbitant interest rates.
- Changes in immigration policies have impacted individuals with NRPF. New regulations or enforcement practices have affected their legal status, leading to concerns such as increased immigration enforcement. Changes in immigration enforcement strategies have heightened fears of detention and deportation among our service users. Evolving immigration policies have necessitated increased legal support and guidance for individuals to navigate the changes effectively.
- Prolonged uncertainty and stress has had a lasting effect on mental health. Recent challenges have included social isolation due to the cost-of-living crisis and limited social support networks, which have contributed to feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Some service users have experienced trauma related to their immigration status and the pandemic, requiring specialised mental health support.
- Other challenges we have faced include resource constraints; increased demand for our services due to the cost-of-living crisis has forced us to turn people away. We have had to adapt our services to cater to more beneficiaries by restricting family provisions.
You have recently acquired a new space. What will you be using that space for?
Rozina: The acquisition of a new community centre space, Ascot Community Centre, has been an exciting development for our organisation. This new community space offers numerous possibilities for enhancing our services, furthering our mission of providing essential support to individuals with NRPF and responding in times of community crisis. It will serve as a multifunctional hub.
It will be a versatile and inclusive space where individuals can find both essential services and a sense of community and belonging. We aim to empower individuals with NRPF to lead more fulfilling and self-reliant lives while advocating for systemic changes that address the root causes of their challenges.
How do you spend your time when you are not working with NCP?
Elyas: I enjoy cycling with friends, engaging in sports, and spending time with my family and friends, which are not just hobbies but integral to my identity. They provide balance, inspiration, and a sense of fulfilment outside of my work with NCP. Moreover, they enrich my understanding of the world and the role of physical activity in enhancing lives, which ultimately influences and enhances my contributions to NCP’s mission.
Rozina: My life outside NCP revolves around the joys of my family, the thrill of exploration through travel, the fulfilment of intellectual pursuits through writing and research, solitude moments, lecturing, and, currently, the excitement of embarking on a new academic adventure. Each facet of my life contributes to my personal growth and enriches my ability to contribute meaningfully to my desire to change the world to be a better place!