Bonus Episode: Palwasha Siddiqi: A refugee’s road to success

Sue Stockdale talks to Palwasha Siddiqi, whose early childhood experiences as a refugee shaped her interest in helping others to maximise their potential.

Palwasha was born and raised between Afghanistan and Pakistan. When she was seven her family fled the civil war in Afghanistan and became refugees in Pakistan where they lived for over a decade. They moved back to Afghanistan after the American invasion in 2003 and it was then that she was introduced to a non-profit organization that helped her secure a full-time scholarship to attend university in the United States.

The force behind making this move to the US was her passion for education and desire to live a life guided by her own values and wishes.  After obtaining her bachelor’s and MBA degrees Palwasha went on to join American Express in New York. Seven years later she transferred to London where she now works.

This episode was first broadcast on 16th June 2021 as episode 48.

Palwasha Siddiqi Transcription

Sue:  Welcome to the podcast.

Palwasha: Thank you so much for having me. Nice to connect.

Sue: Now I’m fascinated to find out about your story and , your journey. You know, this theme for this series is 21st century change-makers. And I know that change from you has involved, living in a number of different countries and , your life began back in Afghanistan. So for our listener who perhaps doesn’t have a sense of what being a child,  in Afghanistan is like, I wonder if you can paint us a picture of what it was like before the age of seven, when you were in Afghanistan, tell us what that was like for you.

Palwasha: Yeah. I had a really good childhood up until the age of six before the war started. Yeah, my family was middle upper class. We owned our own house. We had a little car. So anything that you picture, you know, that for a happy family? I remember going to picnics to the valley with my family going to school, you. know, in the morning my mom and dad would pack up the car. They both worked And all the kids went to school, so they would drop us off and then they will go off off to work. So the,  first, early years, or just very, you know, happy memories is what I remember. The country was beautiful. It was peaceful. And sometimes when I look at pictures from, from back then and I compare it to photos in the west, it’s, you know, very, very similar My mom dressed very liberally. Like she wore miniskirts, there was no scarf and she went to work. It was. Yeah, very progressive place as well. Afghanistan, but unfortunately the years of war took it backwards, but I have really good memories from, from the start.

Sue: So it’s lovely to get that sense of, of early childhood and then things changed. So tell us what happened when civil war began.

Palwasha: Things changed for me and my family and really in a matter of day almost. And I remember this very vividly even though I was very young, I was. Probably six at the time. And I had just finished school.  I believe I was in first grade and staying with my mom in her office. So it was just a normal day. And then at the end of the day, we’d go back home together. And the unrest began when we were,  still in the office and the news came around that the local mujahadeen  had taken over the city. And So what I remember is just everyone running around within the office, especially woman to, to try to builds skirts for themselves or scarves from the uniforms that they were wearing because of the fear of going outside with a miniskirt and being, being shot and being killed essentially. So that was the day that pretty much changed everything for us. My mom. You know, she couldn’t go back to work after that. She couldn’t really live a life that she lived before that, so same for us and the unrest begun, and this was 89 and then we were still in Afghanistan for another year. So we lived there during, during the civil war and some point during the war. Our house got hit by a rocket so everything went up into flames.

We pretty much lost everything. And that was the time when my parents decided that it was, you know, it was time to go somewhere else in search of safety, but also in search of better life for us. Education was number one priority for my family and my parents to provide for us. And that was when we decided to move to Pakistan and we became refugees in Pakistan. I pretty much grew up in Pakistan, so I started and finished high school. And then in 2001, when the American invasion happened my family, like many others thought that it was the end of the war and that we were going to go back home. So they also packed up and moved back to Afghanistan. That was in 2003. So they still, they still live there.

Sue: I’m in awe of how you describe that experience in terms of your house being hit by a rocket. And then we chose to move as, as if it’s kind of an everyday experience that many people have never lived through. And so you were forced to change at that moment as a young child. What, what did you imagine was going on then? How did you come to terms with actually being , forced to move and flee.

Palwasha: Yeah,  the way that I remember is that,  everything was happening so fast that, you know, I didn’t even have time to kind of comprehend what’s happening. It was one day we had to leave the office with my mom in such a rush and hurry, and I was you know, looking around and it was chaos everywhere then about, you know, a week later my mom and my dad were planning on how to get out of all of this. Later we lost our house. It was just all go, go, go. All we knew was that we had to find a way to stay safe.  it was. Just thinking about the next day, you know, how do we spend the night and a safe place and where do we go next to find shelter? , how do we continue to feed ourselves? So it was just fighting for some survival almost kind of on a, on a daily basis. So I think , as a child, I just didn’t even have that time to, to digest and really understand what was happening. Instead it was just making sure that we kind of kept going every day.

