Nur Fitness breaks down barriers to improve the mental and physical health of her community - and Shazia's built a family from all backgrounds
Shattering taboos and empowering women from all backgrounds – that has become an unofficial mission statement for Shazia Noor.
Seeing her own mother struggle with her mental health, she knows how hard it is for people in her community to talk about the topic.
So the 46-year-old uses her own experiences, background and unique delivery to promote a positive message.
Shazia’s business Nur Fitness delivers fitness classes and encourages physical activity – but it does so much more than that.
From her base in Linthorpe, she’s shattering the stigma of poor mental health, raising awareness of dementia and cancer, and encouraging women in her community to live healthy lives, get back into work and – most importantly – open up and talk to each other.
“In 2012, I wanted to go back to uni and do something with my life,” said Shazia from her premises on Burlam Road.
“I wanted to be a social worker. That didn’t work out. So I did the fitness course and I was terrible. I was the worst person in the group.
“I nearly dropped out because it just felt so alien to me. I said it just wasn’t an Asian thing.”
On the verge of quitting the course, Shazia realised she needed to approach things differently – and use her own experiences and personality.
“That was when the penny dropped. I realised there was a gap in the market, I wanted to be empowering,” she continued.
“My mum had problems with her mental health. Back then, we didn’t know how to deal with it, there was nothing out there.
“Mental health can be a taboo in our community.
“But now they come in here. It’s the type of help my mum could have used.
“Many of the women I see are bored out of their brains. We were always told to get married young.
“Then their kids grow up. So they feel useless. And they want to change it.”
Many Asian women might not go to the doctor, says Shazia – or get “frustrated and give up” at barriers to accessing healthcare, such as the need for an interpreter.
Shazia says there are efforts under way to address cultural differences for the benefit of people’s health and wellbeing.
She explains there are simple things that can reassure and give people confidence.
“In Pakistan, there is no data protection. A lot think that if they tell someone something, everyone will know.
“[There’s a risk things are] a taboo and get swept under the carpet.
“If a girl has mental health problems she wouldn’t find a man to marry, that’s what she’d believe. They would say she was crazy.”
Many women were still sceptical about attending a group or class, or initially found it difficult to open up.
But once they did, Shazia noticed a big change.
“The first five sessions of our mental health course we all just cried,” she continued.
“It’s like a big family.”
When she started in 2012, Shazia’s first campaign was to raise awareness about diabetes – as research shows those from South Asian backgrounds were more likely to develop the condition.
“We delivered it in a more culturally appropriate way. I know how Asian people cook. It’s pointless asking us how much protein is in a dish, for example. You know when we get together, we don’t drink, we eat.
“I knew how to give people different options. I used my culture and what I felt.”
Shazia is authentic and straight to the point, with examples of her approach seen in the YouTube videos she’s created to raise awareness about an array of health topics, such as cervical and breast cancer.
They’re funny and are culturally aimed squarely at reaching those women in her community that traditional public health campaigns might find hard to engage.
And it’s worked – Shazia said her cervical cancer campaign saw a big rise in the number of Asian women booking a smear test.
Another woman is now in remission from Leukaemia after learning the signs of cancer from a campaign Nur Fitness had run.
“We’ve helped lots of women who’ve been victims of domestic violence, and sexual abuse,” she continued.
“We teach people that life is not supposed to be depressive.”
Shazia, a married mum of three who now lives in Marton, grew up living in the town centre and Linthorpe.
She went to Breckon Hill and Brackenhoe Schools and “was one of the only girls who left with GCSEs”.
Shazia continued: “There’s women who want to go to college or work, but they don’t know how to do it or they think they’re not allowed.
“We had 20 women in a programme and got 10 into work.
“They were women who had not been to college and had no GCSEs. They might have been married young, or moved from Pakistan when they were young.
“Now we’ve got women starting their own businesses, into care work, all sorts of things.”
The pride that Shazia feels about her work is evident as she shows off the awards Nur Fitness has won, pictures from the charity events she’s organised and the women she’s helped.
“What is the point of going through your life without trying to change something? We try and teach people that,” continued Shazia.
“Your little change can be so positive for someone else. One of our girls learnt how to drive, and then drove herself to Nottingham. It’s not a big thing, but that was her achievement.
“That was so powerful it motivated me more than anything else.
“Our women, they’ll all do anything for you. You just need to pick up the phone. That’s what I mean about a family.
“At first, you can’t get them through the door because culturally fitness just isn’t something they do. But we do so much here then they like it and they come back.
“A lot of our community don’t really leave their area. There’s people who didn’t know like Guisborough Woods or Roseberry Topping was here. Most young people only know about the town centre or their friend’s houses.”
Nur Fitness doesn’t just help people from the Pakistani community – but women from every background, all grateful and engaged with the community that Shazia has built.
She laughs: “My husband and kids won’t come to town with me anymore because I’m stopping all the time talking to people!”
We are words: Mike Brown