I said a little prayer… by Melissa Howitt

I prayed , then I arrived. In 2012 I walked into saheli women’s hub looking for a work opportunity , I found much more than just a job.

My name is Melissa Howitt. My present job role is a health and fitness advisor .I am a proud member of the saheli family.The role is fairly vast and gives me great opportunity to meet some amazing people ,and to develop well needed skills.

How I arrived ?

I recall feeling out of my comfort zone but grounded by my faith as I opened the door and walked in.I was greeted by a beautiful , soft speaking ,woman who welcomed me into my new safe space. That woman’s name is Shebina Gill the hub-manager. That’s when I unfolded and began to grow .

Family first …

I have been blessed to meet some amazing co – workers who I now call my saheli family . I appreciate the support and patience they have had with me over the years .It has been a winding road , trying to find A work life balance and sometimes losing the battle and having to press pause and then reset. Without the empathy , encouragement & support from my mentor (shebina Gill ) I have to say I probably would not have been able to come this far .Thank you my saheli family.

How far have I come ?

I can honestly say my knowledge in my chosen field has increased. I am more confident and assertive . I am a happier and more positive women.I have been massively inspired by many of the people I work with. I look forward to taking on new challenges and embracing new adventures.

Melissa Howitt

Health and fitness advisor @ saheli hub

‘My Ring of Confidence’ or ‘Against All Odds’ or ‘The Girl in me’ by Shebina Gill

It became apparent my ring of confidence appeared in the most difficult times of growth.  Across the bridge of my nose, my mother reminded me every day how beautiful my purpose in life was and that I was made from Love against all odds. 

The little girl sitting pushing dirt with a stick – so bored she became sick.

The runaway family forced to quit a society who could not stand the blend.

The Teen girl, sitting behind the nets picking wallpaper whilst others run with freedom.

The Teen girl, carer to toxic needs – generations of silence and fear.

The young woman, enthusiastic to prove that She will, She can, She has a plan.

The young woman at work not blending in, refusing to do what generations before her opted for.

The young woman at work, the tick tock of the maternal clock, her perceived expectations of the married world.

The woman grows new life – building a fortress around her, navigating a movement of opportunities for her to grow.

The woman with unseen conditions – will they debilitate her progression?

The woman bears a male child teaching him to respect the meaning of ‘self’.

The woman in a sanctuary of friendship, love and marriage, balance for identity to shine through.

The woman losing her mother to a disease that would pause the world of work that stopped her in her tracks.

The woman rejuvenates her self to inspire others through the wilderness

In tribute to all the women we knew, those who are still learning to be, for those who were before me, I am Girl, I am Woman, I am Me and I will arise with my nose displaying the ring of confidence.


I believe more than ever – I Can-I will-I do!

Saheli – Friend By Sabrin Begum

Looking for a Friend
Saheli provide so much more then exercise.

My name is Sabrin Begum it has been a decade (wow) since I have been with saheli. I started with work experience from college with Shebina (manager). She made me feel welcome and part of the team. I was a SAHELI and it was good. Part of a fabulous team that changed womens life’s.

I was working part time as an admin after few years. I was front of house welcomed people in and helped them through their journey with saheli. I also was interpreting for lady’s as some could not speak English.

Saheli offered me alot of training which helped me become more confident and gain more knowledge.

Saheli is my other family
Come along and find out what your journey will be with Saheli.

Life on the saddle by Hema Patel

I love helping and connecting with people. This is the reason why I am writing this blog for the first time today. My name is Hema Patel and I am from Birmingham.

My journey:

Big Birmingham bike provided cycling instructor training and Saheli gave me the opportunity to do some voluntary work. This gave me the confidence and room for growth. They didn’t just  give me the opportunity to do voluntary work, but they also offered me paid work. I enjoy teaching people how to ride bikes and how to stay fit.

I am really grateful for the services Saheli provides for people who really need it. I have loved working with this team ever since I began. I cannot ask better leaders than Naseem and Shebina. They have helped me throughout my journey, including keeping us going throughout the current global pandemic. I would like to help people in the same way that they have helped me. It would be great to see more women come and achieve their goals. I believe that everyone has great potential. It doesn’t matter what age, race or religion, everyone deserves the chance to get fit and healthy, whilst having fun.


