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What inspired you to transition from a successful broadcasting career at the BBC to dedicating yourself to a charity project aimed at educating British Asian Muslim women?

To be honest with you, I went into the BBC to become a brand broadcaster by default. So, most of the time I was headhunted. In the 22nd year of my BBC career, I had no idea that it was time to move into the next phase of my life or my career. Every 10 years I try to incorporate a change, a huge transformation I would call it in my career, in my life, in my family life, in my personal life. I was presenting on Asian television in Britain. That was when in 2005, an earthquake struck in administrated Kashmir. And this is when I was sent out there, to report on the situation.

How did you feel when you were faced with the conditions in Pakistan?

When I landed in Pakistan the situation was overwhelming. There were, International Humanitarian Aid Organisations and rescue workers everywhere, delivering medication and sending people off to Islamabad, the nearest city with hospitals. And I remember sitting on boxes and travelling from place to place while my kids were looking at me from London, in worry, because one of the helicopters did crash as well. However, I did not feel fear. I didn't know that I was doing something extraordinary. But every time I stepped out of the helicopter. Hundreds of people gathered around me, and they thought maybe I was there, on a humanitarian basis to help them. But I was simply just recording reports and sending them to London.

Did you view the world any differently after having witnessed such chaos?

When I came back, I felt like, what world did I go to? Who are we? And where do we live? We live in a relatively luxurious world. And look what's happening out there! We see it pretty often in today’s world. So, when I came back, my mind, my heart, and my soul were completely smashed. And I thought, what have I been doing? Yes, working for my family, making sure that I'm providing for my kids, making sure that I am producing good programs. But other than that, I was not doing much to help others.

Having lived such a memorable and challenging life, is there any moment in time where you look back and think “Aha I finally found my purpose!”

One day, as I watched familiar news coverage, a report from Pakistan stirred tears in my eyes. My father noticed and asked why I seemed so troubled. "What's bothering you?" he inquired. I confided, "Abba jan, I sense something missing in my life, something I haven't accomplished." Puzzled, he pressed, "But why? You've achieved great renown in society, among communities, worldwide. People hold you in high regard." I replied, "It's not about that. It's the haunting images of those young girls' lifeless bodies I witnessed. Remember, just three or maybe six months before the earthquake, I was interviewing those young women from Kashmir to see how are they progressing in life."

It was the same building that we had stayed at and enjoyed long talks that had collapsed. I saw one of the university hostels, half of which was destroyed. The girl’s uniforms were still there, nicely hung. And I just stood there and looked at it just to realize I was reporting from mass graves. So, I said: “Abba jan, I need to be contributing to this world”. And this is how when your heart is speaking to you, you know you need to start working towards your goals. I didn't have any goals back then I just knew something was missing. I knew that I had to go out there and help humanity. Only about three weeks later, I was asked by one of the parliamentarians to accompany them and go back to the affected area to conduct a programme.

And I initially refused because I was feeling devastated. However, one of my friends said,“Why don't you go? It might change your life.”

Exactly How did your journey with charity start?

Shortly after, I found myself aboard a plane bound for Pakistan. Amidst the delegation's activities, a parliamentarian expressed a desire to meet with me. He extended an invitation to a gathering in London. Regrettably, my schedule was tight, and I initially declined due to prior commitments before my return to London. However, he persisted, urging me once more. In a mere 30 seconds, I made a spontaneous decision: "Alright, count me in." I rearranged my travel plans and made it to the meeting. It was there that I was offered the opportunity to spearhead a project aimed at advancing Muslim women's education in England.

Initially, I was overwhelmed by the prospect. "I'm a broadcaster, a producer—what do I know about charities?" I thought to myself. It echoed the uncertainty I felt when I first joined the BBC, completely (new) to the world of broadcasting. Nevertheless, I accepted the role as director of the charity, tasked with piloting a project for a hundred women.

My responsibilities were daunting. I needed to establish coordinators in Manchester, Bolton, Birmingham, Leicester, Bristol, and London—a formidable challenge. However, drawing upon my extensive community networks, I swiftly rallied support.

