A warm and firm handshake, topped up with a direct, friendly gaze sets the tone for the interview as I greet this charismatic entrepreneur. Izhaar Ali had asked me to meet him at the family curry house, the Sweet Centre Restaurant in Bradford, which is steeped in 50 years of proud meal preparation history with three generations of his family smiling down on us from a gallery of black and white photographs. I am here to hear all about his unusual and inspiring success story.
In 2015, having completed “his obligatory stint” in education with a degree in Clinical Sciences at the University of Bradford, the self-proclaimed ‘Bradford Lad’ went to China to “just start somewhere”. He has emerged as a highly acclaimed motivational speaker, talk show host and international coordinator for foreigners with a great story to tell.
This story begins with a grandfather who saw a “tiger” in the sickly and skinny little boy who was the focus of worry for his mother. “He believed in me when nobody else did and planted the first seeds of confidence in me,” Ali reminisces. He gestures towards the photo gallery. “This is why we are here today. I wanted to tell my story with him looking over my shoulder.”
Role models have shaped Ali’s life. At the age of 11, he received a small book about the big importance of having dreams from his then English teacher. “You should read this, lad. I can see that this is just the thing for you,” she had said. The book was ‘I have a Dream’ by Martin Luther King. He remembers the profound impact reading the book had on him. “I thought: Wow, this is the kind of man I want to be.” King’s influence was soon built upon by absorbing the works of human rights activist Malcolm X and American rapper Tupac Shakur, during what Ali calls “his rebellious phase” in his teenage years. “I was constantly looking for sources of inspiration to grow the seeds of confidence I knew I had in me” Ali explains. “I got a thrill from pushing boundaries, and all of my role models reflected my state of mind at any given time in my life.”
At the age of 20, Ali attempted to break the mould for the first time by taking a teaching job in China, where his uncle had already settled. “It was a spur of the moment decision. I didn’t know anything about China, but I so badly needed to do something different. And, it turned out to be a bit of a culture shock.” Ali laughs. “Instead of teaching English to well-behaved children in a lovely school, I got chased daily by rabid stray dogs to and from the shack I was working in.” Ali admits that it had hurt to get it wrong, but also stresses that he learned a lot from the pains of failure. Having had to face the challenges full on made him grow up and realise that he did not have to give up on his dreams but had to streamline them first.
He came home to Bradford and enrolled at theUniversity of Bradford in a 3-year Clinical Sciences course from which he emerged with a renewed and even greater desire to break free from the confines of a conventional life.
Equipped with what he felt were the right tools, he returned to China to resume his soul-searching activities; and was immediately confronted with a difficult situation that was to determine the course of the next three years of his life.
A serious medical emergency involving his younger brother Anwaar, who had come to China with Ali, made him realise that support services for foreigners in similar situations were non-existent. In Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province in Eastern China, English speakers and knowledge about foreign cultures were rare.
The ensuing communication issues and the lack of positive interaction with the nursing staff at the local hospital stirred up a desire in Ali to change the status quo. He began to record his findings, not only relating to his brother’s care but also to that of other foreigners who had found themselves to be confined in the hospital during their stay in China.
An idea began to form in his head. ‘What if there was somebody here in this hospital who could answer all the questions foreigners may have about the medical care they would receive and who could train the nursing staff on how to handle the care of these people?’
He took his findings and the idea to the hospital’s director, who appointed him as a Voluntary International Coordinator at the Zhejiang First Hospital.
Having spent a year learning Mandarin and building a team of volunteers, who would continue his work, he had expanded his services to 14 other hospitals.
It was time to move on.
“During the public speaking events I had held at the hospitals for the nursing staff, I noticed that this had come naturally to me. I was helping people to gain confidence and self-worth with the training sessions” Ali explains excitedly. He became passionate about instilling confidence in other people, like his grandfather and other role models had in him. “I wanted to sow the seeds of confidence in people and nurture them to growth by becoming their teacher.”
For the next two years, he saturated himself with studying different ways of positive influencing methods and put his theories into practice on the public speaking circuit and more recently by hosting and broadcasting the podcast talk show ‘Alleyway to China’ on the nationwide Chinese social media platforms Wechat and Youku.
Ali feels that role models and great teachers are the key to awaken hidden desires in people; to make them listen to their inner voice and make them want more from life than a placid approval of their environments and the situations they find themselves in.
Periodically returning to Bradford during the past three years, a time during which he has seen himself changing and advancing steadily, has made him observe how a shortfall of inspiration and repetitively negative behaviour combined with high youth unemployment have caused an almost pre-programmed lack of aspiration amongst the people in his home city.
“I am a Bradford lad through and through,” Ali declares. “I have lived here most of my life, I have been confused growing up, and I know how difficult it is to break the mould. It hurts me to see people around me landing in dead-end situations without having ever attempted to find themselves.”
He wants to change this and become a role model for Bradford’s disillusioned youth. “The young people of Bradford need an alternative perspective, to be shown by one of their own that there is something else out there and that obstacles are there to be overcome!” Ali urges.
The seeds that were sown nearly two decades ago by his grandfather have reached a level of growth to allow Ali to harvest and plant them amongst his peers.
“There is a yearning in every person. It must be nurtured to create a better society,” are Ali’s final words to me as we shake hands.
Ali is lecturing at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, and has a youtube channel where you can follow his journey.
About the Author
This article was written by Caren Launus-Gamble, a freelance writer and journalist from Leeds, West Yorkshire. www.clg-writing.co.uk