With a passion for sports a friend of mine forwarded an advertisement from the Birmingham Road safety team which put a call out to recruit and train the first team of cycling instructors for Birmingham.  I instantly thought I wanted to do this but I didn’t own and bike and the last time I had been on one when when I was 16. I called the organiser and explained this and he encouraged me to still come along and he will take care of the rest.  I turned up and fell off my bike! The end, no- my journey began.

I started off as a Bikeability Instructor 15 years ago teaching Level 2-3 National Standards in primary and secondary schools across the city, but my passion was to increase women’s participation in cycling. I went on to run several groups with the local authority, until I met Saheli. I found that they shared my passion of providing activities at grassroots level, and I’ve been with them since. I am now one of the lead instructors and after setting up the Club, I am also the Club Secretary.

Currently I help plan and co-ordinate cycling activities; I recruit, train and mentor new Ride Leaders and Cycling Instructors; I also run my own groups of Learn to Ride and led rides for women and men at Ward End Park. I continue to train and recruit women from within the communities of the sessions we deliver. This means those participants have a role model that they can relate to and can access for advice and guidance.

Saheli offers sessions for all abilities. We have varied groups depending on ability and confidence levels on the bike. The participants can choose to stay within the enclosed area of the Learn to Ride sessions or join us on a 20-mile Club ride. We are there to support the individuals, and help develop their skills, but leave it up to them to decide when to move to another group within the framework. Saheli Cycling Club currently runs across three sites.

The highlight always is teaching someone to cycle for the first time, especially when they never thought they could. I don’t think that will ever change for me and continues to motivate me to do more.

As someone who fell off her bike in her training I went on follow my passion of wanting to make cycling accessible for all.  As long as you have the enthusiasm and determination anything is achievable.  My journey was only possible by meeting the right trainers and mentors who believed in me along the way.  I aim to pass this onto everyone I teach and train and always am encouraging people to try it once. Practice may not make you perfect but it will definitely make you better. I teach women how to ride; build their confidence and skills to continue riding for leisure, health and wellbeing or commuting.  So if you are inspired, find a local group who will provide you with a bike and a helmet and turn up.  As I say to the ladies: READY, STEADY, PEDAL!


Rakhyia’s Blogpost

I was told by a friend there was a women’s group in Balsall Heath that had an amazing adventure activity scheme for young girls – the organiser Naseem Akhtar was really something! She said I should go along and meet her maybe see if there was any opportunity to volunteer? I rang apprehensively and was invited to the Balsall Heath Community Forum.    I went for an informal chat was Naseem – hoping to be given the opportunity to volunteer so I could take part in all the fun activities they had on – I had always wanted to try horse riding; canoeing, climbing and quad biking!

I had just moved back to Birmingham after graduating from Manchester University and it was hard to know what I should be doing now – I was an adult in the big world of work, but I really was clueless about what I should be doing next?! I was lost.

I arrived early as I had never heard of the Balsall Heath Forum and was surprised by, but what I discovered – a small garden center with an office in a pagoda at the back!! I knocked and went in not sure if I as in the right place? There was a lot of hustle and bustle and I was suddenly overwhelmed.

However, my nerves were short lived as I taken upstairs and, in the chaos, met Naseem where I presented my CV and was put at ease.  Naseem gave me the background to Saheli Women’s Group she was friendly and had a vision.  I left the meeting hoping that a volunteering opportunity would open.

A short while later I received a call to come interview for a paid position – I was very excited but did not have much experience – would I be qualified, what were they going to ask me? I arrived at the BHF and I remember being dressed formally but chose to wear pointy burgundy shoes – they were smart but uncomfortable!! My feet were sore, and it was painful to walk why had I worn these shoes I thought.

Naseem drove me to Mary Beasley’s (BHF Chair) house and I sat facing Dick, Mary and Naseem.  The interview was a mixture of what I had done and what they were doing and my thoughts and experiences.

I had another interview at a women’s refuge as I had been pedaling out my CV to numerous organisations.  But when I received the call from Saima (Saheli Chair) I accepted – I was excited to be part something different, and innovative.  I had read up on the BHF and was impressed by the buzz of everybody doing their thing their way. 

