My name is Zakia Moulaoui Guery and I am the founder of Invisible Cities, a social enterprise that trains people who have experienced homelessness to become walking tour guides of their own city.
I moved to Scotland when I was 21 years old and for several years, was Director of International Partner Development at the Homeless World Cup Foundation, a global network of street soccer projects. This is where I started working with homeless people and being faced with the stigma attached to this. I also travelled for most part of the year, researching how people were using football to support those in need.
At the end of 2015, I spent time in Greece and volunteered in a refugee camp on Lesvos Island. This is also at that time the idea of Invisible Cities formed. When I returned to Edinburgh, I started working on the organisation. We were 100% volunteer led until July 2018 and we now have a team of 5 staff, 13 guides and more trainees, and supported volunteers.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
No 🙂 I did really well at school but didn’t have a clear vision of what I wanted to specialise on. I was one of those students that studied because I liked the topic as opposed to have a plan of what I could do with it!
I was raised by a single mom (and have one younger sister) and we didn’t have any money growing up but my mum made sure we had access to as many opportunities as possible (cinema, books, holidays) which I realise now was a big challenge for her. When I was 17, I got a scholarship to spend my last year of highschool in London. When it came to choosing my University course, I remember just thinking, I’ll go for languages as it seemed natural. I have a Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature. This led me to start teaching English in France and French as a Foreign Language then French here in Scotland. After being an assistant Teacher for a year in Edinburgh, I realised this wasn’t for me, so did not pursue it. The Homeless World Cup came by chance and it was another opportunity to use my language skills (in 2011, the tournament was being held in Paris so the organisation needed someone that was able to translate, as well as work on the event). My contract was originally for 8 months and I ended up staying for over 5 years!
I believe that what is for you won’t go by you and I have experienced many times encounters or life changing events that have led me to the career or life I now have, which was not by choice or conscious decision 🙂
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
On my 27th Birthday, I was diagnosed with Bowel Cancer. I had been unwell for several months but bowel cancer is usually developed by people of an older age, so it came as a surprise to say the least. I had to undergo surgery and start Chemotherapy 8 weeks later. I had massive support from my friends from around the world (and I don’t think I spent a single day without speaking to someone on phone/skype/whatsapp) and had so many visitors, even the medical staff were laughing about it. My team at The Homeless World Cup were also the biggest of support and enabled me to work from home/hospital (to stay sane mostly) and looked after me like a real family. The biggest inconvenience for me was the fact I could not travel during this time when I had planned to go to Romania, Israel and France. That’s when I realised how important travel is to me and for my life balance.
I got the whole clear in 2015 and have been healthy since then but like a lot of people who have had cancer, I sometimes get anxious I’ll be unwell again. The best thing I was ever told about this is “When you have cancer it is like when someone robs your house. After a while you know they are gone but you are always scared they will come back” which I find so so true.
A few months ago, my mum passed away very suddenly which has been such a challenge as we were very close. The team at Invisible Cities has been amazing in giving me space and taking over while I was in France and dealing with everything. My mum was our biggest champion and supporter (our first person to share all social media updates, etc) so it makes it hard at times to continue as normal as possible. But I feel extremely lucky to have a wonderful support system around me that enables me to learn and grow through these events.
Both things have had a massive impact on me as a person but also professionally. It has shaped my attitude when it comes to facing challenging situations. I believe there is a solution for everything and most importantly that things happen for a reason.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
I am very proud of some of the things I did at the Homeless World Cup (like starting a street soccer referee programme with a professional referee from the Netherlands) or of some of the people I met along the way. Whether they were players who had experienced homelessness or people who became friends, I do feel that I was able to have an impact on individuals and that is enough.
Starting Invisible Cities from scratch and making it an award-winning organisation spread across 4 cities (5 soon with Cardiff) that has welcomed thousands of guests is also a great adventure. But I feel I am learning so much along the way that I am the one who is lucky to be part of it.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
I think every person you meet is a chance to learn and grow. I’m also not scared to say that I have changed my mind after learning more information on something, which has enabled me to change directions and adapt more easily. I try to be as honest about things (challenges, relationships, plans etc) as possible which sometimes HAS to be a conscious effort but It is super important so people come on board and support.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
Yes! During my time at the Homeless World Cup, the CEO at the time acted as a mentor to me and I do owe a lot of my opportunities and growth to him. He really supported me in becoming a leader myself while letting me grow.
I also have a coach that I see on a monthly basis and we touch base on ALL aspects of my life (work life balance, business planning etc) and over the last two years, I feel this has shaped much of the person I am now. Every time someone asks for support because they are starting up something, have an idea or are struggling through something, I try to give time and support because that is exactly what I have received in the past and would not have been able to cope without it.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?
Create more conversations or have more awareness of what gender equality means day to day. I have met a lot of men who are very supportive, nurturing and incredible allies. But I also realised that because they are all of these things they tend not to see the gender inbalance. So I would include them a lot more in conversations, in solutions for change. etc. And have issues faced by women more visible.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
When I was younger I always lived with a sense of urgency i.e I felt that if something was not happening now, It would never happen and that I needed to do/feel everything right now. So i would probably tell her that it doesn’t need to be like this and actually most things take time to build.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
COVID 19 has faced us with SO MANY challenges and the tourism industry is in a dire state. This coupled with losing my mum recently mean I want to refocus my energy into growing/adapting Invisible Cities. We want to launch in more cities in the UK and internationally while at the same time offering innovative options for people to travel while making an impact locally.
And more travelling once this is ok again 🙂
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