I first met Marwa Soliman at the 2023 Broxtowe Voluntary Awards event at the new Plessey Centre, where she won two awards: one for being a ‘Community Hero’, and the other for ‘Culture and Heritage’. I had a quick chat with her, as she was so overwhelmed at winning, to say that I’d like to know her story and share it with the readers of this magazine.

So, I recently met up with her at Café Nero over a hot chocolate, and had a good chat about how she came to be living in Beeston and doing what she is doing. “I was born in Egypt and could see the sea from my house. I came to Beeston because my husband got a place at university to study mechanical engineering. We’ve lived here for 10 years now.”

“Being a housewife with two small daughters I felt lonely and isolated. I also suffered a bit of racial hatred. So I joined the local Surestart and did some ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes and came across other Arabic women. I thought that I didn’t want them to feel and suffer the same way as I had. Even going to somewhere like the opticians was difficult, and that there was a gap between people and services. I went on the anti-crime course run by the Stand By Me Communities and joined a focus group to help Arab women report racial abuse, where I had to talk in front of 150 people. I volunteered to be a TA for the ESOL course, then got a job as a TA for refugees, as they had no one to support them.”

“I started Heya Nottingham in 2017. It became a CIC (Community Interest Company) in 2019. Heya is Arabic for ‘she’. At the first meeting I organised at the Women’s Centre, fifty ladies turned up. I informed them about the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen. Service providers now get in touch, and I translate their information into Arabic. I’ve shown women around Beeston. We run tea clubs, tips on how to save money shopping, walks around Highfields, played basketball and pool, and we help the women get jobs and how to become volunteers. We’ve also told them about the local foodbank. Some find that sleep can be a problem, due probably to the cold weather. We give them the initial help, but then they learn how to help themselves.”

“We’ve been to the National Justice Museum and got involved in a workshop about racism. We also saw a play in the court that featured the Suffragettes. This was in both English and Arabic. I got Anna Soubry to help with problems like housing. Broxtowe Borough Council have made a difference too. We helped to run a cultural event last year at the Pearson Centre that attracted 300 people. On International Women’s Day (March the 8th) we’ve booked to go on the landing craft that’s moored at the marina.”

“The organisation has become so well known that we now get referrals straight from the places like the police and hospitals. Heya has a non-judgemental environment. Most Arabs are Muslim, but some are Christian. We also help women from other races. Some English women have joined too. We have some members who are engineers or GPs. We won an award from the ‘This Girl Can’ organisation for keeping fit and active, But even after all this time, I still sometimes feel inferior and don’t know how to complain”.

Finally I asked Marwa how people could get in touch with the group. We are on all the media platforms like Facebook, and currently have 600 members. Our email is heynottingham@gmail.com.

Marwa’s husband comes over and I ask him what he’s doing at the moment. “I’m working as a mechanical engineer at the university. I’m doing a project about zero carbon fuels for the combustion engine, as using electric batteries for large vehicles like articulated trucks is currently impractical”.

Marwa left me with two quotes; “You don’t have to speak the language to be kind” and “If you want to see the change, be the change”. Well Marwa has certainly proved that on both counts, and Broxtowe Borough Council would concur.