Inside: I talk to Shareefa Basyyoni, founder and CEO of Pathways Jeddah – a not for profit community for expat women in Jeddah. Together we look at Life in Saudi Arabia and the need for a community.
For International Women’s Day, I’d like to introduce you to someone I admire and celebrate. Shareefa Basyyoni is the founder and CEO of Pathways to Human Solidarity- a unique, friendly community here in Jeddah that helps support women.
Moving to a foreign country and starting a family in expat lands comes with its own set of challenges but life in Saudi Arabia is all the more different. The climate, the culture, language barrier and lack of family or friends can make you feel isolated. Finding like minded friends and well wishers in a foreign country is not easy. Saudi life is a little more…
Shareefa started her group when she realized, through her own experience, the need for a strong support system for women feeling isolation and depression moving here. It started with a few friends feeling the need and now there are over 300 women. The mission of the group is to support women irrespective of religion, nationalities or social classes. In short, it’s a place where you can bond, build bridges and friendships.
Behind every human being is a story. A story that makes them who they are and one that drives them to do the things they do. I have always wanted to ask her how and why she started Pathways. What was it … or rather how is it that she knows all the right words to say when I want someone to hear me! I have no words of introduction for her- I love her so much. May Allah always bless her with good health and the best in both the worlds.
Here is Shareefa Basyyoni in her own words:
I’d love for you to tell us a bit about yourself. How did you come to Saudi Arabia?
I want to thank you for this opportunity to talk about myself. Is there a person in the world who could refuse such a chance?! Lol
Okay, in all seriousness. I will try to give you a glimpse into my life, without making it my memoir. This quote above surely fits all those expats across the globe. Knowingly or not, stepping outside of your own country sets you up to experience all type of adventures.
My name is Shareefa Basyyoni. In American culture we take on the last name of our husband, hence the last name of Basyyoni. I was born and raised in the United States, in Denver Colorado. Yes, you got it, no Middle Eastern heritage here, and no Arab ancestry. My relatives can be traced back to living in America, even before all the states were established. My mother’s lineage was French, and my father’s lineage was Croatian. My mother was a stay at home mom, who really did everything from cutting our hair, driving us around, to fixing the kitchen sink. My father was a retired Air force man. He fought in WWⅡ, and then worked till he owned his own shoe business. So, the name Shareefa, was a choice I made legally upon converting to Islam at the age of 20. But that is a whole other story for a different kind of Interview. Although I will say, my family disowned me. Changing my religion was what they thought to be “just another fad”. It became real for them when I got married. I no longer “fit” in my own country, or with my own family. My life choice had alienated me from everyone.
I raised my children in America, Jeddah-KSA, Cairo-Egypt, Madinah-KSA, and then back to Jeddah-KSA. During the time I was in the states, my health took a turn for the worst. My children were really young. As it turned out I had a genetic disorder which caused my blood to clot. That is also an interview for another day, but let us just say, that it led to my first heart attack. I was young and full of enthusiasm, and I seemed to bounce right back. And so, life went on.
Needless to say, trying to navigate “life” in foreign countries, while trying to learn another language and culture, and to raise children at the same time, was a struggle in itself. Not to mention the fact that cell phones were in their infancy; some of them even had antennas. Internet was in the Jurassic period, and words like Applications, Facebook, Voice/Video Chat, and Social Media were not even invented yet. Also, back then, especially in Saudi Arabia, the women dressed more conservatively than they do now. You could not tell who the expatriates were [foreigners] from the Saudi women. It was unheard of to dress in colors, and very rare to see women who would uncover their faces while in public.
I missed my home. I missed my family and friends. But we had email, thank God. That was my only communication other than telephone with the outside world. Telephoning home was also a luxury that I could not afford. Now, I want to clarify here that I know many wonderful and loving Saudi Women but none that spoke English very well. When dealing with matters of emotion, love and friendship, it is hard to build a foundation for it, when communication cannot go past, ‘…bring me water please’.
Now, I would like to inform you that after moving to the Middle East, it was 12 years before I was able to travel with the 4 children I had in tow; 3 boys and 1 girl back to the states to visit my family there. My husband during that time traveled frequently (still does), women couldn’t drive (still can’t), and to grab a cab alone or even with little ones was not only socially unacceptable (not so much anymore), but it was taking a high risk of foul play; as stories of women being driven to the desert (no comment on specifics), were always being told to me by my in-laws. Lack of navigation, and lack of language, mixed with stories of horror, and my husband’s forbiddance, created in me a fear that crippled me to function in the outside world. My life was my home, and my home was my life.
People say, that most life passions are the birth-child of pain. My passion to serve women, is no less than the pain that grew from my isolation, heartache, loneliness, feelings of not belonging and always being misunderstood. Couple that with the fact that I couldn’t even tutor or study with my children.
I felt like a misfit. I felt I didn’t belong in America and I didn’t belong in Saudi.
The harder I tried to fit in, the more I felt lost and had no sense of self. I couldn’t articulate my feelings in Arabic and couldn’t seem to meet very many foreign women at all. My family and my in-laws were my life… not meaning to sound like I am complaining of that point. It is just a statement of the reality I lived through at that time. It was also frustrating that trying to earnestly communicate in Arabic would end up in my feeling frustrated and hurt by the laughter I received.
