Meet the Qualitative Researchers: Zara Shaikh

Zara is a research assistant at the Centre for Society and Mental Health with Dr Hanna Kienzler on the marginalised communities programme. Zara and Hanna's research explores the lived experience of refugees in the UK, especially around mental health, with a focus on community, social inclusion and exclusion, and thriving. Zara is starting a PhD in October in the same area, working with young people and adolescents.

Sohail: How did you get interested in migration and mental health? 

Zara: I studied Global Health and Public Health, and both times I ended up specialising in mental health. I volunteered at Doctors of the World for two years while I was doing my undergraduate. I was a clinic support worker and had a lot of interaction with refugees, asylum seekers, undocumented migrants. That’s where the migrant mental health aspect comes in.  

Sohail: When did you first start using qualitative methods? 

Zara: My undergraduate dissertation was my first qualitative project. I interviewed caseworkers and clinical support workers at Doctors of the World about the effects of charging regulations in the NHS on healthcare availability, accessibility, and fears around accessing healthcare for refugees and migrants. I naturally gravitated towards qualitative research. As much as numbers are important, I don’t think they answer the why question. To do that, I felt that I needed some form of interview or focus group. Something where I am speaking to someone that isn’t a yes or no answer. 

Sohail: How did you find it, was there any resistance from staff or did your existing relationship help? 

Zara: They were quite open to it. I got permission from their research committee and they were good with it. It was at the height of everything happening with hostile environmental policies, especially to do with healthcare. We had different campaigns going on at the time. When I was doing my dissertation, the NHS Digital data sharing policy with the Home Office was going on too. So they really wanted a piece of research around this. 

Sohail: What happened after your undergraduate? 

Zara: I took a year out and worked at the World Health Organisation for six months, I was based in Cairo in the mental health and substance use unit. The project I worked on was on refugee and displaced populations in the Eastern Mediterranean.   

Sohail: What was it like being in Cairo? 

Zara: I grew up in Cairo, I love Cairo. It was kind of weird being back home though. Having lived in London, it is a very different culture and you get used to this. But work really helped and I had a sense of independence there.  

Sohail: Is there a large Egyptian community here, given the current military dictatorship I imagine there may be a few Egyptian refugees? 

Zara: I think a few people did get out when the revolution was happening. The revolution was my first ever lockdown actually. It was strange. In Cairo you have a lot of compounds and we lived within them. We had tanks come outside so no one would leave as there were breaks in the prisons. I’ve seen a lockdown before so it wasn’t that weird when it happened here.  

When the first protests were happening we were at school then and we went in groups to Tahrir Square. It started getting a little intense, especially with what was happening in Tunisia, so we stopped going. But even then, the revolution was happening over social media, so we were involved.  

Sohail: Do you think any of these experiences feed into your research?  

Zara: I think those experiences definitely. The kind of social justice angle I have in my research definitely comes from that. I am currently focussed in healthcare issues. I haven’t been able to do much in physically in the last year or so. But during the Doctors of the World campaign against charging migrants for healthcare, we had our own vans to counteract Teresa May’s “go home” vans. And we were driving them all around London. They were really fun. 

At the Centre for Society and Mental Health we are doing some work with Doctors of the World, interviewing them. There isn’t much of a campaigning or activism angle so far. But it has only been a few months since the project started so we are still building as we go along. We are doing interviews with charities and organisations, finding out about the work they do with refugees in relation to mental health. They do mention some campaigning work. Hopefully it is something that we will include in the project. It is something I am really interested in and we’ll see. 

Sohail: How do you think qualitative research can support campaigning? 

Zara: I think with campaigns and activism, qualitative research can share examples and experiences. With my research, I had quotes from clinicians and caseworkers who directly work with refugees and migrants. A clinician gave an example of a call they got on the helpline, I think from an undocumented migrant. The person had fell off a ladder at an odd job they were doing and they could literally see the bone sticking out of their arm. But they called us instead of an ambulance, because they were scared that they would be charged or be detained. Bringing that example out in research is really useful. It paints a picture of what is happening and tells people that it is very much real. That’s the great thing about qualitative research.