Naseem and the team were welcoming and down to earth doing work that helping and bringing new opportunities for people across the community.  I have never looked back and have learnt so much and done lots of exciting things.  Anybody wanting to try something new and needing some support come get involved in Sahleli Hub – you will find friendship, support and encouragement like no other.

Girls aren’t allowed to……. By Naseem Akhtar

I thought things would change for the next generation of girls.

I grew up in B12- Sunny Balsall Heath. Sister of five brothers and because of them I loved sport. Football, Cricket anything. If I could be one of the boys I’d want to be in their team. When I was 9 we’d visit my uncle’s house and went out to play I used to sneak onto my cousins bike –  when I could- his bike was just my size.  ‘Girls don’t cycle….. I was told off …. so I didn’t cycling …. when they weren’t looking. I finally learnt to ride a bike at the grand old age of 36.

I went to a girls school and couldn’t understand why girls didn’t enjoy sport…. I learnt to swim at secondary school – Naseem where’s your costume? Mrs Curzon my formidable PE teacher asked. I couldn’t tell her my mum didn’t want me in a swimming costume … but too scared to tell the truth about wearing  a costume I just said I’m not allowed. This is a GIRLS school – of course you’re allowed bellowed Mrs Curzon. That’s why your parents sent you here.  I thought she’s right! I went home argued with my mum and got my first ever costume and went swimming at Stirchley baths… I loved it.

What do women really want….

By the time I was 28 I was a single parent of two boys. I always thought the next generation of girls would get to do everything we weren’t ‘allowed’ to do but as a single mum I realised nothing had changed in sunny Balsall Heath –  especially for women and girls. I went back into education and became a qualified nursery nurse and  got a job straight away in a local school. Next door to the school a Capacity Building revolution was happening in Balsall Heath through Balsall Heath Forum. They wanted to know what women wanted in the area so they set up a women only residents group for women only as local Asian women were not getting involved in their local resident’s groups. Through regular meetings the women came up with an idea of setting up a health and fitness facility run by and for women.  I was offered the opportunity to develop the idea and Saheli Women’s Group was formed and we decided to ask local women through an independent consultation:  What did local women really, really want?

Build it and they still won’t come ….

265 local women completed the questionnaire and said they wanted a women’s centre in Balsall Heath and no they didn’t use the biggest sports centre in Birmingham on the edge of our neighbourhood. Why ? because they didn’t feel welcome, their culture/language/needs of the community were not understood. There was some ad hoc sessions for ‘women only’ and even if you went for that hour women you felt  there were too many men in and around the building. They felt they had to rush in, change and then rush out before the men came in. It felt more like 30 mins not 1 hour. Through the questionnaire the women said they wanted to take part in: swimming, exercise sessions and health related activities and they wanted these activities when they  were free to access them at their own leisure. Most importantly the centre had to be run by women, for women.

The report proved what local women wanted and I requested help though the local  regeneration board and I remember  feeling nervous and scared presenting to this board of men (it was all men) and when the request was discussed the local councillor said:  If we give you an Asian women’s centre then the Irish community will want a centre and then the Chinese community will want one…. I remember answering It’s for ALL women not just Asian women in our area – and challenged back –  Why did he think it was only for Asian women? He was quite embarrassed making an assumptiomn it was just for Asian women but we didn’t get anywhere.

What women? Asian women? All day?

I took the report and met the leader of the PCT – We do health not sport he answered. I took my report to the head of Leisure – We do fitness and sport not health he answered and  you want a women’s centre ? Run by women for women? And you want to fitness and sport? All Day? Just women ? That’s never going to happen!  Oh yes it will I thought –  Maybe not now but one day.

Through Saheli Women’s Group we secured £5K from the Neighbourhood Network Scheme and combined it with Connexions £5k I set up a young girls club. The young Saheli’s aged 13-18 took part in learning to ski, canoe, rock climb at the Ackers and even how to ride a bike. I learnt to ski, canoe, rock climb and to finally ride a bike – properly – with them – reliving my youth but most importantly giving girls the opportunities I never had growing up. All these activities and programmes over the years helped Saheli to prove that women and especially Asian women can and do want to learn and take part in fitness and sport.

