'Growing up in Tehran was hard - now Belfast's my city'
An Iranian businesswoman who came to Northern Ireland last year as part of Rotary International community relations programme says she has adopted Belfast as a her home.
Maryam Sholevar (35), a lecturer in banking and finance, came to Northern Ireland to take up a 12-month post with the Belfast Rotary Club after establishing a Jimma Centra Rotary Club in Ethopia as part of her humanitarian work.
While her post with Rotary was for a year, when her visa expired recently she felt unable to tear herself away from the province permanently - now she commutes between her Belfast home and London, so she can continue with the vital community work she is involved with.
Founded in 1905, Rotary International is a secular, humanitarian organisation that works to improve community relations, assist with building projects in third world countries, and generally promote peace and goodwill among men and women, regardless of colour, race, class or creed.
The vast majority of its 1.22 million members are business people who volunteer their time, money and expertise for the benefit of others less fortunate than themselves, inspired to put service above self by the club's secondary motto 'one profits most who serves best'.
And it was through Maryam's connections with Rotary International that she first came here, and why she has settled in Belfast after living and working in countries all around the world.
"It is really astonishing that I came to Belfast in my crazy journeys and now call this cosy little city home," says Maryam, who is single with no children.
"I have lived in various cities, in Iran, Florida, Ethiopia and elsewhere, but none of them stole my heart as Belfast did," she adds. "It is now playing a substantial role in every aspect of my life. I've absolutely fallen in love with the city."
It is Belfast and its inhabitants that will benefit most. Maryam has been incredibly proactive since taking up residence here, working mainly with young people. She has helped co-ordinate the Youth Service project with Youth Action NI, fostering links between similar organisations, and has worked with the city's schools and colleges to promote social entrepreneurship across Europe.
Without Rotary's international web of connections and channels of communication, however, she may never have set foot on Northern Irish soil.
"I don't want to neglect the success of other benevolent organisations, but I believe that the Rotary Club model is more genuine," she contends. "People's contributions are not to promote their religion or anything else. Instead, the only motivation is to support people. It is, of course, an advantage of clubs like Rotary that it operates regardless of the background, race, nationality or religion of those who work for the organisation and receive assistance from it. We are social beings by nature. Our identity is defined by our position within our society. In Belfast I have found an appropriate atmosphere in the Rotary Club in which I can effectively be a part of a team with real intention and desire to assist a larger society. For me, Rotary is another university with more practical lessons."
Maryam's benevolent efforts don't stop there, however. A central tenet of the Rotary Club ethos is the rule that all members must build and foster friendships within their communities 'joining as many legally constituted groups and organisations as possible'.
Extra curricular activities include working on the Derry+Strabane EYC19 project, which aims to make Derry European Youth Capital for 2019, and volunteering on the SOS Bus, providing unconditional help and assistance to anyone who needs it on the streets of the capital at night and during cold winter days.
You may have seen Maryam, in fact, offering free cups of tea and engaging in chat with students and the homeless in Belfast's Shaftesbury Square on occasion.
"I had just arrived in Belfast and was on my way to the shops when a girl aged 14 or 15 came up to me completely drunk asking if I know where we were," she explains. "She had been attending a festival, gotten lost and had no clue what to do. I eventually called her father, who came to pick her up, but I just couldn't stop thinking about what might have happened to her if I wasn't there to help. That's when I came across the SOS Bus and found their mission very interesting and important. It's been a pleasure to work with them ever since."
Maryam developed a keen sense of altruism as a young girl growing up in Tehran, the Iranian capital. She was born just two years after the toppling of the secular Shah, when the ancient Middle-Eastern country officially became an Islamic Republic, and describes her childhood and experience of studying at university there as "quite different" to the experiences of young people growing up in the West.
"There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages of growing up in Iran. It's a very old country and, whether you're a cultural person or not, you will be profoundly affected by the rich culture evolved over 30 centuries there.
"The downside to growing up in Iran involves the substantial changes made in the region during the 20th century (due to the implementation of a theocratic constitution). The main requirement for growing up to be a rounded individual, in my opinion, is social, economic and political security, which wasn't the case in my childhood.
"It was indeed a challenging part of my life, but I stuck it out, and after earning my BSc degree in business, I began working in the business sector with a progressive career. However, I didn't want to stop learning and growing and so I continued my postgraduate studies in engineering while I was working full-time. It was really difficult but absolutely worth it."
After graduating for a second time, her career path took her to Ethiopia, in north east Africa, where she initially worked for an American humanitarian company on a range of building and social schemes.
"It was a different experience for me," she recalls. "But I grasped the opportunity. I worked both in academia and in the business sector, observing how start-up projects develop. You may imagine that living in Africa is difficult because of under development, but it is even more difficult because of culture and habit. Just as a naive example, Ethiopia has the largest number of livestock in Africa, but it was almost impossible to find dairy products. I had to get milk from a farm and make all dairy products myself."
While working in Ethiopia, Maryam came into contact with many women, young and old, who told her their stories of the often brutal treatment they received at the hands of husbands, fathers, brothers, even as young girls. Female mutilation was the norm, illiteracy among women was commonplace and the support infrastructure in place to help them was flimsy to say the least.
"The situation for women in Ethiopia is much worse than the general picture in Africa," she reveals. "There were many programmes for improving the gender imbalance, but most of them were fundamentally wrong. They focused on supporting a wide range of women in rural areas, but in practice they failed."
With this in mind, she set up the country's first Rotary Club. Utilising her own business and engineering expertise, and the financial provision from Rotary International, Maryam began a programme of improvements, building schools, delivering free education to girls and women, offering support to the many hundreds suffering alone with unwanted pregnancies.
"We focused on the women with motivation and potential," she adds. "Our progress was very good but too shaky in an insecure environment, and I couldn't leave the projects even for a few days."
Now deeply entrenched in a plethora of Northern Irish projects - she was recently runner-up in the Sustrans Volunteering Awards for her work promoting sustainable means of transport including cycling - Maryam has become a valued and respected member of our society.
On a personal level, she loves that Belfast is small enough to cycle to and from work, and says that she "adores" St George's Market, where she can buy from a diverse selection of fresh fish.
"Belfast is like a charming fairytale city," Maryam beams. "The people, in my experience, are lovely and friendly. It's always a charming experience to walk around the city. I live in the Titanic Quarter, and every day I walk or ride my bike along the river to the city centre. Even the tourists are more cultural in comparison with southern European touristic destinations, with their crazy beaches. Here in Belfast, it takes a matter of seconds to break into a conversation with strangers and learn a lot from them."
For those interested in learning more about Rotary International, in volunteering with the organisation or applying for support with charitable efforts and events, visit the Rotary International website, where you will find information on local clubs, leadership programmes, causes currently supported and how to join projects.
People of all ages, backgrounds and abilities can apply to become a member of the organisation, with Maryam explaining that the only prerequisites to getting involved are "the goodness in your heart and your intention of being good and doing the good things".
"We welcome new members, and if anyone would like to come along, they should contact us to arrange a visit to one of our meetings. People want to help for two reasons, either because they have received help at some time in the past, or they haven't. I've been in both situations. But it is also to satisfy a selfish need. After all, it does feel good helping others."
Iranian lecturer Maryam Sholevar, who came over to Northern Ireland for
a year to set up community projects with the Rotary Club, says she has
fallen in love with the place and wants to make it home. By Lee Henry