During these difficult and unprecedented times, it has been more important than ever to create spaces where people can engage, communicate and build friendships. It has definitely had its challenges; but I am beginning to see some of the challenges changing into positives.

Shaz Akhtar 2 Black Country Near Neighbours Coordinator

Blog by Shaz Akhtar our – Black Country Near Neighbours Coordinator

What have we been upto . . . ?

In the Black Country, we have continued to work closely with our partner groups and residents. I spoke to residents who said the lockdown was affecting their health. Some residents like myself, where struggling to stay at home.

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Sarah Ejaz from Dudley wrote:

“Negatives would be staying away from family, cooking more than usual, just having the freedom to go shopping etc. Positives spending time with the family and more grateful for what we do have and realising you don’t really need all the things you think you need!’’

Our daily lives have been turned upside down and we have had no choice but to somehow adjust - easy for some, really difficult for others!

Looking back the first 2-3 weeks, for me it was a struggle. Those who know me will agree that I am everywhere but home! I do this role because I’m passionate about uniting people and communities. Likewise, when speaking to the Black Country residents they also spoke about their changed daily routines – of not visiting social groups, Places of Welcome, gyms, and how shopping was now top of the agenda for a lot of us!. They spoke honestly about how all this is having an impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

Hence I thought about how I could help people have a bit of normality, where government guidance could still be observed.

What was the solution …?

I happened to be invited on a Zoom call with some friends wanting to catch up. I had never used Zoom before! With some help, I soon got on and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Soon after, I started talking to residents/groups to motivate and encourage them to form new groups and move existing ones online. We started with small pilots, but I knew they would love the idea! With time the Coffee Mornings, tea time tension relief, exercise classes, women’s empowerment groups started to become popular.

Maureen Lewis

Maureen Lewis is a Walsall resident:

One of our participants Maureen Lewis from Walsall shares her experience of her first online meeting;

‘’The experience was quite daunting at first, as I wasn’t sure what I was doing with this new technological way of communicating. Once I got into it, it was quite nice and relaxing and felt I was able to speak freely in the comforts of my own home. Seeing people’s faces directly was nice too as it made the conversation more personal.’’

Other groups such as LGBTQ+ Sparkle (Wolverhampton) contacted me to support them get online too. I’m hoping other ideas will start to shape whilst we continue to create spaces for people to engage, and build friendships online.

What do the groups think about moving online . . . ?

Some of the groups have shared their experiences of moving online:


Women Together Wolverhampton lead – Val Hanna, has felt moving online was a great choice

’Its lovely to see friend’s faces, WhatsApp is great for chats but seeing people in these difficult times is even better!’’
Mehmoona Qari from Turning Point Solutions

Turning Point Solutions (Dudley), Mehmoona Qari wrote

‘‘The new online group is all about positive social interactions – showing genuine interests in each other, sharing positive news, and providing peer support to enhance relationships. The group’s chats are an illustration that showing kindness to others not only helps them but can also increase our own sense of purpose and value, improving our own well-being. Such considered action and being creative to see how we can help minimise not only the spread of COVID-19, but its social and psychological effects have been the ethos behind our group chats. We have also set up WhatsApp support group for women to share information and help provide daily contact and encouragement. Whilst we cannot replace face to face interactions in these unprecedented times, however Shaz’s support to have a group on Zoom has been key to help engage the disengaged and socially isolated communities so they don’t fall through the recovery net’’.
Paul Marcus

LGBTQ+ Sparkle Leaders Paul Ryder and Marcus Cotterill

‘’We decided to go online due to COVID-19 we could no longer have our monthly LBGT+ social group meetings. I was not sure how to use Zoom as I am not very IT savvy. I contacted Shaz for support. She supported me to set up an account and now with her support our group is online. The purpose of the group is to reach out to the community as they might need support with their mental health, and some interaction with others. In normal circumstances the group would be mainly for LGBT+ community but due to these difficult times it is open to everyone who would like to participate.’’
Duri Latif 2

Diyya Foundation (Dudley), Duri Latif writes:

‘’Shaz from Near Neighbours has kindly supported us with setting up an online community called ‘’Tackle it Together’’. This has enabled us to link many of our service users, who we have struggled to, connect with due to the lockdown. The purpose of the Tackle it Together – Tea Time Tension Relief is for women to share their experiences and their coping mechanisms and strategies during the COVID – 19 crisis. Then support each other to tackle together the issues and concerns, we as individuals, our families and our communities are facing during this difficult times. In addition to this group we have also moved our exercise class online.’’
Naseem Begum

Naseem Begum has been taking part in Diyya online:

"I joined Diyya’s Health and Fitness Classes 2 years ago, prior to the lockdown they were delivered at our local community centre.
Since the Covid-19 the classes have moved online. I was so glad to hear this because I suffer from depression, anxiety and weight gain. The online classes continue to have positive impact on my mental and physical health. After participation I feel relieved and stress free. The external interaction with our instructor and the rest of the participants, helps me combat my negative emotions of feeling lonely, isolated and of no hope of any normality in the near future.’’
Nikky Edwards

Nikky Edwards from Race and Equality writes

‘’Moving online has meant we can still get together and support each other during these difficult times. Although it’s no replacement for a hug, we can still be uplifted and feels less alone by seeing each other’s smiling faces. It’s also made ‘chairing’ a meeting slightly easier as you can’t all speak at once or if anyone tries, you can mute them !!’’

My final thoughts . . .

I am looking forward to how these groups will shape in the coming weeks and whether it will be a new space for some people in the long term . . . only time will tell. On the other hand, I am concerned about how people will interact and engage with each other post Covid-19. Unfortunately, I don’t think everything will fall back in place; there will be a period where individuals will find it difficult to engage with social groups. It will take time to feel safe in the spaces we once attended for social groups, exercise classes etc. I have hope with the online groups we are forming that with time people will begin to feel safe and secure in their communities and will engage and interact with each other post covid-19.

If anyone would like support moving their groups online or forming a new one please contact me and I will be happy to help!

Stay Home, Stay Safe, Stay Blessed.

📷 credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash