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Soul house update 2021

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.

Soul House SBS World News Feature in February 2021 (filmed in November 2020) by Avneet Arora.

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 her ‘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’. 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 – perhaps because of the time-frame. 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.  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.  
We wanted to create something that didn’t exist – a wellness space, not a ‘safe house’ which has another legal definition entirely. This would help us avoid the stigma associated with safe houses – the likelihood of Indian women coming to a “safe house” or place for abused women. Wellness is framed in a way that is far more approachable and positive, it means that most of the women who came to Soul House had never reached out to any other services because they didn’t want to feel like a victim.

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. We learned money was a huge factor, but alongside it there’s a need for support with rebuilding confidence/ self esteem/ agency. Usually 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. Many women who reached 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 proper funding.

4) the location 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 which might be something worth considering in the future.

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 2 months off to set up. Receiving people after hours and hosting gatherings on the weekends. A space like this likely needs a permanent community manager 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. 
What now?
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, book club, 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.  

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.

Aruna Venkatachalam  
Nikki Ricks 
Ajay Bhatia  
Leah Vandenberg 
Hasveen Chahal 
Svetha Venkatesh  
Kanika Kapoor 
Saanya Singh 
Maneesha Singh 
Prebhjot Kaur 
Ranmeet Jassal Kantzios 
Jacinta Quattrocchi 
Parvyn Singh
Sunny Gill
Jamel Kaur Singh
Mehak Sheikh 
Bhajandeep Grewal 
Revi Singh 
Anirudh Chand 
Karena Singh 
Attar Waraich 
Sharmin Hosain 
Tash Jamieson 
Di Gillies 
Manjot Singh Sandhu 
Navkirat S Sarai 
Shriya gupta 
Sameera Singh 
Maneesha Singh 
Annette M Pinto 
Amardeep Khokhar 
Gulman Madahar 
Balpreet Hans 
Naya Rizwan 
Neetika Gulati 
Jeremy Bishop 
Raksha Ratilal 
Ashanthi Kulasekera 
Jaskiranjit Kaur 
Aakarsh Shah 
Samantha Wilson 
Revinder Singh 
Usha Rodrigues |
Kritiketan Sharma 
Kelly Phan 
Nivedita Nadarajah 
Gil Inbar 
Pragya Singh 
Hayley Doran 
Akshay Gayatri Kotnala 
Sahibajot Kaur 
Meyvan Pramal 
Silva Hettige 
Poonam Swamy 
Sugandha Bhargava 
Vincent Wilson 
Colin Stubbs 
Harjot Minhas 
Kasuni Mendis 
Muskan Jattana 
James Vulling 
Geetanjali Gaba 
Bhajandeep Grewal 
Navdeep Pasricha 
Amani Batth 
Reena Rana 
Vrinda Gupta 
Nirati Gautam 
Ishara Sahama 
Jazmeen Payne 
Ayush Jain 
Grace Sia 
Bani Singh 
Kerry Sandhu 
Hasveen Chahal 
Isaac Jeffries 
Omrita Baskar 
Priyanka Ashraf 
William Babington 
Tiara Rajesh 
Lauren Swann 
Reza Ansari 
Priyanka Kaur
Avneet Singh

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