shama means a lighted candle. in urdu poetry, it is a very strong symbol for the feminine. the male is the moth who is drawn to her flame, gets burnt, blah blah blah (sorry, i really don't have a romantic bone in my body, and am totally not into poetry!). the lighted candle is also a symbol for guidance and support - a light in the dark, to help you on your way.
shama is the name we chose for the hamilton ethnic women's centre. it was a symbol that south asians, arabs and north africans could identify with, and best suited our vision for the centre as a place of support for ethnic women who were struggling. the centre was established in 2003, though the work to establish it began well before that.
today, i had occasion to sit around with a couple of other founding members and reminisce. we talked about the struggles in the early days; the problems with communication across various cultures, across employment levels and across various levels of proficiency with the english language. we talked of the on-going struggles with funding, the difficulty of finding and keeping volunteers and staff.
as we talked through the history, it reminded each of us of how little we had known about basic things (filling out funding applications, starting and running programmes, conducting interviews for prospective staff etc) and how much personal commitment is involved in establishing and runnning a community-based service organisation. the skills all have to be built up, and we certainly did a lot of learning from our mistakes.
as we worked at building up the centre, each of us was going through our own personal crises. but the work we did helped us to support each other during the difficult times in our own lives. we have developed strong bonds, a connection that can't be broken, even though we have often argued over various issues.
one of the most wonderful things about voluntary work is the people you get to meet. i have so much respect and affection for the women who have been involved with shama in one way or another over the years. we kiwis don't often realise what a depth of talent we have in this country, what wonderful people we have working away quietly at their chosen issue without asking for anything in return.
one thing i've learned from working with shama is that everyone has a story to tell. everyone has been through some personal tragedy or some difficulty. we are so quick to judge people in many ways. i remember an older woman who works with refugees in hamilton, who i had always thought of as a bit of a fusspot (see, i have my prejudices, just like everyone else!). but i heard her speak one day of a daughter of hers who had died at the age of 8. as she talked of how she had held this dying girl in her arms, then how she had coped afterwards, i was simply amazed at the courage and strength of this woman.
if i had my way, i'd make it compulsory for everyone to do 2 hours of voluntary work every week. except that i know it would defeat the purpose. voluntary work builds a sense of community and of social responsiblity, but that only happens when it's comes from the heart, from a personal conviction and desire to be involved. but i can truly say that the rewards are much greater than the time and effort you put in.