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Overcoming challenges as a refugee professional: An interview with Marwah Aziz


Published 20th Jun 22 - by saragouveia


1. Welcome, Marwah! Tell us a bit about yourself?

I came to the UK in 2017 having applied for a Chevening Scholarship, which is the UK government’s international awards programme aimed at developing global leaders, funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I have a background in architecture and worked in Yemen for over 10 years and I am now working for Egis as an Urban Designer and EDI partner. I worked in heritage conservation and the concept of Contemporisation through studying the old city of Sana’a morphology and reflecting on projects in city restoration. This made me very passionate about urban design, so I studied a master’s in architecture in Sustainable Urban Design at the University of Nottingham and gained a Distinction for research on the urban design role in rebuilding urban identities post crises, through public places taking Mostar and Beirut as case studies.

2. We would love to dive into your story and understand your journey from an architect to an urban designer today?

In my last semester at university, I was left with no option but to stay in the UK due to the deteriorating circumstances in Yemen. My family had moved to Egypt, and it was extremely hard to secure a visa to join them. As a refugee professional, I faced a lot of challenges when job hunting mainly in the construction and architecture industry. To be honest, I thought it would have been relatively easy. I had the experience; I spoke multiple languages and had the relevant qualifications. However, it was a very long journey to finally secure my role today.

I was constantly faced with barriers that didn’t make much sense to me. I was hearing from employers that I didn’t have the experience in the UK, although I had 10+ years’ experience abroad, which was always disregarded. So, I decided to apply for entry level roles, but I was told I was overqualified. This is a dilemma that many overseas professionals face in the UK.

Although I couldn’t find a relevant position in our industry, I worked as an interpreter for Discovery Education then as an employer advisor for Renaisi, mainly to help other refugees with their journeys in the UK. Luckily, I participated in a virtual workshop through Transitions, and I came across a HR Director at Egis who addressed candidates on equal grounds, mentioning she was there to look for talent and wasn’t doing anyone any favours. I admired her dignified approach and for once I felt respected by an employer, so I asked a colleague at Renaisi to put me in the same breakout-room as her. I asked if I could send her my CV/portfolio and here I am today perusing my career and not just doing a job. It took me almost 2 years to finally make this happen, but it restored my faith in humanity.

3. How important do you think Fairness, Inclusion and Respect is to the built environment industry?

Fairness, Inclusion and Respect should always be at the forefront of everything we do, it’s just simple human necessities that we all need to be reminded of every now and again. It’s so important to realise that being a refugee is not an identity, it’s just an experience that people can go through temporarily and with the current world politics, a pandemic and climate change, people should be able to better relate to this. From my personal experience, I believe FIR needs to be adopted at every stage of recruitment and employers need to change the stigma around refuge and immigration. Ultimately, refugees will be the citizens of tomorrow and can contribute highly to society just like anyone else.

Minority groups overall need empowerment not sympathy. It should always be about looking at someone’s potential and approaching the issues they face with an open mind and pose opportunities to enable them to work if their field of choice, so we can all make the built environment a better workplace for all.

It’s everyone’s social responsibility to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. We can all do more, including myself which is why I’m taking the steps to learn more and become a FIR Ambassador through the FIR Programme. It’s only a small step that will help me raise awareness in this area. In this world, there are two types of people, people who go through adversity but when things get better, they might rightfully choose to forget the pain and move on. I choose to own my experiences so that I can hopefully stand up for those who don’t feel that they can.

4. From your experience, what final words of advice do you have for the industry?

Having gone through this journey myself, I want to say that refugees don’t expect to be prioritised, we’re here to compete but all we want is for the competition to be fair and respectful. I believe the mindset around minorities needs to change; we shouldn’t be looked at through labels. Let’s look at individuals for what they bring to the table, their qualifications, their experience, and skills. Everyone deserves that.

More importantly, the construction industry has a skills shortage and will need to recruit an additional 217,000 new workers just to meet demand. That’s the forecast of the Construction Skills Network (CSN) 2021-25, published by CITB. Companies need to spot the business opportunity of tapping into this pool of talent as they contribute to their corporate social responsibility.

It is essential to understand that profession and social environment plays a huge role in one’s identity and it’s what gives them character and sense of belonging. Thus, an inclusive workplace that values employees of all backgrounds and diverse characteristics and understands the significance of inclusiveness for the company’s growth and sustainability. It is up to us to see differences as the liability or the opportunity. In addition, companies that do not adopt diversity within their workforce will cease to exist in the future. This is the way forward.

A business where every employee feels welcomed, important and supported to thrive and reach their potential. And where employees are treated as assets, cherished and equally challenged is a company that creates a strong culture that cares about the people and the workplace. I am glad to be part of Egis, which is a genuine people’s company. One can only shine where they belong.

Finally, I would like to suggest, always asking people for their names before you assign any to them, see beyond the difference, actually see the glory in the difference. Ask them about their story and never have a single story or one perspective. Building a prosperous society is equally as important to building beautiful and great places.

Watch Marwah speaking at the Inspiring Change Conference 2021. Simply click the first video and fast forward to 1hr 50mins to listen to Marwah’s speaking slot.