Saheli Adventure Hub

In 2006 we open the Saheli Adventure hub thanks to a man, yes a man. Who called me after I was invited to take part in a presentation on how little a difference is made for grassroots community in deprived neighbourhoods through regeneration money. I remember presenting and saying  to many of the officers in the room – Regeneration is just a stepping stone for you on your carer ladders and you always ‘do to’ the community and ‘not with’ the community. In Sparkbrook over £140K per person had by that time been spent by the local regeneration board but I couldn’t see the evidence of it. Nothing had changed in my neighbourhood for girls, women and families but if they’d given me £140K I’d show them how to change women’s lives in my neighbourhood. One of the officers called me the following day and said he heard what  I said and he liked what I said and had I heard there was a new fund. This time they just wanted our initial ideas of what could change the lives of our communities and if they liked the idea they would help us to grow the idea and fund it. I sent a picture of the girls cycling in a park with yellow cagoules on stuck in a ravine with mud splashed all over their faces, Smiling, beam at the fun of it some wearing their Hijabs with Helmets on top and said we’d like a women’s centre in Balsall Heath. Here’s what our independent report said.  We secured £0.5M from Sport England’s Active England grant.

What’s your adventure with Saheli?

In 2021 you can run: a 5k, 10K, Half a marathon or a full marathon take weekends away and run in events across the country or in Europe with the Saheli Run Group. You can learn to ride a bike: in the Park, in the street, 5-25 miles or in the Velo 40/100 miles event with Saheli Cycling Club. You can learn to knit, crochet, take part in talking art with Saheli Social Clubs. You can take part in zumba, aerobics, chair based exercises, yoga and body conditioning in Saheli Hub.  We now deliver across the inner city of Birmingham in three Wellbeing Centres and two GP sites and all we want to know is as a woman …. What’s your adventure with Saheli?

Saheli, a place of growth – By Elisangela Melo Liani

Me and my family, we arrived in this country on June 26, 2006. I didn’t know, but this same day Saheli was born too! I believe in God and I believe that He controls all things. I also believe that all things work together for the good of those who love God. So I really like the idea that Saheli was God’s plan to bless many lives, including mine and my family.

I was studying at South Birmingham college and the Saheli Gymn was next door. I went there to visit and met Shebina. I’ll never forget this day. A strong woman, firm personality and a deep look so significant to me. I am a person who pays more attention to body expressions than what the person is talking about. So this day was recorded.

I took my curriculum to her, I believe in 2013, but I never came back. The desire to belong to that organization was immense, but the fear of not succeeding due to my English and insecurity I ended up giving up.

In the meantime I took a personal trainer course to improve my English in the area since I had a degree in the physical education course as well. The teachers analyzed the history of my university and then decided to put me right on level 3 of the personal trainer course and then I would have to pass the tests on a higher level, without having attended level 1 and 2. I did very well in all classes. tests and presentations. It was a huge challenge, especially to understand what people were saying. Everyone spoke very quickly. However, the language within my area of ​​study motivated me a lot. I did 100% in the field of nutrition and even won a voucher from my teacher. It was a very pleasant time.

My degree was recognized by NARIC and then I felt more confident about looking for Shebina again. To my surprise she said “I looked for you!”. I felt important and I also realized the value of that person who could see so much in myself without knowing me.

It is not for nothing that Saheli grows. Behind a successful venture is a human leader, full of love and empathy for people. I strongly believe in Saheli’s methodology, as an institution that makes people recover their value and continue to seek dignity, taking care of themselves first so that they can also take care of others.

Saheli helps you to find yourself as a unique and important person who, as well as giving you opportunities to care for others, empowering you through courses and experiences with each other.

I believe that in late 2014 I met Shebina again. She promptly welcomed me and we tried to get to know each other. It gave me opportunities and even full of insecurity for doing something so essential to society, so it needs to be done well, even so I was walking and little by little everything fell into place.

The girls who already worked with Shebina encouraged each other and this favored an environment where I was able to talk about my fears and ask for help when necessary. I am extremely grateful to God and to this beautiful Saheli team.

I also met Naseem. A hurricane woman who arrived in our midst full of important information for the growth of the team. I did not understand almost anything she said, why she spoke fast … she is in a hurry to grow up and pass on information!! I identified myself too much with her because I am, I speak Portuguese very quickly and I want to enjoy every second of my life and I am in a hurry to help and see people healthy, happy and fulfilled. Shebina and Naseem give two women of fiber, warriors, unstoppable and tireless!! People’s health motivates them and that is commendable, beautiful and inspiring to me.

