Back in October 2020 we set up the South Asian Women’s Wellness Space (pyarfully called Soul House) in Melbourne which aired on SBS World News.
How it started
In September 2020 I found a property on Airbnb and moved there myself as I was working from home and no longer needed to be in the CBD – living in a small apartment during lockdown was taking a toll on my mental health too. At the same time, a handful of Indian women had reached out to me personally who were really struggling in their toxic homes/relationships. Many more had reached out in the years before, so I was well aware of problems in our Punjabi and more broadly South Asian community. It was always hush hush. So I decided to be vulnerable and share my own story, after this many more reached out. In the spirit of seva, I said to a girl ‘if you need space to get away and breathe you can come to stay in one of the cottages here, they’re empty and don’t stress about rent – I can cover it’. One thing led to the next and that’s how Soul House was born.
After much reflection, learning, and growth over the six months, we have made the decision to wrap up the Soul House. Here are some of our learnings during this period
1) the context: the formal Domestic Violence (DV) space in Australia is very difficult to access for South Asian women for a host of reasons – the main being the shame associated with it and that South Asian women often don’t see their abuse as abuse, they think it’s normal because of how common it is. It’s rare for people who work in the DV space to have a lived experience remotely similar to those of the women they seek to serve (in particular the cultural problems – the burden of shame/guilt of seeking help) which means South Asian & immigrant women are less likely to reach out. Some of the language in the DV space prevents people in need from accessing help, I’ll write about this in more detail later. But for now, an example would be a young woman sexually abused by a family member called a helpline who asked if she was in crisis, she didn’t think she was in crisis and that was really the end of that. She needed to feel comfortable knowing the person before she divulged what was going on in her life – that comfort comes from building trust and using language that doesn’t make the person going through this feel ashamed to begin with. So many DV programs are for women in crisis, most Indian women wouldn’t think they’re in a crisis even when they are.
2) collaboration/partnerships in Australia are difficult. We tried to partner with existing women’s and Indian organisations via an auspice arrangement but none we reached out to were willing to do this, which was disappointing. Had we of formally registered to become a Domestic Violence organisation we may never have had the capacity to start Soul House or respond to the immediate need in a timely manner. Additionally Family Violence / Domestic Violence organisations must comply with an entire set of separate legislation. There is good reason for this, but it made what we had in mind difficult to do. Having worked in the startup sector for 5 years I’m used to doing things at a pace at which the NFP sector does not move.
Hence, we stuck to being a wellness space, not a ‘safe house’ which has another legal definition entirely. Plus it was more aligned with our intention of avoiding the stigma – the likelihood of Indian women coming to a “safe house” or place for abused women – is very very low. Wellness is framed in a way that is far more approachable and positive. Interestingly I would often discover stories of our volunteers 3-4 times after meeting them, that they too had been through trauma and that was their motivation to volunteer – but this isn’t something they’d write in a formal form, it’s personal.
3) validation: we did research prior to starting the space asking women if they had enough money would they make decisions that honoured their self-respect (eg move out, get out of toxic homes etc). 99% said yes and we thought to some degree that was validating of this project. But we learned many women need more help with confidence/mindset / unlearning and don’t realise that’s what they need. Usuall a woman would reach out to us and it then took 3-5 conversations and a fair bit of reassurance before they felt comfortable to come stay here (even if they felt terrible at home). Many women who reach out to stay at the Soul House cancelled their plans last minute. It’s not their fault – when you’re in a state of fight or flight it’s hard to think clearly. On a practical level this made optimising the use of our space difficult and we were always very conscious of using funds efficiently – the flat cost of rent was just too high. Again this problem may well not be a problem if we were auspiced and had referral partnerships in place.
4)the location had it’s pros and cons – it’s perhaps more suited to a short-term retreat, getaway – space to breath and think. Although located within walking distance to a train station, it is 1 hour away from Melbourne in the Dandenong Ranges – a beautiful, serene place, yet most Indian women live out far west (City of Wyndham) or far South East (City of Casey / Dandenong) – both these places would take ~2 hours to get to from us. It’s a perfect property for gatherings and retreats, though we also could never afford to rent the entire property (we rented 2 cottages providing for a maximum of 4 women at a time).
5) resources we needed to make this sustainable. It takes a lot of time and energy to run such a space, I personally lived at the residence (self-funded, in the third cottage) volunteering and working remotely for my day job after taking 1 month off to set up. Receiving people afterhours and hosting gatherings on the weekends. A space like this likely needs a permanent community manager of sorts to help with intake, show guests around and respond to needs while they are here – I came to realise this would take a lot more time than I thought.
This has no doubt been some of the most precious time I’ve spent, building a community that became like family, helping women in need and giving hope to the many women who came here as volunteers and donors about what could be achieved if we band together as a community. We know that women are so much more than what has happened to them, with the right environment and love (even if it’s not from a traditional family structure) they can thrive and regain their sense of confidence and agency.
Although we’ll be letting go of the physical space, our community is stronger than ever. We’ll continue our work through the Australian South Asian Centre (ASAC)- our impactful events, workshops, conversations and membership-based community. We focus on amplifying the voices and work of South Asian women and building a strong community grounded in values of generosity, love and a get-things-done attitude. This experience has ignited a fire within us to do something similar in the long-term future, so in the meantime, we’ll keep an eye out for funding opportunities/properties for Soul House 2.0.
I can’t count the exact number but around 1000+ people across the world reached out via Facebook/Instagram about Soul House. Many were women who echoed the sentiment I had when we started “I wish this existed when I went through what I went through.” The donors and volunteers who have come together to help support this have shown us how generosity and seva can make anything possible. If you have a story to share from your experience at Soul House use the #SoulHouseMelbourne – there were 100’s of heartwarming stories – whether it was your first artistic performance at one of our gatherings, or you met your new best friend or a moment of peace and tranquility – we’d love to relive the memories.
Who made this possible?
I want to take a moment to thank our generous donors (all our funding was via private donors, no government money or grants supported this project with the exception of funding for our Holi festival)
This place was made possible thanks to generous folks below who made a financial contribution as well as to all the volunteers – I remember each and every one of you, and the stories you shared with me about your own experiences.
Ranmeet Jassal Kantzios
Jamel Kaur Singh
Manjot Singh Sandhu
Navkirat S Sarai
Annette M Pinto
Usha Rodrigues |
Akshay Gayatri Kotnala
Also a special shout-out to Sukki Menon who hosted a heartwarming, raw and honest conversation with residents of the Soul House via Zoom. She went even further and represented ASAC & Soul House at Asian Women of Achievement Awards, commissioning a custom dress with artwork from creative members of our community.
Last but not least, we will miss Kulwinder the Kookaburra who visited my balcony frequently.