12 Moments with Ruhi Loren Akhtar
Ruhi is Founder and Chair of Refugee Biriyani & Bananas which delivers urgent aid to displaced people worldwide. Having led aid missions to France, Greece, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Northern Iraq, she is currently taking a three-year break from her role as a a Rheumatology Specialist Podiatrist for the NHS, so she can undertake humanitarian works full-time. She is presently based on the Greek Island of Chios: a hotspot where refugees arrive by boat from Turkey.
1…Describe your moment of Zen
Sitting by the sea, listening to, and watching the waves, and sensing the fresh sea air…
2…What are you reading / watching right now?
I am watching Unorthodox on Netflix about a Hasidic Jewish Woman who flees to Berlin from Brooklyn, in order to escape an unhappy arranged marriage.
3…What was your earliest ambition as a child?
My parents are from Bangladesh, so I was always aware of how people living in ‘third’ world countries were struggling and how lucky I was.
As a child, all I ever remembering wanting to do was to help people in need. Especially those living in poverty-stricken countries.
4…What has been one of the greatest highlights of your life?
That I not only get to volunteer in the current refugee crisis and provide humanitarian aid and support to people in need – but that I also get to run and lead my own grassroots organisation for this.
5… How did you come to do what you’re doing right now?
In September 2015, I saw the newspaper images of Aylan Kurdi: a three year old Syrian boy whose body washed up on the Turkish shores after his boat had capsized. And it shocked me, deeply. He had been travelling to Greece seeking safety with his family in a rubber dinghy. That night I couldn’t sleep, because my nephew Usmaan at the time was three years old – the same age as Aylan, and he also had a red T-shirt just like Aylan had been wearing. I thought to myself: this could have been my nephew; this could have been my child; I must do something about it.
I realised it was no longer ok to just watch the news or share social media posts. I had to actively help. I started by sending aid to Syria and refugee camps in Northern France with other groups. But one day, someone said to me that you won’t ever know what it’s really like until you’ve seen it for yourself. So I went on an aid delivery trip to Calais and Dunkirk and after that, I knew I couldn’t ever turn my back on people suffering as a result of this crisis. I had to go on supporting them in whatever way I could.
6…What is the biggest challenge you’re facing in life / work?
How to make my passion for doing humanitarian aid work sustainable (financially, physically and emotionally), whilst facing criticisms from those who care for me who feel (understandably) that I should be doing ‘normal’ things – like working full time, having a mortgage, being married with children. I decided to follow my heart despite these challenges, and have taken a three year career break to be on the ground full-time.
7… If you could say one thing to a room full of world leaders, what would it be?
There are millions of people suffering worldwide due to conflict, war, oppression, and poverty. Please come to Vial Refugee Camp in Chios (a Greek Island) with me for just one day where 6,000 of these displaced people are trapped. Meet the beautiful people I am meeting, hear their stories, and then tell me you are not willing to raise your voices for them to have the same equal rights as anyone else.
8… Is there anything you have lost you that wish you could have again?
The last 10 years of my life! I don’t have any regrets in my life. However, if I had known time would pass by so fast, I would have liked to have spent more time cherishing the special moments instead of spending time worrying about all the things which seemed important at the time, but which I now know were unnecessary.
9… If you could have four people from any moment in history at your dinner table tonight, who would they be and why?
- Rumi: because his words are still etched into our everyday lives. I wonder what poetry he would produce for our modern world. Maybe he would write about the Covid-19 pandemic? Or the suffering of refugees in Greece?
- Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) as he is an important figure of my religion (Islam) and a role model we aspire to follow.
- Mahatma Gandhi: I would like to understand how he continued to spread love and peace even when there was negativity, hatred, and opposition against his teachings.
- Queen Elizabeth I, because she ruled a nation without a man by her side in times when this would have been more challenging. She once said, ‘I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and of a king of England too!’ I would love to have dinner with the woman who said and lived by this!
10… Coffee, tea or hot chocolate?
Coffee! Quadruple shot cappuccino with sweetener at the beginning of the day to get me going when I am volunteering on the ground.
11…If you had to leave your home this instant, what are the three things you would take with you?
- The Quran my grandfather gave my mum when she got married in Bangladesh and which she bought to the UK with her, and which is now with me.
- Photo of my family.
12…What’s the saying you live your life by?
If your intention is good, where there is a will there is always a way. In’sha’Allah (God willing)…
To learn more about Refugee Biryani & Bananas, please see HERE.