Within a year, the project commenced. We successfully persuaded individuals to enroll, encouraging them to learn English, develop basic IT skills, and participate in cultural activities such as cooking, beauty therapy and embroidery.

And so began my journey with the charity project—a journey that continues to this day.

Did you ever face obstacles that made you rethink your decision to take responsibility for such a big cause?

I had many challenges on the way but as a field worker I couldn't just tell people we were shutting down a certain project because of financial difficulties, I didn't want to see the shock on their faces.

So, it required a lot of hard teamwork. I have connections with universities, local councils, and community leaders even though this country is hard on women. There are still so many underprivileged women in different areas of England only doing as much as cooking and cleaning. Women are still scared. I also had a similar life to these women. I got married at 16 and came here not knowing about any world outside my home. However, I was quite the dreamer. Always taking part in art exhibitions and singing content. My father used to call me “Queen of the Universe” to tease me because I used to live in my little world, unlike my older sister who helped a lot around the house. I might have been a little snob drawing on my clothes and listening to music. I wanted to go to an art school. But that was a goal we never worked on. I had a similar background to most of these women coming from the area because I too had passions which never had been valued.

I had no idea of how capable I was to do great things. “Behave like a Pakistani girl”, I was told. So, I used to wonder how a Pakistani girl behaves.

What was your biggest challenge in life?

My biggest challenge was my first daughter, Amina, when I was 18 years old. She was born with hearing difficulties. And I thought that my life was gone, finished. And for about a year, I didn't want to contribute to her upbringing. I would lock myself out when the speech therapist used to come.

I didn't want to see her. Amina was an unhappy child because she could feel it. And then one day someone said to me that if you want to make this girl strong, you've got to be strong yourself.

When Amina was about 12 years old, I took her to one of the world-class karate experts. And I put her in, and within four years, she became a black belt. Fast forward to today she is one of the world finest artists her work is in Windsor Castle. And only recently she agreed to get cochlear implants in both ears. A huge transformation in her life.

How was the experience when you received the promotion and honorary title from Her Majesty the Queen? And how has this royal recognition influenced your sense of duty and commitment in your roles, especially as an honorary captain of the Royal Navy?

Whenever I'm doing some work, I'm engrossed in it.

And honestly, I forget about what I am going to get in return. It's the impact that is more important to me. So, when I received a letter saying that I received an OBE, I honestly did not know the real meaning of OBE (Order of the British Empire). It took about four months before I went in front of Her Majesty (The Late Queen Elizabeth ll), one of the finest. When I went to the palace, it was like a fairytale. As I stood before Her Majesty, her piercing blue eyes left an unforgettable impression. I felt as though I could see right into them, and even now, their image remains vivid in my mind. She graciously expressed her gratitude: "So, Durdana, thank you so much for coming to this world and thank you very much for helping our communities here." Curious about my background, she inquired, "So, what were you doing before?" I replied, informing her of my affiliation with the BBC. She offered continued congratulations, shook my hand, adorned me with the medal, and with a respectful bow, I took my leave. So those moments are unforgettable and I'm very grateful towards Britain for how much it has given me in life.

A decade later, I received a letter from the first Sea Lord of the Royal Navy. Much like the previous one, it arrived in a yellowed envelope, adorned with a red stamp and inscribed in green ink.

As I started to read the letter; my hands shaking, It requested my agreement to assume the role of Lieutenant Commander within the Royal Navy. At that moment, a wave of disbelief washed over me. What did this entail? I lacked any military background or experience.

Reflecting on the profound impact the Royal Navy had on shaping my career, my life, and my very essence, I couldn't help but feel humbled by the opportunity. It seemed almost surreal, as if fate had acknowledged my contributions and deemed me worthy of such a position.

Do you have any motivational words for our readers who are looking to “Make it big!”

All in all, what I have to say is that if you want to make this world a peaceful world, you have to gain that peace for yourself first. Try not to be in a rush and pay close attention to every opportunity God brings in your path. Connect with your heart and work on your visions. Never be satisfied with little, always keep pushing and asking yourself for more. I must say even now, I still feel that I have not done enough. There's something else, which is waiting for me. Something else.


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