Sue: I’m imagining that as you’re speaking that your parents  our caregivers, that they’re the ones that we trust and look up to that you must’ve had a great degree of confidence and trust in your parents to look after you through those challenging times.

Palwasha: Absolutely. I, at the time when all of this happened, it was happening. I am the oldest child and I had a younger sister as well. So a lot of the time, I also remember my mom also putting more confidence in me to take care of me because she had to take care of my take care of my sister. And the, day that the, our house get got hit by a rocket, my dad was actually in the city, So he got stuck there and we were stuck in the house and we had to essentially pack up and leave, not knowing where he was and if he was going to eventually find us or not.   We left with our neighbors because they essentially came to, to get us out of the, out of the house.

And yeah, like deep down. I had the feeling that we would be reunited somehow and, , it was a pretty long journey to get to where our house was to the city where , my aunts lived and we pretty much walked the whole time. So it took us. You know, you could, because there was war going on, you couldn’t just take a car drive, you know, you had to go through the back doors and, you know Cabela’s a valley. So we had to go through some, some mountains to through a safer way to get to the city. And we were separated from my dad for the first couple of days, but then I remember waking up one morning, And , just to paint the picture for you, it’s not just us. It’s like hundreds of people making the same journey, trying to get to a, to a safer place. And on the way I remember, you know, a rocket flying and someone, someone saying to just dive, dive, , down on the, on the ground to stay safe, and then we would stay there for five, 10 minutes, and then we would get up. Some of us would get up. Some of us would not get up. And then we would just keep walking, hiding behind walls and staying overnight in people’s houses who had fled as well. So they were just, they would just open. And one, one of the nights we were we ended up staying at someone’s basement. And in the morning I woke up hearing my dad, because he had , followed the crowd and he knew that we would probably be going the same way. So he came in our search, so yeah,  I remember thinking of my mom telling me,  your dad is after us, not that she knew she would probably comforting us  saying that, but we were reunited and , we knew that. They were going to find a way to, to keep us safe and, and get us out of what we were, the situation that we were in. Okay.

Sue: So as you’re looking back now on that early childhood situation that you had to encounter, what do you think are some of the learnings that you take from that experience? If at all, to bring to your daily day-to-day existence, now?

Palwasha:  I think one main lesson that I’ve learned is about human resilience. I think we all have extraordinary amounts of resilience that especially when we are in difficult situation comes out and enables us to get through war or gets through, I dunno, the pandemic you know, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s a superpower. I think that the, we all have that we can, we can nurture. And so I try to remind myself of that every time that I go through difficult situations, even, even now that I made it, through that. And so I have the strength and I have those resilience in me. It just. It’s like a muscle that you need to keep nurturing.

And so, you know, one of the ways that I found that was for me to do that is really being clear on,  my, my purpose in life, you know, what is it, what are my values? What is important to me and why, why are those things are important to me and staying clear on that? And what my life is about, you know, what I want my life to be about and sort of staying focused on that has enabled me and my family back then to get through what we were going through. And I experienced today that I’m doing the same exercise and staying focused on what’s what’s important than what my passion and what my purpose in life is, gets me, gets me through any kind of challenge, no matter what it is.

Sue: So you have that touchstone of your purpose to guide you as you’re encountering challenges these days by the sounds  of it in any of us face challenges and obstacles along the way, I guess I’m curious to know  how would you describe what your purpose is?

Palwasha: My purpose it has changed over, over time, but when I was, when I was a young kid,  it was all about learning, learning for me , and education, especially being born as a girl, as a woman , in , such a conservative society. I was told from a young age, All of these things that I couldn’t do just because I was a woman. So my passion and my purpose was learning and getting educated. And over time as I have grown into to where I am today now there’s an element of giving back. And,  this to me now, which is why I’m so passionate about, about coaching and my purpose in life now is to is to empower others, to go after their dreams or what they want to achieve and . Inspire and empower them. Too to essentially dream big and go after their dreams, because I’ve seen this work in my life. I’d like whatever achieved, it has been influenced quite a lot through either direct or indirect coaching and mentorship and the support that I have had throughout my life. And so I’ve experienced firsthand the power of it. And now I want to give back. And today the best way that I can think about it is through coaching.

Sue:  Well, I’m sure we’ll talk more about that in a moment. I’m curious for the listener to help them to  fill in the gap from, from moving back to Afghanistan. After spending a number of years in Pakistan, as a refugee to now being obviously a senior executive in a global multinational and a very successful corporate career, how did that happen?

Palwasha: So when I moved back, my family moved back to Afghanistan. I had just finished high school. And I spoke a bit of English at the time , I wasn’t it, maybe I had taken a few classes the year before maybe, you know, compared to others. I, I understood and could communicate a bit.And when we moved back to Afghanistan, we essentially had to restart our life all over again. We didn’t have a house. It was just the land. we were not that well off. So my family needed support financially to, to keep going into the, rebuild their life in, in Kabul. So I decided that I would get a job and given that I knew some basic English that gave me a lot of good chances. And so I ended up working for an American fashion designer in, in Kabul being her assistant. But you know, so had this passion of learning, going to school , and growing in that way. And her name was Sarah and,  it became clear for her and she kind of made it her goal to help me get to continue to learn as well. And she would introduce me to different non-profit organizations that had training programs official, or non-official. And so through her, I came across a non-profit organization called business council for peace. They work with entrepreneurs in post-conflict countries to help them create jobs because more jobs mean less violence.So they were focused on economic development and I took a few trainings with them in business management. And I got a couple of mentors through this nonprofit organization who  asked me, you know, what, what do you want from life? You know, what, what do you want to achieve from, from here on?

And I was very interested in going to university abroad. And so they essentially helped me find my way and secure a scholarship to attend university in the states. So I ended up going to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. And that was essentially the start off another very big life changing moment for me. I did not know what to expect. You know, some people growing up, they at least watch movies about the west and they have some pictures and images. And I just remember getting on the plane, you know, pretty much my first time being alone on my own and, and getting on a plane and  the not knowing what, what was next for me.

And it was probably one of the most challenging things that I had done. , there was just so much fear, but at the same time, there was a lot of excitement because I knew that good things are waiting for me, for me on the other side. Yeah. So that was the start of my journey. So I. I finished my bachelor’s degree in the states. Then I ended up joining American Express moved to New York while working with them also got my executive MBA. So I lived and worked in New York for about seven years. And then decided that it was time for me to change again. Like I didn’t have enough, so now I think I’m kind of, yeah. You know, one thing every five to seven years of wanting a, a bit of a change in life, just because I know that it’s helps me grow in so many ways. That I probably wouldn’t if I stayed in the, in the same, same place, same situation. So then I decided to move to London. And now I’ve been here for about three years, still working, working at Amex.

Sue: Great. Wonderful. It’s such an amazing story. And the sense of you entering that aeroplane and wondering what’s ahead with the fear and trepidation tinge with the excitement. I’m wondering, as you recall your first experience in America, were there any particular things that stood out for you about how that culture was perhaps different to what you’d experienced before?

Palwasha:  I mean, I think everything was just so different than anything I had experienced , the university I went to was in a small town. It was gorgeous. Beautiful. And,    the town it was so small and nothing was happening outside so everything was on campus. from. The the, the minute that I got to the school, I was just amazed, but simple things like the amount of greenery around me. Right. Because  all that I was used to was I don’t know, like a place that was destroyed by war. And then all of a sudden I  come to this very well-groomed campus and I just can’t even believe that. It looks, it looks so beautiful. And the closest thing that I had in my memory so that I could match it to was cartoons, you know little houses, beautiful houses, greenery, greenery, everywhere, but from there on I mean, everything was just so, so different that , the amount of freedom that, that, that was the, the first thing that I noticed as I always lived in some kind of a fear when I was back home. Right. Because I was a girl, I couldn’t leave the house after a certain hour or I couldn’t leave the house so early. I’m going on my own to school and going on my own to work, I was taking a level of risk. Especially at the early years when we moved back from, from Pakistan. , the Taliban, the Taliban presence was still felt, felt a bit around.

And lots of kidnapping was happening at the time, especially school girls. Because they were trying to,  make a lesson for others, so they don’t let their, their daughters go to school. So it was a lot of risk taking every single day that I was doing and to, to leave that. And then all of a sudden have so much freedom and abundance of a kind of just life that I had never experienced before. , amazing cafeteria, I mean , so much food available. We had a wall of cereal. There was like 20 different types of cereal and just getting used to that. And, and, and I was still learning. . The language because my English was still not good. And so just slowly picking that up and. At first I was quiet, very quiet. Just trying to absorb, absorb everything. So when I look back, I mean, it was just everything that I went through. It was just so, so different, but I just remember being very curious and very, very open. And I couldn’t wait to kind of catch up on everything. Right. Like hit a day when. It was all, it was all normal, normal to me and I, and I didn’t feel so behind. But yeah, I, I just, I just loved every day off it as well.

Sue:  You’re typifying for me, the, the theme of the access to inspiration podcast be inspired by people who may be unlike you and going into that environment, which was unlike what you’re experienced by. It sounds to me like you were, you were being inspired by it. You were, you were curious and interested to find out more and what was possible for you in America.

