Tuesday, 1 January 2019

My Book Releases for 2019

Happy New Year!
I have some book releases scheduled in 2019 (will update as and when publicists allow me to).

February 2019 
I have contributed an essay titled 'The First Feminist' in Mariam Khan's anthology 'It's Not About the Burqa' published by Picador. More details below:
It's Not About the Burqa

September 2019
Absolutely delighted that Tiny Owl are publishing my first ever picture book, titled, 'Miss Bandari's Big Golden Heart'. It's about the friendship between a kind monkey and an old crocodile. Cannot wait to share.

My published articles are linked below:
Huffington Post - Sufiya Ahmed

Independent - Sufiya Ahmed

Monday, 10 April 2017

Author Cathy Cassidy argues teens need books more than ever in a world that can seem confused and unfair.

In a passionate speech about the need for libraries, best selling teen author Cathy Cassidy argued that books and empathy were needed now more than ever in a world which can seem frighteningly confused and unfair.

The Puffin author was the guest speaker at the annual ‘Pupil Library Assistant of the Year Award’ being held in the Houses of Parliament. The Award was set up to recognise the contribution made by pupils who work in their school libraries and to give them the recognition they deserve, both within and outside their school community.

Addressing the audience in the Atlee Suite of Portcullis House, Cassidy said:
‘Reading for pleasure makes us smart, gives us a quiet confidence that no reading scheme can. We need free choice, the option to choose a picture book about unicorns one day and a book on engineering or world politics the next. We need the freedom to explore and learn without restraint. Libraries give us power, as the Manic Street Preachers song says – and they are under threat.

‘Libraries are closing countrywide – we have become a nation that does not value culture, learning or the freedom to read widely. If we can’t buy something, we can’t have it. Libraries matter more than I can say, and if we stand by quietly and allow them to be closed, our country will be the poorer for it.
‘Without libraries where will tomorrow’s dreamers, creatives come from? How will a child climb out of a difficult childhood into a brighter future without the ladder that library books can provide? Libraries treat us all as equals. They level the playing field, give everyone a chance to follow their dreams. We must not allow them to be taken away.

‘Why do we need books? To connect, to understand, to help us open up our hearts and minds, to make sense of the world around us. We need books to see that in spite of our differences and our uniqueness, we are all linked and have so much in common. Books help us to see, and see beyond the surface – and we need that empathy more than ever these days, in a world that can seem frighteningly confusing and unfair.
‘My school visits often start and finish in the school library, often with a coffee, a biscuit and the company of wonderful student librarians who know more than any adult could about how to draw young people into the world of books and learning. Those schools are a joy to visit; but some schools have downsized their library to make room for banks of computers. Some have terrifyingly closed their school library altogether. Many new build schools have no library at all. These are the school that ask me, as a visiting author. “What can we do to improve reading in our school?” The answer is plain. Love your library. HAVE a library!’     

The School Pupil Librarian of the Year was Victoria Langford from St Hilda’s CE High School in Liverpool. She won £500 worth of books for her school library.

Details of the Award can be found here www.libpupilaward.co.uk
(photo: Victoria Langford, Cathy Cassidy, Barbara Band). 

Sufiya Ahmed is the author of Secrets of the Henna Girl (Puffin) and was the PLAA 2017 guest judge. The Award is a joint venture between the CILIP School Libraries Group (SLG) and the School Library Association.

Being able to pursue a career in publishing is dependent on family life says Ayisha Malik

Nadiya Hussain, the winner of the 2015 Great British Bake Off, is a name that most will recognise on the cover of a new fiction book ‘The Secret Life of the Amir Sisters’.
The release of the book recently caused a Twitter spat when another author, Jenny Colgan, objected to the fact that Hussain had co-written it with a lesser known author, Ayisha Malik. In her Guardian review Colgan claimed that ‘the worst thing about this [book] is that it feels greedy’.
Many objected as to why in the age of celebrity ghost-written hardbacks galore, it was the Muslim woman’s book which was deemed as ‘one too many’.

I ask Ayisha her thoughts on the whole issue over a recent coffee. Her response is to shrug, preferring to talk instead about her new release.
‘The Other Half of Happiness’ is the sequel to her debut novel ‘Sofia Khan is not obliged’.
“It’s a book which looks at how well really think you know someone,” she says, the gold bangles jingling on her wrists as she adjusts her hijab. “Sofia Khan is now living as a married woman in Karachi.”
I mention the depiction of the father’s character in the first book. Although it seemed to be marketed as a ‘single girl finds the one’, it was actually Sofia’s relationship with her parents which stood out for me.
A love letter to her parents perhaps?
Unexpectedly her eyes well up with tears.
“Yes, it was. It was a love letter to my Dad. He died when I was 14. He was 49.”
She wants to talk about him. “His cause of death was so unnecessary.” She dabs her eyes. “He had a kidney condition and had to have dialysis every day. And then when I was 14, he wanted to go for my uncle’s wedding to Pakistan. He needed his dialysis equipment so we cargoed it.”
She pauses and to my horror I slowly realise what happened.
“The equipment never arrived. He spent three days without the dialysis. The Pakistan hospitals didn’t have the equipment. He died on the fourth day.”

Negligence, I say out loud as if it had never occurred to her.
She shrugs. “It was my widowed mother and her two teenage daughters. Just the three of us. We didn’t know how or what to do with the cargo company. My mum just got on with raising her daughters. She’s a strong woman.” Her face lights up. “She gave me the space to achieve what I wanted. She even funded my Masters in Creative Writing.”
I agree with her. Our mothers’ generation are like solid rocks, providing stability and unconditional love to allow daughters to achieve what the first generation of immigrants could only ever dream of. 
Is she working on anything else? “Yes, the second book with Nadiya. It’s a three book deal.”

So Ayisha’s name will occupy more shelf space than any other British Asian author at a given time. How did it all start?
“Nine years ago I was the only hijabi in publishing. I think there are a few more now but back then it was just me working as a publicity assistant. I began with two weeks work experience at Random House, then temped for a few months before I was offered a part time job. Oh, the amount of photo copying I did.’ She smiles. “Finally a full-time vacancy came up and I was told it was mine if I wanted it.
“I think being able to pursue a career in publishing is very dependent on family life. I was never pressured to pursue law or medicine or any of the other popular Asian parent preferences. This allowed me to chase my dream which is not really common. Asian parents don’t push their children to be creative. I was able to do it because I had a stable financial position at home.”

Did she think she was treated differently as a hijabi?
“Publishing is a very middle class white environment. I was treated well ...of course I was. Yet, I was a novelty to many. Anything unknown is a novelty. I know there is a lot of talk about the need for change as regards diversity in the industry. I think ignorance is a harsh word and used often, but lack of knowledge doesn’t come from bad intentions. It’s about fostering diverse relationships."

‘The Other Side of Happiness’ is released in April 2017 
The Secret Life of the Amir Sisters is published by HQ
Sofia Khan is Not Obliged is published by Twenty7

Sufiya Ahmed is the author of Secrets of the Henna Girl, published by Puffin Books. 

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Author Visits with Secrets of the Henna Girl 2015/16

2015/2016 school visits with Secrets of the Henna Girl ...some of my favourite photos from this academic year so far.

Eden School for Girls, Slough
Morpeth School, Tower Hamlets

St Martins in the Field School, London

Coombe Girls School, London


St Albans Girls School, St Albans

Pleckgate School, Blackburn

Fleetwood Academy, Fleetwood

All boys school, Sir Joseph Williamson School of Maths

Monday, 28 March 2016

A refugee woman alone

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHRC), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) released a joint report in January 2016 highlighting the grave risks of sexual and gender based violence of women and girls in Greece and FYR Macedonia in November 2015. 

The report noted that women and girls were among those particularly at risk and required additional protection measures. I could not agree with this report more after my experience of meeting Syrian and Afghan women and girls at the Moira refugee camp in Lesvos Island. I was interested in the safety issue of women, mainly widows who were travelling on their own without male family members. There were so many of them, each with their own story of a different group had robbed them of a husband. There was Assad’s bombs, rebels who had attacked their homes and of course Isis.