That all changed a bit, when I landed a job teaching English as a foreign language at a school near my home. But transportation issues still kept me locked in my home after school hours. So, basically no social life. For some people (an introvert) that may not seem so bad, but for me, since I loved to be a social butterfly, it broke my spirit. I hated the low salary offered by the schools, the workload the school piled on, and the time it took from my own children.
I quit. It was the first time in my life I understood the word depression. I could go days without even brushing my hair or wearing other than a pajama. After all, where did I have to go or do and who really cared? My children didn’t, or at least they were too young to notice if they had.
I tried to get on the computer daily. It became the small window I had to read things in English and read about things that were going on in the world around me. That maybe wasn’t the best though, as political and religious oriented news killed me inside.
Why couldn’t people just love each other? It is painful to feel that you do not belong. It is painful not to feel understood. It is painful not to have anyone to talk to. It is painful to not have anyone realize that you need a kind spirited person to ask if you were adjusting and if they could help you do that.
My email was a changing point in my life. Yahoo Groups were now the “thing”, and although it wasn’t a way for me to meet women who lived in Saudi, it was a way I could converse with them and others who had shared interests. My longing for death seemed to lessen. Basically, during that time, I built two Yahoo Groups, and a small website. I used the Pen Name ‘souladvisor‘, because using your real name was seen as socially unacceptable at that time in Saudi. Most women would go by Um (mother) of so and so. Or Marat (wife) of so and so. In this culture it is a sign of respect. To me, it felt like I was stripped of my identity. I felt Shareefa had no worth. Was I only someone’s mother or someone’s wife? Who was I?
I still use my pen name Souladvisor sometimes, as it became a part of me and a part of my journal. 15 years of living abroad later, I burnt it. All that was in it was pain.
I chose Souladvisor because most of my days were filled answering people’s questions, about life in general, and about Islam. So advice for the soul – Souladvisor was it. My following in Yahoo groups [the ones I owned and some I moderated] grew to over 2000, but without real life contact, I felt unfulfilled. So little by little, I stopped answering emails and stopped writing in my groups.
My children were entering their teens and at this point at least, I could understand Arabic and pronounce words well enough to be somewhat understood in the basic daily social exchanges. My children’s needs changed from needing clean clothes, food etc., to needing conversation and guidance, plus the basics. I find this point in life more challenging as a mother. I will take late night feeding, tantrums, and diaper changing any day over trying to match wits with a teenager! I didn’t know how to help my children become the emotionally stable adults I had hoped they would be. Also, back then there were hardly any activities for children at all. This made my children act out of line quite often. I felt life was no more than cooking, cleaning, and being the house police. Exhausting right?
Again, I fell into a deep depression. This time, it hit with daily thoughts of suicide. I didn’t care if I was to die. Death must be easier than living, I thought. This made me careless in seeing a doctor to take the necessary medications to keep my blood from clotting. And my weight skyrocketed to the moon and back. Food was the only way I could bring my emotions comfort. So, again triggered by stress, and lack of taking care of my health, I suffered more clots in my lungs, and another heart attack. I was hospitalized and released with a 3-month sentence in a wheel chair. I had a very hard time breathing, and had oxygen on hand, just in case.
If you ever want to know who loves you, especially in a country where communicating, navigation and getting around is a problem, get thrown in a wheelchair for three months. Now that is all I will say. It is much too painful to recount. The only things that kept me from slitting my wrists, were thinking who would look after my children, and fear of eternal damnation.
But that was a major turning point in my life. I realized that what I had hoped might kill me, might only cripple me instead, so I knew I had to change. I knew I didn’t want to be a mental or physical burden for my children. I realized it isn’t selfish to take care of yourself. I realized it is necessary. I realized the best way and only way I can love my children…. the best way and the only way I can love the world, is to love myself first. I started to read, eat and breathe anything that would benefit me, anything inspiring and anything motivational.
I started to look at life from a different angle when I was down. I started to seek out to build a better social life for myself. Especially since my children were getting married and moving out to start their own lives.
How did PATHWAYS come to be? What was your motivation behind starting it… where did the idea come from?
I never wanted anyone to feel what I had felt. I never wanted anyone to feel that life wasn’t worth living. I never wanted anyone to feel they didn’t belong; or that they didn’t have at least one person they could talk to; or at least one person they could show their tears to. I didn’t feel that due to race, age, religion, social status or nationality women should feel excluded by society. Everyone should have support and everyone should feel they belong. I wanted to also do my part to leave something behind; if only in mood and spirit to change their life.
I wanted to create a space that anyone could walk in and feel like “home”.
Anyway, that dream and passion gave birth to Pathways to Human Solidarity: “Behold the dynamism of women empowerment from different social, cultural, linguistic ethnic, and religious backgrounds. “Empowerment through diversity, and Support through Inclusivity”. We cannot change each other’s lives, but we can love each other no matter what, and we can be each other’s cheerleaders. Isn’t that what life is all about?