I have some dreams in my head regarding Saheli. I feel I can be useful and help in the expansion of this beautiful project! I could start with the Portuguese-speaking community, it would be an immense pleasure.

Working at Saheli is a challenge and this is essential in the life of a professional! We need to be in constant growth and working at Saheli I feel that I am improving all the time. The environment of mutual respect and professionalism makes the plans become reality more easily and new goals can be set. Saheli has a beautiful team of women full of love to give and love involves giving much more than just being a professional but being human and seeing others as yourself!

Working in Saheli, I was able to explore the gifts in me and develop their teaching. I could see that some things that I didn’t value so much could make someone smile and relax. This is fantastic!!

From organizing the workplace to making a presentation of physiology in English (how could I ever imagine that in my life !!!) I did it with pleasure! I worked on the computer, made surveys, physical assessment, taught physical activity classes, taught crochet and knitting, did face painting at various events, stimulated and helped people play volleyball, talking arts with different themes and now for the last zoom sessions! What a wealth of learning Saheli provides me. I just have to thank you! I have a lot to say about this place so important to society! Saheli!

The bi (rmingham)g Transition – Ambreen Majid

May 2017
I felt nervous but excited talking about it ( The big move) Embracing on a new adventure, a new chapter of our lives. Of course I’ve lived in London all my life and the thought of moving to a whole new city was daunting but everything has a first time. I guess…

June 2017
We started talking about it with our daughters, However it was just an idea and I never thought my dreams would turn into a reality. I wanted to try something different, something new. Of course I loved my home in London but I felt in Birmingham would be a better standard of living. The thought of moving into another home made my stomach lurch but in a good way. 

July 2017
As the days grew closer my dreams became bigger. I remember I would be sweeping the floor and instantly dream about my new house, how it would look. When I would open the pot of another flamboyant curry the waft would make me dream of cooking in my new kitchen, how beautiful the aromas would hit my nostrils. 

Aug 2017
I began to feel emotional, the thought of leaving my family, my childhood began to make me feel uneasy. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. But I had to persuade myself this is all for the best, my family, my children and my future. I was determined to make my dream a reality.

Sept 2017
So we started house hunting, I must admit I was extremely thrilled as this was my forté. At first it was hard to find my dream home, sharp, intrusive thoughts would enter my mind ‘maybe moving to Birmingham is not for us’ I would think but I stayed strong.

Oct 2017
We finally found our dream home – perfect. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was near a great school, amenities with lots of shops, a leisure centre, a park. Everything I wanted. In fact it was more than I would have wanted. Tears welled my eyes – God listened to me I thought. 

Nov 2017
A few months later after trying to get hold of multiple people we went to visit our ‘future’ house. I loved it. Words just could not describe, it was honestly like an instant connection and as I stood by the beautiful bannister I dreamed about me unboxing my accessories, decorating the rooms with my finest furniture. ‘Maybe this is for us’ I declared.This was final. We were moving to Birmingham.

Dec 2017
As I arrived home multiple boxes started filling our hallway, our living room and our bedrooms. It all started to feel a lot more real, a lot more believable. I was happy. Me and my daughters frantically started packing as time was approaching, fast.

Jan 2018
In early 2018 me and my young daughters moved to my mums house as we had already sold our London home. I didn’t realise how quickly things would happen but I knew it was all for the best. My husband and I decided it’s best if the girls finished their school till July, then we would moved. My parents accommodated me in their home, which I was truly blessed by. Finally the day come when all our furniture was being loaded in a lorry, my life, my memories were being shifted away hundreds of miles away. I was sad and very teary, holding my head high putting a stone to my heart I helped with the loading. Looking around each room, hearing echos of my girl’s running, giggling, laughing and screaming. That’s when reality hit me hard… I’m leaving my lovely home, leaving all those cherished memories I had behind the walls of this house. Everything was packed I took one last glance with a tear rolling down my cheek. My mum was with me I had a good cry….. we left. As I sat in my car I took one last glance at my brown door. As the lorry left We said our byes to my husband he shifted to Birmingham to sort everything out, all our furniture was put into storage in Birmingham, He was staying in a b&b. There were so many people in process of buying, so our chain was very long, Lots of paper work was involved.

