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Asad Fazil MBE on Al-Hurraya, the Charity Supporting Communities of Colour

22 September 21 interview: Frieda Wignall
photos: Ekam Hundal

Asad Fazil is the frontman of Lenton based organisation Al-Hurraya, who’ve been working since 2014 across Nottingham, Derby and Burton-on-Trent to provide support to communities of colour affected by substance abuse, mental health, crime, radicalisation – you name it. Asad sat down to talk about his journey and the MBE he was recently awarded…

What’s the story behind Al-Hurraya?
I grew up in Lenton. These are my ends. I’m so attached to the area, but it was very deprived. Growing up I saw a lot of ‘hidden harms’ that were normalised in my community. I myself hit a rock bottom during my journey of addiction. When I eventually went to some mainstream services, I wasn’t getting the support I needed. There was a real lack of cultural competence – back then it was really bad. I went on to work for Framework. While I was there, I was discovering gaps in treatment for BAME individuals. Al-Hurraya was developed out of that, a journey which took me to university, to education, an Addiction Studies course at Leeds and then Humanistic Counselling at the University of Nottingham. From there, Al-Hurraya was born. 

Who was the first person you thought about when you received the news about your MBE?
Well, I received the news on Eid and my first thought was, ‘Is this real?’ – I thought it was a hoax. We even checked with the Home Office. But then I thought about my dad who passed away in 2008. I remember him saying “my son will make me proud” and I thought, ‘I’ve done it, he’d be proud today.’

Do you consider yourself to be a role model? 
In the Pakistani community if you’re a bad lad, in and out of trouble, you can have many negative names put to you. When I was on Notts TV the headline was ‘Lenton man who was an OG now has an MBE’. If you’d said twenty years ago, Asad you’re going to be a counsellor, therapist, CEO and have an MBE, I wouldn’t have believed it. 

How does a ‘culturally wise’ approach to mental health differ to mainstream counselling?
There’s a lot of buzzwords but it’s just being culturally competent. Communities are changing – we’ve worked with Syrians through the resettlement programme. If you talk to them about ‘mental health’ there’s some barriers straight away. They don’t speak that language. It’s the details. Things like domestic violence and how people disclose and how to do risk assessments for honour-based violence. It’s having a real, deep cultural awareness. Every community will have different issues, it’s about recognising that.

It’s having a real, deep cultural awareness. Every community will have different issues, it’s about recognising that

What does your Islamic twelve-step programme (the first in the UK!) look like?
I got permission from Alcoholics Anonymous to modify the original twelve steps, which were from a Christian point of view. I read through the Quran and Hadiths and picked out which parts would align with each step. I was seeing kids using drugs on a Friday and then repenting on a Saturday in this vicious cycle. They thought religion itself would make them abstinent. I was combining the religious part with the practical psychosocial interventions. It’s a nice balance. We have young Imams working with us so interventions can be clinical or theological. 

Have attitudes changed around the issues you work on since starting Al-Hurraya? 
It’s getting better. Once, we weren’t allowed into mosques to talk about drugs. Last week we were at a mosque doing a session on shisha pens with girls. Back in the day, you wouldn’t be allowed in to talk about forced marriage and honour-based violence. The younger Imams today and even the older ones are changing. The mosques reaching out to us to deliver workshops is a big thing. 

There’s been political changes too. We’ve lost Paddy Tipping who was our Police and Crime Commissioner who funded us for five years. We don’t know yet how these changes will impact the service. 

Your work must be intense and challenging at times? How do you handle that?
We haven’t got a huge staff and, bless them, everyone works long hours. Not one person is doing just one job. You have to have a lot of self-care. Personally, I’ve had a lot of burnouts and that can be detrimental to my recovery. The self-care for all our staff members is a priority. 

At what point will you be satisfied with the work you’ve done?
I would like to have culturally specific rehab and schools. Kids who go into the prison system and come out need a place to go that understand their needs. There’s a need for an institution or a school that isn’t Alternative Provision. AP can just be another breeding ground for criminality. I’d love for there to be a school for these kids that are complex. These are the things that are in my vision. If I were to have a legacy from Al-Hurraya I would want it to be that.

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