I met Walaa on my second day at the camp through the aid of an Arabic interpreter, she had smiled shyly and agreed to share her story with me. Pulling her hijab over forehead, she shifted her three year old son from her right hip to the left. It had been nearly six hours since she had joined the queue for registration with the UNHCR for her new refugee identity papers. She fumbled in her coat pocket for the numbered tickets she, her three children and her fourteen year old brother had been handed when they had arrived at Moira camp, high up on a hilltop. They had been cold, wet and in need of dry clothes after waves upon waves of the Aegean sea had washed over them in the flimsy dinghy that had brought them from the Turkish coast to the Greek Island of Lesvos. The smugglers who had charged Walaa thousands of Euros for her family’s passage had promised the journey time to be one and half hours.
That had been the first lie. It had taken them four hours.
The second lie had been about their possessions. All the travellers had boarded the dingy with their paltry belongings in rucksacks and bags. A few metres into the sea and everybody’s belongings had been dumped in the sea. ‘Unnecessarily weighing the boat down’ had been the explanation.
Some of the passengers had objected but Walaa had not. What was the worth of material goods when her children’s lives were at stake? She had barely slept in the nights running up to her sea voyage.  Nightmares had plagued her and she was terrified that her children would drown. As the dingy had rocked violently with the waves, she had clutched her youngest in her arms and kept her nine year old son and ten year old daughter on either side of her. Her teenage brother was also her responsibility now that her mother, sister and aunt had been granted asylum in Canada on the grounds of her sister’s disability. They had wanted to take the teenage boy, a male companion, but the Canadian authorities hadn’t allowed it on the grounds that young men could not enter Canada. Now he was her responsibility.
I asked Walaa how she had lost her husband.  Drawing her small son closer in her embrace, her voice was low. ‘He was a taxi driver. He was driving five passengers in his car when a bomb dropped right on top of the vehicle.’ Tears welled up in her eyes. ‘There was nothing left of my husband. He was unrecognisable.’
What did she do after his death?
 ‘I had to leave Syria because I could not survive on my own. I could not feed my children.’ Her voice wavered again as she recalled this point in her life. As the Arabic was translated, I squeezed her hand and she gave me a watery smile before straightening her shoulders to carry on with her story.
 ‘I went to Turkey to live with my mother’s family. I got a job in a restaurant as a waitress but then six months later my female relatives were granted asylum in Canada. They had applied a long time before I went to live with them. They wanted to go so they boarded the plane. Me and my children and brother were left behind. I tried to make ends meet but rent in Turkey is so expensive. I also had no one to look after my youngest child when I was at work. That had been my mother’s job when she had been with us.’
So she made the decision to leave?
‘Yes. The Syrian neighbours were leaving and so I decided to as well.’
But what about the smugglers’ fee? How did she fund that?
 ‘My sister sold her gold earrings before she left for Canada and gave me the money.’
And that was enough?
Walaa lowered her eyes. ‘And donations from people who came to the restaurant.’
She kept her gaze averted. ‘Yes, donations.’
I did not push for further explanation of the donations. Perhaps the donations had been given out of the kindness of the heart to a widow with children, or perhaps she’s had to give something in return. Whatever the truth, Walaa was not willing to expand on it. 
What she was willing to share however was the harassment she had faced on this journey from single men who’d spotted a beautiful young woman with no male guardian.
‘They pretend to help me on the journey; to lift my son, to hold my daughter’s hand. But then they make it clear that they want more. It is better not to take the offer of help. I can’t sleep at night. I am terrified that someone will try to hurt me or my children. A woman is not safe even when she is with other refugees fleeing war.’

"Many women and girls travelling on their own are entirely exposed, deprived of their family or community to protect them," Director of UNHCR's Bureau for Europe, Vincent Cochetel said. "And even those traveling with family are often vulnerable to abuse. Often they are not reporting crimes and thus not receiving the support they need. Some women have even told us they have married out of desperation." (report)

Aside from the widows and the women travelling alone to join their husbands who made their way to Germany earlier in the summer.
There was the experience of Suha who was harassed in the camp by ‘strange men she didn’t know’ to the degree that she was terrified to leave the children centre. Cradling her five month old baby she was close to tears as she shook her head and refused to make her way to the UN’s family compound for the night. The compound was situated in the section of the camp where she was victimised. Finally, it was agreed that she and her sister could remain in a tent next to the children’s marquee for the night.

The report noted: "Single women travelling alone or with children, pregnant and lactating women, adolescent girls, unaccompanied children, early-married children  sometimes themselves with newborn babies  persons with disabilities, and elderly men and women are among those who are particularly at risk and require a coordinated and effective protection response." 

Volunteering with the refugee effort in Lesvos Island

I spent some time in January 2016 as a volunteer in Lesvos Island. It was an emotional experience which I would like to share with my readers. Below are posts and photos lifted from my facebook page.

Little baby girls sitting out in the cold at Moira camp, Lesvos Island. 

 This is Sham. I met her in the United Nations line for refugee papers. She fled Syria with her widowed mother and 16 year old sister.
 I named him 'the boy who refused to smile'. No amount of chocolates could entice a curve on his lips. He was with his father and two older brothers. There is a story behind those haunted eyes: his mother was raped and killed by ISIS.

Photo below is with the three brothers and my sister Zainub Chohan.

Post 1: Have you ever denied water to a thirsty person? I have. May God forgive me.
January 2016
Yesterday the boats arrived one after the other and the refugees, cold and hungry, began to queue on the fringe of the camp for their refugee paper that is now their new identity. The paper will allow them to pass through European borders. Without them they do not exist in official terms.
The queue is long and the average wait is twelve hours because the UNHCR has to be thorough when they process the refugees; fingerprints, interview etc. 
The camp is run by volunteers. Without them the refugees would have no dry clothes to change into after their sea journey, no food and no water.
When the refugees arrived in the morning and afternoon they were given rice and water by the volunteers. Hours layer, as the sunlight disappeared and the biting cold of the night dug in, the mood changed. 
Babies could be heard crying.
Mothers made an effort to keep their older children closer to them in the darkness of a Greek island hilltop which is the camp. 
People shifted on their feet. 
The Greek police who maintain order suddenly looker sharper. This is a force that keep riot shields on hand to maintain that order.
Just after 6pm the kitchen volunteers arrived with a big drum of hot rice pudding for the refugees. This was part evening meal and part an attempt to provide warmth for the body. 
We distributed it in paper cups and then the water bottles arrived.
As I tore up the plastic covering, another volunteer came running up.
'Don't! Stop! We can't give them the water.'
I looked at her in confusion. 'Why not? The refugees have been standing for hours. They need water.'
'The Afghan line hasn't been given any food. There is nothing left for them and so the water has to be given to the Afghans.'
You see there are two lines in the camp. One is for the Syrians and the other is for the Afghans. 
The Afghan refugees are the Hazara people whom the UN recognise as a persecuted minority. You may have read about the popular Hazara character in Khaled Hussaini's Kite Runner.
'OK,' I agreed.
'Watch the water,' she said. 'I'm going to get a farsi speaking interpreter to explain to the Afghan line that unfortunately there is no more food and we only have water.'
She disappeared and I stood watch over the bottles. Minutes later a child came up and asked for a bottle. I shouldn't have given it but i gave it anyway. Next a man came up. I shook my head and mouthed no. He gazed at me in surprise and I averted my eyes. This was a man who had lost his country and home and I was refusing to give him a bottle of water. 
I kept my gaze away from the people I had only hours earlier greeted with a smile and 'marhaba'. 
They included the widows I had given charity money to and with whom I had shed tears with when we had become overwhelmed with emotion. 
I looked up. It was one of the police officers. 
'Take the water away from here if you are not going to give it.'
'What?' I glanced behind him at the line. Some of the refugees were looking at me. They had realised the water was not for them. 
'Take it away.'
The police officer didn't have to say anymore. I understood the situation. More people would approach, it would get chaotic and even ugly. 
I remembered the volunteer induction talk. 'The police want calm and order. If it gets chaotic they will bring out the riot shields and hit the refugees until they get back into line.'
I waved over some other volunteers and we carried the water away. I had to pass by everyone in the queue and I kept my head down ...even when some of them called out 'baby ...water.'
After distributing the water to the Afghan line, I walked back to the Syrian line to find more volunteers had arrived and were distributing water bottles and cartons of orange juice. 

Its all about the volunteers. Come. Make a difference. 