Aug 2018 
Finally we received the keys on the 12th Aug….. Our Birmingham home was beautiful in fact breathtaking. Finally in August 2018 we moved in. It felt incredibly surreal – it didn’t feel real but unusual, weird and strange (in the best way). Finally our furniture started rolling in, I was so excited I couldn’t wait to set my house up. The girls chose their rooms and were happy with them. Unpacking everything it felt I was unpacking my life story again. Every item had a memory. It took a while to set up as I took my time. 

Sept 2018
Finally my home was set, we had already applied for schools. My youngest daughter started school in the begging of sept and the eldest end of sept. Once the girls were settled, I had time to reflect upon everything.

Aug 2018

This is when reality dawned on me…….I realised I had to start making friends from scratch, I didn’t know anyone my friends meant the world to me in London. I strolled round my local park Handsworth park. I came across a building outside the building I read the sign SAHELI ACTIVITIES, reading knitting and crochet, bike riding, arts and crafts and lots more. I saw lots of women going in and out the building. I was very curious to know what it’s like in there I was hesitant at first, as I entered the building, I saw lots of activities. I was welcomed by a lovely lady called Shebina. She made me feel so comfortable, I came to the sessions every Wednesdays I really looked forward to these sessions.

Sept 2018
I was finally settling down, there were lots of tears to begin with but as time went by the girls got busy in their schooling. I was finding my feet around Birmingham. 

Oct 2018
I got to know the SAHELI team very well, I really enjoyed their company. I was then offered a position in SAHELI as a knitting and crochet instructor. That void i had in me SAHELI had filled that for me and I will never forget that. They have been there for me through thick and thin, they are a real support and are always there to support not only us but the big community we are living in. They offer lots of mental support, keeping women busy and approaching in more of a holistic approach.

My journey with Saheli

I have been invited by Saheli Hub, a Birmingham based women’s health, wellbeing and empowerment organisation, to support some of their staff, volunteers and members to document their personal journeys with Saheli through blogging, podcasts and film making. However, like so many women in Balsall Heath, I have a Saheli journey of my own.

I first met Naseem Akhtar, the founder of Saheli Hub, when I was starting out making films with community organisations in about 2005 – at the time I was begging, stealing and borrowing whatever equipment I could to start making films! Those who know Naseem know her as someone who sees opportunities to make things happen everywhere. A young woman armed with a camera looking for projects wasn’t going to pass her by!

The result was a short film documenting some of the early work of Saheli. I accompanied a group of young women cycling round Sutton Park and skiing at The Ackers. I was able to get a sneak preview of the Saheli Hub gym before it opened and met many of today’s core members of staff when they were embarking on their own journeys. The film acted as a wonderful snapshot of Saheli’s work and importantly put them on the radar of someone at a local Health Trust who was impressed by how articulate some of the young women were. It also helped me become established as a local film maker – and I’m still doing it!

What has always impressed me about Saheli is their ‘can-do’ attitude and belief that women have potential to make radical and bold change when they are given space to come together. The strong relationships that staff and volunteers have with local women is at the heart of shaping services which people want to access. It’s a simple model, but it requires more than a little stubbornness to change old ‘top-down’ ways of working. In this film which was commissioned by ‘Birmingham Community Empowerment Network’ in 2007, Naseem talks about how they organise.

Over 15 years later Saheli are still part of my life. As a provider of health and wellbeing activities on my doorstep, I’ve seen so many local women doing really impressive things with Saheli. I regularly see groups running around my local park, and I’ve experienced the absolute joy of seeing Saheli women run past my door as they complete the Birmingham Half Marathon. It may be my imagination, but I’m sure they are having more of a laugh than anyone else there!

Since 2019 I have been working with the Saheli Hub group in Handsworth on the ‘Represent‘ project, exploring the history of rights and representation in Birmingham from the 1918 ‘Representation of the People Act’ onwards. The ideas we’ve explored completely link in with Saheli’s values of female representation and empowerment, so it’s been no real surprise to see the group get stuck into discussions and creative workshops.

Saheli women in Handsworth raise their banners as part of the ‘Represent’ heritage project

I can’t wait to delve yet further into rich and important stories of the many transformative journeys that members of Saheli’s ‘family’ have made. I’ll be posting links as the project develops!