As a graduate from the school of accounting, Shereen Williams first migrated to Wales where she began searching for jobs in that field. Voluntary work was not a natural calling for Williams, but she was prompted by her Welsh revert husband to keep herself busy through volunteer work. Williams recollects:
"When I first moved to Wales my husband Omer knew that if I had free time, I'd end up getting bored, depressed and even more homesick. Fortunately, he was working in the voluntary sector at that time, and was aware of organizations that were in need of volunteers, which got me involved in all sorts of charitable projects"
"In fact, being part of the good work that was being done in the voluntary sector, I was pretty much hooked in to,” added Williams.
Within a month of settling in Wales, she volunteered for the Ethnic Youth Support, and ultimately founded the Swansea Faith’s Forum.
Establishing the Swansea Forum
It was a testing time to undertake such work, as it was only a month after the July 7th bombings in London. There was a lot of animosity and mistrust towards Muslims following that incident. However, the Swansea Forum was created to deal with any backlash from the bombings. Coming from a multi-racial society like Singapore, Williams felt it was necessary to have such a forum, as there had not been a space, where people of different faiths could sit down and have meaningful dialogue about their beliefs and views.
“There's a big difference between Singapore and the UK. For instance, in Singapore we learn from our early years of the other main faiths in the country, it's very multi-cultural, and there's a lot of emphasis placed on mutual respect,” added Williams.
Williams also pointed out that in Singapore they do not have to deal with the negative Islamophobic articles in the tabloid media, like in the UK.
“The problem isn't the people (non-Muslims in the UK); it’s the fact that there is too much fear-mongering and lack of information out there about Islam,” she said.
However, Shereen stressed that Muslim involvement in violent acts has developed negative notions associated to Muslims worldwide.
Eight months of voluntary work had put Shereen in the community spotlight. She was soon offered a paid consultancy post with the National Museums and Galleries, Wales as Community Curator for the 'Muslim World at Your Doorstep' exhibition.
The role required Shereen to get Muslims in Wales to loan interesting artifacts and everyday items to the Museum for a series of exhibitions. Here she felt the full impact of the rising Islamophobia. Shereen said:
“The Museum received a number of anti-Islam/Muslim hate mail, and there was also a letter that was sent to the press questioning the showcasing of ‘good’ and 'positive' things in Islam as opposed to 'wars' and 'barbarism'.”
However, Williams ignored imprudent comments from the few, and continued with her work, which proved to be a success.
“I didn't let it (the negative publicity) get to me or bother me. There will always be people out there, who won't be happy that you're promoting a positive image of Islam. But I must say that the negative publicity probably got more people aware of the exhibition.”
Shereen opposes Islamophobia, and talks about Muslim issues in the media. She has given a number of interviews on subjects, such as faith, race and multi-culturalism to both TV and radio. She was even featured in a documentary for BBC Wales along with her extended family about revert Muslims in Wales.
“I'm not interested in the power-broking aspect or the 'sleaze and glamour' of politics, but throughout my work, I realized that sometimes making a positive change can be done at a political level,” said Williams.
Despite all of her other commitments, Williams still finds time to volunteer. She is a director of Peace Mala, which promotes interfaith understanding between young people. She is also on the board of Wales Equality & Diversity in Health & Social Care, Network of Independent Sisters in Action, and the Wales’ committee of Show Racism the Red Card.
Yet another string in her bow is her chaplaincy work. She is regularly called upon to train South Wales Police, and the National Health Service (NHS) as a qualified female Muslim Chaplain.
However, Williams has also benefited from voluntary work, and the continual support of her husband, both of which have helped her to develop her faith.
“It’s funny because I was born Muslim, but I never really appreciated being Muslim until I met my husband. He was the first revert I had ever met, who became Muslim out of his love for Islam. This fact influenced me immensely, and I started to learn more about my religion (deen), and it came to a comfortable conclusion that the importance of my faith remains paramount on both a personal and professional level”
Williams hopes to continue making a difference in the lives of the people around her.
“As long as people keep benefiting in one way or another I'll be happy,” Williams said.
Williams’ efforts became officially recognized this year, as the joint-winner of the Uthman Dan Fodio Award for Excellence in Community Development, which was awarded by the Muslim News.
Williams mentioned that she did not prepare an acceptance speech, as she felt one of the other candidates would win. So, she was shocked when she heard Hazel Blears, the UK’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, announce her name.
“When I heard those words being said out loud by Hazel Blears, I almost fell off of my seat,” said Williams.
The 26-year-old Shereen Williams is already Welsh Director of the (CEMVO); she is the youngest director within CEMVO, UK. Williams has already secured over £1.5m in grant funding for BME (Black, Minority and Ethnic) and other community organizations'.
She has also taken part in a series of voluntary initiatives, governmental projects, and makes public and media appearances about inter-faith and other issues.