If I don’t stand up for myself, no one will”
Feeling low after being diagnosed with a number of health conditions, Salma took control of her health – and ended up feeling happier, too.
“It was embarrassing at first,” says Salma, remembering the first time she started work on her Eastville allotment. “We Muslim ladies don’t usually go out to work on an allotment. We were overlooked by the motorway and people would make fun of us as they drove by.” Salma smiles, shaking her head. “But I wanted to do this for my health.”
Arriving in the UK from Bangladesh in 1987, it was difficult for Salma as she couldn’t speak English. She was also diagnosed with diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and chronic pain.
It was a low time, she remembers: “I broke down, worrying how I was going to cope, and how people would treat me if I was housebound. I felt really helpless.”
“When you are first diagnosed with a condition,” says Bristol Community Health deputy clinical director and consultant physiotherapist, Claire Madsen, “it’s usual to feel quite frightened. You really don’t know what to expect, and you might think that the things you enjoy doing are ending forever.
“Remember that you really can do things to make life better. Talk to people who’ve had the same experiences. Eat well and stay active. Find an activity that helps you socialise and get more involved in your community – it’s brilliant for your mental health.”
Salma approached Bristol Community Health’s Health Links team, which provides interpreting, advocacy, signposting and referral services for people who don’t speak English as their first language.
“The team helped Salma enrol on language classes and linked her up with the local community to help her feel less isolated,” says Shahnaz Chowdhury, from Health Links.
With Salma’s growing confidence in English came a realisation that she wanted to gain more control over her life and her conditions.
“I remember thinking: ‘If I don’t stand up for myself, then no one will,’” she says. “I started healthy cooking classes which helped me learn new things and meet people,” says Salma. “And the Bristol Community Health physiotherapy team helped me manage the pain in my body. They showed me exercises and told me how to manage it myself. They gave me courage. With that help I felt a
Salma started working in her back garden but soon decided she wanted to do more. She encouraged a friend who also had health problems to get an allotment with her. “At first, the work was daunting. But we got fitter by walking the 20 minutes to get there, and learned what to do by watching other people. Now, I sometimes go there two or three times a day,” she says. “It is difficult, hard work, but it makes me feel happy. It gives me a reason to go out and meet up with my friend. And I enjoy giving the vegetables to friends, relatives and local charities.”
“Salma has become an inspiration to the local Bengali community,” says Shahnaz. “A lot of people visit her allotment to see all the vegetables she’s growing. They are astonished! All the vegetables that are grown back home, and she’s growing them here. They say: ‘Am I in Bangladesh, or am I here in the UK?’”
“To those who are suffering with illnesses like me,” says Salma, “I would like to say to those brothers and sisters: whatever you are suffering from, you can get help. Do whatever you feel like doing – just go and do it.”