Watch the full interview with Cllr Saima Ashraf above
A single mother who escaped homelessness and domestic violence to find a new home in east London has been hailed for the remarkable contribution she has made to her local community.
Saima Ashraf, 43, came to the UK from France 16 years ago. After initially becoming a volunteer for the Metropolitan Police, she soon got involved in local politics before becoming a councillor in Barking and Dagenham.
She has since become instrumental in the launch of a comprehensive regeneration of the area - the 21st most deprived of the 317 local authority districts in England - and last year won a national award for councillors.
Cllr Ashraf's involvement in politics came following a chance encounter outside her children's school with the Labour MP for Barking, Margaret Hodge, when she was campaigning for the Labour Party.
She told Yahoo News UK: “She said if you need anything, don’t hesitate to contact me. I needed a letter of support and she just did it.”
Cllr Ashraf asked what she could do to thank the MP, who told her she could do some leafleting on the Gascoigne Estate - one of the poorest parts of the area and where the councillor lived, and still lives.
She said: “Before I knew, I became so involved, and we wanted to make this place a better place.”
She helped Hodge in campaigning against the BNP in the 2010 local and national elections. The party, which was led by Nick Griffin, had promised a "political earthquake" but was comprehensively routed with Griffin himself humiliated and beaten into third place by Hodge in Barking.
The far-right party also lost all 12 of the council seats it had won in Barking just four years earlier. In contrast, Cllr Ashraf received the overwhelming backing of her community with the highest share of the local election vote in her ward of Gascoigne as Labour took all 51 council seats available in the area.
She has since been instrumental in revitalising the community, particularly in the past five years through a community-based initiative called the Barking and Dagenham’s Citizen’s Alliance Network (BD CAN).
BD CAN has demonstrated the impact a grassroots project can have on a local area.
It set up a food network from scratch within four days and supported the vulnerable who were shielding during lockdowns, with the help of food banks, hubs, parcels and donations throughout the borough.
Cllr Ashraf said: “BD CAN was something I had put in place prior to COVID. You often have great work being done by the faith sector, the private sector and the social sector. BD CAN is a platform where everyone comes together to deliver.”
The councillor, who is now Deputy Leader of Barking and Dagenham Council, added: “For us it is such a great achievement to be proactively working with the community, helping the community.”
Barking and Dagenham is also thought to be the first London borough to have introduced same-day COVID-19 testing for frontline workers in October after increasing pressure on test and trace.
Cllr Ashraf said: “We decided to invest our own money- it was about priority, wanting to keep our residents safe, and doing those tests as soon as possible.”
She and the rest of the council also secured funding last year from Lankelly Chase, a charitable foundation aiming to tackle “severe and multiple disadvantage.”
It was used to set up a rapid response fund of £100,000 to support community organisations through the pandemic, including faith groups, The HIVE Women's Centre and Deafblind UK.
“They were very grateful, I had comments like, ‘We’ll make you proud.'" Cllr Ashraf said.
In December, it was announced this was the first UK council to have an endowment fund of over £800,000 to further support community organisations.
Increasingly a borough of many firsts as it looks to regenerate some of its most deprived areas, the Future Youth Zone - opened by Prince Harry in 2019 - was the first youth zone in London. England’s first ever dedicated women’s museum is also expected to open in Barking this year.
In November, Cllr Ashraf was named Community Champion 2020 at the Local Government awards for councillors across England and Scotland.
She said: “It is such a great honour, it was never something that I would have expected. This is for Barking and Dagenham. We are one borough, one community, with no one left behind."
Cllr Ashraf, who has three children, says she encourages them to give back in whatever way they can - one is a nurse and her other daughters are in university studying business management and economics, and neuroscience.