A nine-month health and well-being project with Pakistani women living in Calderdale culminated with a captivating performance at Halifax Academy.
The Land Beneath My Feet, devised by Hebden Bridge-based not-for-profit organisation verd de gris, and run with the Halifax Opportunities Trust (HOT), saw more than 20 women from the local Muslim community take part in a series of creative art sessions at the Hanson Lane Enterprise Centre.
The aim of the project, which was funded by Calderdale Council, was to increase the women’s confidence and self-esteem.
Sharon Marsden, who founded verd de gris with her partner Jeff Turner, explained how the project started.
“The amount of support we’ve received from the Commissioner for Mental Health at the council has been amazing and Halifax Opportunities Trust has been fantastic - we couldn’t have done it without their help.
“They were instrumental in reaching out to local women from the Pakistani community and encouraged them to work with us.
“I met Surraya Bibi from the HOT at a Holocaust Memorial event I was speaking at in Halifax, and she said she’d be interested in working with us on a project.
“We had been commissioned by Calderdale Council to do a pilot looking at well-being issues and women within the local Muslim community. It seemed like the perfect match.
“We felt strongly that emotional health and well-being was an area that needed a fresh approach within the Pakistani community - we wanted to devise something that would have a real impact.
“We believe our approach is very powerful and can affect lasting change in people’s lives.”
Previous work by verd de gris has involved inter-generational work with Pakistani Elders in schools across Calderdale and Sharon felt this latest project built on the success of that work.
“When we began some of the women had only been in the UK for maybe two months.
“They had only just started to learn English with HOT. Six months down the line they became fluent in the language and eager to learn more to help them integrate into the wider community.
“They wanted to learn the language so that they can contribute to society. For some of the women there was a sense of isolation and loneliness when they first started. The worry was that these young women may end up in the same situation as their Elders who came to the UK more than 50 years ago.”
“Whoever you are, if you are not living where you were brought up it’s hard. Our aim is to give people coping mechanisms to help them when they are feeling low - by using positive thinking and encouraging them to express how they feel. “These shared experiences help people feel included and part of something.”
The project also involved the women working with pupils from Savile Park Primary School.
Sharon said: “The women hadn’t met the children until three weeks before the event.
“It was a really intensive week where the women read poetry and sang to the children.
“They then came back at the end of the week to see what the children had created.
“We involve children in every project we do as we want to plant seeds in their heads at an early age and increase their understanding of different communities’ experiences or well-being issues.
“The children were really receptive to the project and a lot of the children’s parents were in the audience at the final celebration event.”
Three of the women have since undertaken training with verd de gris and are now volunteering with the organisation.
Sharon said the women and children responded positively to the project.
“We used creative writing, poetry, visual arts, movement and breathing exercises.
“Some of the poetry was extraordinary.
“The women worked on their poems over and over again and then read them out on stage in front of 150 people.
“It was a really big thing for them to do that.
“I asked one of the women if she wanted help pronouncing some of the more complicated words but she wouldn’t have it, she was so determined to read it herself.
“When they name a child it’s a really important part of their culture and names are very significant.
“So we discovered the meanings of each woman’s name and asked them to give a gesture to represent it.
“We worked with a dance artist and choreographer called Natalie Speake who we’ve worked with for the last five years.
“She choreographed the dance which the children performed that mirrored these gestures back to them, which was wonderful.
“It’s also empowering for the children involved. One of the children was deaf, and she was able to lead the dance because it was based on movement rather than music.
“The whole performance was very powerful.
“It was such a powerful and moving event because the women are just so amazing.
“They want to lead fulfilling, positive lives and we keep being drawn into that community because we get so much satisfaction and fulfillment from it.
“There is a danger that the stories we hear in the press about the Muslim community can be quite negative and we don’t think that’s right.”
The organisation have just been given further funding to continue the project.
“It’s exceeded our expectations in every way,” Sharon added.
“The feedback we’ve received has been so positive, people were really moved by it.
“I think the women exceeded their expectations as well.”
An exhibition of the work done by verd de gris on their Soul Journey dementia project by film-maker Geoff Brokate and writer Paula Sutherland is set to open at Hebden Bridge Town Hall from April 21 to May 17.
Surraya Bibi from Halifax Opportunities Trust said: “This project has empowered Muslim women and enabled them to break barriers.
“The women have learnt to smile again.
“The methodologies used are extremely effective in improving health and well-being.
“I feel so proud to have been part of this fantastic project.”
Nayyer, one of the participants, said: “So, what has it all been about? At first none of us knew either. It seemed really strange how art work was going to help us. In what way and why?
“I feel being part of this project has reminded me of what it feels like to smile again and to be happy.
“They made me realise how good my poetry was and encouraged me to write. I haven’t stopped writing since. This is really helping me to let go of my pain.
“Many times the pain became stronger but this time I have the courage and strength to cope with the pain.
“This is something I learned on the course. Before the course I accepted the way things were in my life but now I have the desire to live and be happy.”
Serish, another participant, said: “In one of the lessons Sharon asked us to imagine a lonely tree. I automatically connected to this as this was exactly how I was feeling about myself.
“I imagined being that lonely tree with nothing surrounding it and the pain it would have and this made me think about my negative thoughts and why they were there.
“Then step by step we realised what the learning was doing. We were taught about looking around us and identifying reasons of feeling positive and being happy.
“Being part of the project has made me realise how wrong I was in having negative thoughts and how I could change these into positive thinking.
“In each lesson I learned to appreciate life and how fortunate we are for what we have. I now have such a positive outlook and know how to be happy. I know how to smile and make other people smile too.”
Hamish Heald, Year Five teacher at Savile Park Primary, said: “We were delighted to be invited to take part in the Land Beneath My Feet project.
“It was a very beneficial experience for children and staff alike, culminating in a fantastic performance in front of a large audience, where our children really did themselves proud.
“We would welcome the chance of further collaboration with verd de gris.
“The children benefitted from taking part in the project in a number of ways, including thinking about and discussing happiness and wellbeing, being shown techniques on how to deal with anxiety, being shown that creativity is a positive way to deal with problems and being shown the positive link between spending time with nature and wellbeing.
“They were also able to express themselves through visual art, poetry, dance and movement, they were being guided by talented professionals.
“They were learning, rehearsing and performing complicated routines in front of a large audience, working with other people from the British-Pakistani community and a variety of generations, considering the impact of migration on their own lives and focusing on the positive role played by the women in their own lives.”