Post 2: 'I was so scared for my children' 
January 2016 (photo: Zainub and Alaa)

My sister Zainub and I had just got out of bed when her phone beeped. It was the south coast Lesvos whatsap group which notifies volunteers of new boats arriving. 
It is crucial that volunteers meet the boats. The refugees are always soaked from the waist down and in the January cold they need to be given dry clothes and blankets. Hypothermia is a very real risk. 
The message gave the boat's location on the coast and urged nearby volunteers to rush there. The coast volunteers work on shifts throughout the day and night and patrol a given area. 
Zaiunb and I had decided that we would focus on assisting within the camp rather than the coast as we had not hired a car. 
'The boat is 2 minutes away by car,' Zainub said. 'Let's go help. We can get a taxi.'
I nodded. Our hotel was on the coast line. We could be there in minutes. 
Having dressed as fast as we could in jumpers and wellies, we ran down to the hotel reception and asked for a taxi. 
'It's coming,' the lovely Greek receptionist informed us. 
'Thanks.' Two minutes later, as a typical Londoner not used to waiting, I inquired about the taxi. 
The receptionist gave me an odd look. 'It' coming.'
Another two minutes later, hopping from foot to foot I demanded to know where my taxi was. 
The receptionist looked at me in bewilderment and threw her hands in the air in that unique Greek way. 'Itssaaaa cominngggg.'
We all burst out laughing. 
Four minutes later the taxi arrived and we clamoured in, pointing ahead at the coast line. 'Drive!'
The driver looked at me in confusion. Life is not like the movies. Taxi drivers don't just drive just because you demand it. 
'Where?' he asked. 
Zainub studied the boat's location on the whatsap message and identified the hotels running parallel on the coast. 
'Princess apartments. We want princess apartments.'
The driver shrugged and started the car ....slowly.
'Go! Go! Go!' I urged, jumping like a child on the back seat.
I noticed the dirty sideways look he gave me and decided to sit back. It would not help to be kicked out of the car. 
Two minutes later we pulled up on the road close to a group of about 50 refugees and some volunteers.
The doctor from the Netherlands who had given us the volunteer's talk on how to prevent hypothermia was seeing to a woman who had broken her foot on the journey. The doctor was urging her to go to a hospital via an Arabic translator but she point blanked refused to be separated from her five children all under 12. 

I looked around and noticed Scott, a Canadian volunteer walking around with a little girl who looked about 2 years old. She was wrapped in a green blanket which reminded me of Kermit the Frog. I smiled at the little girl but she did not respond. Some of the children refuse to make eye contact after the terror of their journey. 
I asked Scott where her parents were. 
'I found her walking around by herself calling "papa". Her father is in the medical van being seen to. I've been holding her since.'
I took out a Quality Street chocolate from my bag and held it in front of her. Her eyes flickered slightly. I asked Scott if I could hold her to feed the chocolate and he handed her over to me. 
Settling down the ground, I unwrapped the orange cream and then pulled one of her arms out of the blanket. She took it and began to eat it slowly. As the sugar hit her, she met my eyes for the first time and allowed a small curve to her lips. 
Zainub came over and I passed the little girl to her. We began to play peekaboo and the curve turned into a small smile. 
Just then a car pulled up with Tariq Jahan and two of his cousins. They were driving along the coast dropping water bottles for all the refugees. You may remember Tariq from the 2011 riots. He is the father whose son was killed in Birmingham. Tariq is credited with bringing calm to the riots when he spoke on TV about his loss. 
They dropped the water and sped off to the next boat.
Another volunteer, Marian from Germany, walked over to us with the silver foil and a pair of tights. She had run out of children's hats and was improvising. She placed the foil over the little girl's head and secured it with the crotch of the tights. It was vital that the little girl did not lose anymore body heat after spending three hours on the boat (each boat has its own journey time depending on the sea conditions. It should be 1.5 hours but is always more). 
'Where are her parents?' Marian asked. 
'Her father is in the medical van,' I replied. 'Not sure about the mother.'
Marian gave me a concerned look. 'The medical van has left. Four more boats have arrived near the airport and the medics are needed there.'
As we stood under the winter sun, the most awful thoughts flew through my mind. Where was her father? What if he hadn't survived the journey? What if she is now an orphan?
I picked up the little girl and Zainub and I walked through the small crowd to see if we could find out what had happened to him. Suddenly the little girl's face broke out into a huge smile as a man in his thirties hobbled over to us on an injured leg. 
I cannot describe the relief I felt. 
Her name is Alaa and she has a 4 year old sister Suha, and a 6 year old brother Mohammed. They are travelling with their father Yamen who steered the boat when the smugglers jumped ship. 
As we stood around in a small group waiting for the UN coach to take them all to the camp, some of the other refugees jokingly referred to him as 'the Captain'. Yamen laughed with them and then suddenly out of the blue, tears welled up in his eyes. 'I was so scared for my children.'
Alaa, Suha and Mohammed's mother died 3 months ago. She was killed by a sniper in Halib, Syria. Just like that a single bullet snuffed out her life and left three small children motherless. 