Palwasha:  Absolutely.  I think I was using all of my senses in a way they had been awakened in a way that they hadn’t been before. So all the, all the new things, every, every single day. And I actually, today, I tried to still have an element of new things in life, because I think that’s, you know, when you get used to the everyday hustle and bustle and you kind of forget to, to stop and be amazed , by something. So I, I try to having learned what that does to you, right. And the way that it wakes you up to. The nature around you to the life around you. And so, yeah, I try to ingest new things here and there to, to keep myself be amazed by the, by the world.

Sue:  Its sounding brilliant. And in terms of then now coming back to present day, you talked about coaching being an important part of what inspires you today and what you want to have as giving back to others. How did you come across coaching?

Palwasha: I’ve had quite a lot of coaching throughout my experience.  It has been indirect coaching through the mentors. So starting with a nonprofit organization that you know, eventually helps me go to the U S I. got a couple of mentors, but I also got a foster family a host family who I’m very, very close with and they have been my champions and they have been kind of standing on the sidelines for me. Trusting in me believing in me because there were definitely times when I thought like , what am I doing? This is way bigger than I can, that I can manage and their support has, you know, pushed me at every single day. And even when I didn’t believe myself, when I looked at them believing in me, it just kind of gave me a bit more motivation to keep going. So, , I’ve experienced coaching for, for, for some time. And yeah,  because I have seen the firsthand impact that it can bring to someone’s life. I want to be able to, to give back in that, in that same way.

Sue: And how are you taking that forward? That, that desire to give back through coaching?

Palwasha: I’ve finally decided to start off the lock downs and it has been something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. But I took a advantage of the opportunity and I took some completed some trainings in, in the field of coaching. And at the moment I am working on my website. Hopefully I get it live over the next month or so. And I’ll kick us off that way, but today the way that I I deliver a lot of coaching at work because something else that I’m very passionate about, which I think is very similar to coaching is, is, is leadership right? As leaders every day. You know, I love inspiring others at work, whether it’s my team or the other wider organization. So I do deliver some coaching to them as well at work specifically to, to help get us through the pandemic and focus on , facing the, the, these challenging times. Yeah.

Sue: I’m imagining perhaps how you. Viewed the pandemic and lockdown and the, the necessary changes that one had to make with probably ease compared to earlier experiences in your life, using all of that resilience that you have.

Palwasha: Yeah, I think, I mean, I’m not going to lie, you know, ups and downs. It has been very, very challenging the impact on mental health especially but I do draw back yes on my on my old experiences when I’m having a bad day and I’m feeling very low. I remind myself of the things that I went through previously. And , reminding myself that, you know, if I got through that, that I could, I could get through through this as well, and also having my family, I mean, my family lives in Kabul. They have. little access to doctors or vaccines or all the things that we have access here. And so it just keeps it there real for me, even though I have this life now, when I talk to them , it grounds me. How fortunate I am and how fortunate we are here. So yeah just seeing their, their life and what they’re going through every day, then I got grateful and  it makes it easy if it has made it easy for me to get through the pandemic.

Sue: Your life’s experience the insights that you’ve gained. The successes you’ve had Palwasha. If you were offering any insights or wisdom to listeners who might be coping with challenges or thinking about how they could make change in the future, what might be some of the things that spring to your mind?

Palwasha: I think I will re-emphasize this knowing what your purpose is in life. I think it’s it’s the secrets super power that we can all draw on. I think for me, what life is about is constantly getting to know ourselves who we are really deep down. Not, you know, what the society wants us to be and how to act, what to go after just really reflecting closely on a, on a regular basis, because we also change of course, right. With our experiences you know, what, what we go through in life really, truly staying connected to who you are what your values are in life and what you want your life to be about and any challenges that’s thrown at you. And I’ve seen it in my own life, you will be able to overcome. If you have a very clear vision of what it is that you want to achieve in this world and in this, in this life,

Sue: Well, I think you’ve very eloquently described there. a really important point for our listener to consider is getting a sense of their purpose and taking time to reflect. And I’m sure that your story today has inspired them to reflect on their own situation in a very different way. If people wanted to find out more about you, Palwasha and connect with you on social media, how might they do that?

Palwasha: The best way to connect with me is through LinkedIn. Palwasha Siddiqi and hopefully that’s the platform where I will share everything else that’s coming in the future as well in terms of related to coaching.

Sue: Wonderful. It’s been a real privilege to speak to you today to hear about your experience and how you’ve used that to inspire change within yourself. And now of course in future, be inspiring change in others through utilizing your coaching skills and helping everybody to get clear about their purpose. So thank you so much for your time today.

Palwasha: thank you so much for having me Sue.