It is one thing to dream and another to make it come true. It is not easy starting something like this… Who has been your best support?
I had a lot of support. To mention all the women here would make this longer than it already is. I started with 5 women in my home and started to verbally share my idea that we should create a group where we support self-development, self-care and motivation. And of course, no discussion of religion or politics. No one was to be left out.
Currently on different social media forums, we are a group of over 400 women living in Jeddah; representing women from 32 different nationalities, 3 different religious groups, married, single, widowed and divorced, between the ages of 17 to 70. The dream is to have a physical space where women can go free of charge and help each other in their daily struggles… a non-profit community center. One day soon… Allah Willing.
My greatest supporters have been my daughter first, and then all my children. There is nothing as healing as pure love. They loved me through thick or thin. They loved the beautiful me. They loved the ugly me. They loved the happy me. They loved the sad me. They cheered my successes, consoled me through failures. They listened to me and sat with me in silence. They accepted the good, bad, and ugly throughout the years. They hid my faults and imperfections. They cheered me on – to crawl when I could not walk and to – walk when I could not run. Most of all they forgave me for my failures, as a mother and a human. I wouldn’t be here without them…
You have been here for long: raised children, become a grandmother… what is your advice to new moms. How can they keep a balance between family and their own needs?
Pretty much standard advice that may at their point of life seem cliché.
Take it one day at a time.
Don’t burry your emotions. Don’t feel too ashamed to say I need help. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert or anywhere in between, find a support network for yourself; find like-minded people.
Don’t make your husband the sun and orbit around him.
A calm and happy mother is worth more than a hot meal and a tidy home.
Get your children used to also having “me time”. It is the time of day, where everyone learns that they have to do something by themselves. You do your thing, and they are expected (within reason) according to their age, to do their own thing…. alone. There should be family activities and individual activities.
Make use of the evening to read or engage in an activity that brings you closer to realize one of your dreams, move up in your career, or just bring you happiness, not finish up chores. Be your own best friend and your own cheerleader.
Tomorrow is always another day. Your emotional health is more important than everything else. If the advice had to be in two words, it would be, organize and prioritize.
And off point, spend your time on your kids, not money. Let them know you make mistakes. Let them know that you are growing together. Let them know that even if you don’t like their behavior you love them.
What is your advice to expat women moving to Saudi Arabia.
Get yourself out and meet people, even if you must stop and introduce yourself to someone in the mall.
Don’t assign yourself a “group”. Some of my best friends, are leading totally different lives than I am, and have a totally different way of thinking, but accept me as I am, or sometimes, as I am not. lol
AND, have fun with your adventure.
Create yourself and recreate yourself. Never stop your personal growth.
Find “your tribe” and never let go.
Living in Saudi is easier now than before, so take advantage of the changes. And try to create change too.
Don’t make social media your social life. Get out and about, especially when you do not feel like it.
Always be on a journey to better yourself and the quality of life of those around you.
Get involved in volunteer activities and community service. Happiness comes through what we give.
Don’t take yourself too seriously and laugh through all the blunders.
What do you love about expat life in Saudi Arabia. What do you think you still struggle with here?
I love the opportunity it has brought me to meet others who have grown up all over the globe. To experience their lives through the stories they tell has been enriching, to say the least: a glimpse into how we are all so close to being the same, as the life of one human. It has broadened my ideas and shrunk my prejudices.
The main struggle I still experience is when I am there, I miss being here and the vice versa.
If you meet a person of rare intellect, ask them what books they read. 🙂 What does Shareefa Basyyoni read?
First of all, I wouldn’t include myself in that list – ‘a rare intellect’ but… thank you.
I would love to be able to say that I am a bookworm and have knowledge about all things in life. I used to read novels and of course, religious material. Now if it doesn’t feed my mind with something that either teaches me something beneficial for my mental, physical or spiritual health, then it is last on my list of reading material.
My time has become very precious to me. I choose how I spend it, like you would choose how much to spend on a commodity. Time with people in general is always top of the list and worth every second I spend. I like to read a lot of topics, so I do own some self-help and motivational books, but I am, more or less an article junky on the internet. Again, I stress, if it doesn’t benefit me or the knowledge can benefit someone I know and love, then it is a waste of my time.
Your favorite quote that you live by?
I have more than a few:
“It you want to know how rich you are, find out how many things you have that money cannot buy.”
“A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.”
“So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole world”
And my favorite, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”
And one of mine:
“In physical, emotional and spiritual pain, only the wise can understand the treasure they gain, and submit to it for that purpose. You cannot run from that which is within, although many have tried”. Journal – Souladvisor
Thank you Shareefa! <3 I am so happy I got to hear your story. May God bless you in everything that you do!
Behind every woman is a story that makes them. This is Shareefa Basyyoni, my inspiration and the woman I admire and celebrate. You can visit Pathways Jeddah to learn more. Follow their instagram for daily inspiration.
This blog post is part of #girlpowerhop, a blog hop hosted by Aurora Hikma, in honor of women worldwide, on International Women’s Day. Click this link to read the rest of the posts!