I have met so many widows and widowers travelling with their small children. There is no time to grieve for dead husbands and wives and the loss and trauma is buried deep within them.
The only thing that matters to these refugees is safety for their children. 
All we can do as volunteers is help them on their journey with dry clothes, blankets, food and water as they make their way to the European countries offering refuge.

Post 3. Wrapped up for the night in United Nations blankets with bin bags of clothes for mattresses. 
January 2016

These two little cuties were all wrapped up in blankets to spend the night in the cold air. Women and children are allowed to sleep inside the UN's family compound, but I could not persuade their mother to leave the line for registration even though she would not be seen until the next day.

Post 4: This is Saum. 
January 2016

It was raining hard today and at about 11am Saum and his mother came into the volunteer tent to seek shelter. He was wet and cold. We dried him with some tissues, gave him a blanket and placed him on a chair. He happily munched on two digestive biscuits. 
His mother told me her story. Her husband has already reached Germany and she is following him there ...alone ...with three children in towe. 
She talked of the same route that all the refugees mention with excitement in their voices. 
'We will go to Athens on the ferry and then bus and wall to Macedonia and then all the way to Germany.'
She is a woman on her own and I knew she was carrying some money for her trip which she said was enough for the tickets she needed to buy en route. I gave her some money anyway. A woman alone with her three children crossing borders cannot stick to a budget. We all travel with a little extra and so should she.
At 7pm this evening we went to the port to distribute energy bars and water bottles for the refugees boarding the ferry to Athens. We saw her in the queue and she waved to us excitedly. Saum seemed to recognise me too...or maybe it was the Quality Street chocolate I handed him which encouraged the smile. Who knows? 
She hugged me then, thanking me for the money again and again. 
When they all boarded the ferry and we waved goodbye, all the women volunteers I was with felt tearful. It was like saying goodbye to family even though we had only known the refugees for a few hours. It’s weird to feel such emotion for complete strangers but you feel it anyway. The thoughts go through your mind: Will they make it? I hope they make it! Please don't let the Europeans shut the gates! The worst is behind them ...they have reached safety now.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Young Muslim Writers Awards 2015

What a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon. I have just returned from Senate House in London where the fifth Young Muslim Writers Awards 2015 was held.

Since 2008, the Muslim Hands charity has been championing young people’s development in the creative arts and literature. In 2010, the Young Muslim Writers Awards was established.

I have had the delightful task of judging the entries from all over the United Kingdom for every one of those five years. The Young Muslim Writers Awards has inspired and nurtured the creativity of thousands of wordsmiths through the competition and writing workshops. The Young Muslim Writers Awards encourages parents to champion their children’s writing and to let their talents flourish so they may go forth and become role models and ambassadors for the generation that follow.

Here’s some pics from the event. 

I was honoured to meet Ziaddin Yousafzai, the father of Malala Yousafzai. 
He and his wife were present to receive an award on behalf of their daughter. He made an impassioned speech about the need for women to write and be heard and also the important difference between education and indoctrination. 

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After the ceremony with Aminah Rahman who won the award for best poetry. 

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Embedded image permalinkWith the authors who supported the YMWA 2015: Tim Bowler, Anna Perera, Sita Brahmachari and Tamara Macfarlane from the Tales of Moon Lane bookshop in London.

Tim gave a wonderful speech about the writing process and how it never ends. Its a journey. 

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The sparkling host, my lovely inspiring friend, Shemiza Rashid. 

If you would like to know more about the YMWA, please click on the following link.