Campaigner combines passion for business and community cohesion
Shaheen Unis may be best known in Scotland for the entrepreneurial acumen that saw her small family-run business grow to become a popular Edinburgh establishment, but it is her campaigning for greater cultural equality and community integration that has brought her the greatest satisfaction.
“In a society like Scotland there is an opportunity to make a real difference and that is so motivational, working with the community has become my real hobby and something that drives me,” said the founder and director of Mrs Unis Spicy Foods, who received a CBE last month for services to business and community relations.
Since arriving in the UK from Pakistan at the age of 16, Unis has campaigned on a number of issues, including services for ethnic minorities and against forced marriage and racism.
“I have been in the UK for 45 years and I think it’s fair to say a lot has changed, but in Scotland the thing I think has always remained is the support of local communities and I think that is a big part of Scottish identity,” said Unis.
“I arrived in London as a young wife in the 1960s and we had our first child there. We had a sister-in-law who lived in Glasgow and so we moved there for a couple of years before coming through to Edinburgh in 1971. After a couple of years we opened our own business and from there we haven’t looked back.
“We opened up a small manufacturing unit in Dalry [in Edinburgh] and we bought one shop then eventually had three and it got very tight so we had to move on. We decided to move to this unit [in Edinburgh’s Peffermill area] and we have been very happy here.”
The businesswoman admits the venture has become a major part of her life.
“Some women like to buy jewellery, but my fascination over the years has been to collect machinery for the factory that can make delicious food, it is not quite as glamorous,” she said.
“Throughout my business career, I have always recognised the benefit of being in Scotland and the help of Scottish people. I have also had the help of my whole family, this is not a one-manband, my husband and children have been very involved. The business is a large part of what keeps me going and keeps me growing.
“I think it has been a blessing of God, it is not like I was qualified as a businesswoman or had a degree, it has just come with time.
“We have grown the business gradually, I think you have to do it that way. You live within your means and grow as much as you can. It is mainly hand-made products and you need a lot of hands. That has maybe restricted us to remain a small business, we are not working with the bigger stores it is mainly with small cornershops.
“We have a staff of about 35, it is not a huge amount but we have been happy with what we have done.”
A tireless ambassador for ethnic minorities in Edinburgh, Unis co-founded and now chairs the Edinburgh Mela, a membership organisation promoting ethnic minority arts, culture and community groups. She has also been a board member of the Ethnic Enterprise Centre under Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce.
Unis says she had little trouble adapting to a new way of life when she moved to the UK, but is aware not everyone enjoys such a smooth transition.
“When I moved to the UK I was very young, but I felt I could cope with the change. I was born into a family of five boys and one daughter, so I was quite outgoing and didn’t have the shyness of being a woman.
“After two-and-a-half weeks in London, I started working in a jewellers and I was able to do things thanks to the support of my husband and he has always encouraged me. I have never felt discriminated against either by my race or my colour or for the fact I am a woman. I have never felt that. I know that is not everyone else’s experience, though.”
She added: “I think Scotland has changed drastically since I arrived, not every change I agree with. But one thing I have always enjoyed and been grateful for is freedom of speech and that makes me very proud to be part of British society because I can actually speak my mind, I can reach the Parliament or the councillors, I can speak my mind and pass on my experience of what I do. That is great thing to have, being independent and not being scared of what you want to say, without being rude or insulting others.
“I love the fact that if you see something that you think is wrong, you can speak out against it. I think that is important, and I do it whenever I can.”
How does she feel about her own identity?
“When I’m talking about things in Scotland, I say ‘we’, and sometimes someone will ask what I mean by ‘we’ and I say ‘we as Scottish people’,” she adds.
“But, I always remain Pakistani and my identity will always be Pakistani. I am very proud to be Pakistani and I am very proud to live in Scotland and I can participate in this society.”
While Unis has played an active role in Scottish society, she feels there is still a lack of integration across cultures.
She added: “I think of all the people who have moved to Scotland from Pakistan, and other countries for that matter, not many have integrated into mainstream society. Why?
“Because many are stuck in the same mindset of when they arrived. They have not changed their minds or their ideas, many have stayed in their own small world.
“The younger generation has moved on and gone into the job market and would rather not be in the grocery shop but would rather be in the police or doctors or engineers. The older generation have high expectations of their children, but they don’t like the integration themselves and my own personal view is I don’t like that.
“Once you are in a country you have to integrate, get to know people and let them know your beliefs. I have lots of friends in Scotland, but maybe sometimes my community would say I am too advanced because I don’t wear a hijab on my head or when I go out I will shake hands.
“But, within me, I feel I am not a bad person so if I shake hands with you, that doesn’t mean I am going to go out with you. These are the ideas some people have in the back of their heads because they come from a particular culture, I don’t think it is helpful.”
She is equally concerned about religion being a dividing factor in society.
She added: “We should be open minded. Although we are Muslim, we should respect other people’s beliefs and recognise the ideology behind them are the same. We are allowed to marry into Christianity, there is no need to be divided, so what is there left? There is no problem and we need to be open about it.
“We now have third generations of Asian and Pakistani people, we need to move on if we are going to make a space in the community. We need to integrate ourselves and be involved in politics, have your say and then your needs will be more likely to be met. Otherwise you will be isolated.
“I am so pleased we have been running Milan for the last 20 years. There is still many people that will not attend because they think ‘that is bringing shame to my family as I’m attending an older people’s club’. These kind of dilemmas keep people back.
“On the whole in many immigrant communities, the men are still working, and ladies go to the centres to chit chat and then come home. That needs to change, I feel.”
Unis believes much can still be done at local authority level to assist ethnic minorities, and she hopes to play a role in establishing future services.
“Fairness is my aim, and I think that is what drives me,” she said.
“When we used to go to council meetings decades ago, there was no mention of ethnic minorities, things are a lot better now but there is much room for improvement.
“The needs should be met from an authority’s main budget and investment should reflect what is needed, not the situation where you are saying ‘there is 4 per cent of the population ethnic minority so we will allocate that percentage from the budget’.
“Ethnic minorities are hard working and are claiming less, so why are they being ignored to the level they are? I think some are being ignored. One consequence, for example, is some of the children get bullied in schools. That is something that is demotivating and it makes a person’s experience of living here much more difficult.
“Sometimes the politicians don’t help when they talk about immigrants and so on. Look at Miliband [Labour leader, Ed] today [June 22] saying the Government made a mistake by bringing in too many immigrants, he basically seems to be saying we should be putting white people first. Are we looking at the colour or are we looking at the talent?
“Things like that will not promote him, they will demote him. I have no problem with a quota system for immigration, but comments like that make it really difficult for people who are already in this country – people who may be struggling with language, or culturally or may be lonely. Building tension against immigrants won’t help anyone and I don’t like that subject being used for party political gain.”
She added: “Definitely my recommendation is, and what I am negotiating for while working with health and social care, is to have contingency for ethnic minorities. We need to look at this issue with an eye to the future.
“If I retire from the Milan board, from which I am chair, I would like some kind of place for vulnerable ethnic minorities to go, like a one-stop-shop where they could go and get help and if need be, they could be referred to other agencies. Obviously when you get old, your confidence goes and you need your own people behind you to support you.”
She added: “There is a lot of work to do, but let us all be grateful that in a country like Scotland, change can happen. Things fundamentally are geared towards fairness and we just have to make sure we implement it. I am going to continue doing what I can.”