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Episode 8: Breaking through barriers

Imagine that you live somewhere where you can’t be yourself. Some place where you’re not allowed to do what you love because of who you are or where you come from or what you look like. In episode eight of the Relate podcast, you’ll hear the stories of two people trapped by culture and stereotypes and war, and the relationships that helped them break through these barriers and be their best selves.

Featured in this episode:


MARIA TOORPAKI: So, my father introduced me as his son, but then when they asked for my birth certificate then my father had to reveal my true identity of Maria.

JAY ASAD: We felt this is the best way to help refugees is to give them what they miss and we felt the first thing they miss is their contacts and their network.

TAMARA STANNERS: Imagine that you live in a place you can't be yourself, a place where you're not allowed to do what you love because of who you are or where you come from or what you look like. Maybe you've experienced that. On the Relate Podcast this time around people trapped by culture and stereotypes and war and the relationships that help them break through these barriers and be their best selves.

SPEAKER: You're listening to Relate.

SPEAKER: You're listening to Relate by Zendesk.

SPEAKER: Zendesk builds software for better customer relationships.

SPEAKER: For better customer relationships.

TAMARA STANNERS: I'm Tamara Stanners and this is Relate by Zendesk. We're starting out in the tribal areas of Pakistan, a stronghold of the Taliban. This is a harsh place especially for women and girls who are largely kept in the shadows, not allowed to really engage in cultural or political life.

MARIA TOORPAKI: Women are not allowed to reply back to someone who is standing outside the door knocking, right? And if they reply or they peer outside the house they are brutally beaten. They are all married in young age and they are living a miserable life and they still can't disobey.

TAMARA STANNERS: This is Maria, she's our central character.

MARIA TOORPAKI: My name is Maria Toorpakai Wazir and I'm a professional squash player from Pakistan.

TAMARA STANNERS: Growing up she was an energetic and strong-willed little girl, but she was surrounded by a culture that wouldn't allow her to explore and grow as a person. She knew something wasn't right with her situation by the age of five. She noticed that boys could roam freely, they could play sports, they could have fun.

MARIA TOORPAKI: I thought that maybe the boys have different hair style and the clothing, so that's why they have a lot of fun outside, they're allowed to do whatever they want.

TAMARA STANNERS: So, she hatched a plan. First, she had to get rid of her girl clothes.

MARIA TOORPAKI: Somehow I remember I did collect all my clothes in the backyard and we had a tree and under that tree my mom used to cook bread on fire and I burned those clothes too. I put the kerosene or oil and burned that.

TAMARA STANNERS: Then, she put on her brother's clothes and proceeded to step two of her transformation, her hair.

MARIA TOORPAKI: And I also cut my hair with the scissor, it was a big scissor and I didn't know how to hold it. So, I was holding it with two hands I was just chopping everywhere a chunk of hair. Then, I remember my dad came in.

TAMARA STANNERS: What happened next changed the course of Maria's life.

MARIA TOORPAKI: He never said anything bad to me. That's what I remember, that his response was not like that. I remember my mom actually she screamed in the beginning that what happened, but my dad was ... he handled me very gently. I don't remember the words, but I remember how gently he responded.

TAMARA STANNERS: With that simple gesture of acceptance Maria became a boy. Her father's son for all intents and purposes and she began a new life.

MARIA TOORPAKI: That day I was very happy because my dad accepted me. So, my father named me Genghis Khan as his son and after that my hairstyle, my clothing and my name was all boyish and for that reason I had so much fun and I never felt like a girl, I never felt deprived of my rights or of my freedom.

TAMARA STANNERS: Maria didn't just dress like a boy. She played with the boys, she fought with the boys. In fact, her father was often called out about the overly aggressive behavior of his son, Genghis Khan. So, Maria's father decided to try to channel that aggression and energy. He signed Maria up for weightlifting at a local sports complex. It was a useful distraction for a while.

MARIA TOORPAKI: Well, the first thing, you know, with weight lifting I got bored because I couldn't see any challenge and in the break time I would go to the squash courts. There were squash courts beside this weight lifting hall and when I would go there I would find so much fun in there. The boys would have colorful outfits and they're diving and jumping, getting the ball after one bounce and they're playing in this beautiful squash court.

TAMARA STANNERS: Maria was transfixed. She realized that she had to play this sport. Once again Maria's father was supportive. He was happy that she might take to this sport where she could beat up a squash ball instead of the boys in her neighborhood. She went to join the squash academy, a place where the legends of the sport in Pakistan had trained, but there was one small problem.

MARIA TOORPAKI: To enroll in this academy you have to present your birth certificate.

TAMARA STANNERS: Maria was at risk of being exposed and being exposed meant that she would lose the freedom of her life as a boy. She and her father went to the director of the squash academy. Her father introduced Maria as his son, but when he had to produce Maria's birth certificate he had to admit the truth.

MARIA TOORPAKI: Luckily, that guy was so kind and so happy that finally a girl is going to play sports in there and then right away he, you know, gifted me a squash racket, he drove me to the squash courts, he showed me how to start squash and then he said, "It's now up to you how you became a champion."

TAMARA STANNERS: Maria would spend hours at the squash academy training, practicing, getting better and better and she loved the sport, but her string of good luck and sympathetic relationships was about to end.

MARIA TOORPAKI: I was playing by myself: hitting. It was afternoon time, so afternoon was usually very quiet. So, when I was hitting by myself at that time this director of squash academy, his name was Parvir Syed Mir. So, when he came to the academy for inspection he asked the staff, the academy staff, "How is that girl doing?" And then, nobody knew that I was a girl and it was a surprise for them and they said, "There- there is no girl here." So, he brought them up to the squash gallery and he pointed towards me and he said, "That is- that is a girl." And nobody believed actually and everybody was laughing. They were like, you know, "It's not a girl." And it was a huge discussion there, but then, you know, they were very protective, they were very kind to me always.

TAMARA STANNERS: The academy staff was very protective of Maria even after they learned her true identity, but it wasn't enough to protect her from the outside world. Word got out.

MARIA TOORPAKI: The kids in the squash club they were all coming from that area where we were living at that time, so the news spread out in the area where I was coming from. So, everybody started bullying me;, nobody was my friend anymore and I never grew up with girls, so it was very hard to fit in anywhere. I was left all by myself and if I go out I was bullied, I was harassed and, you know, a few times attacked. It was mental torture and I didn't know what changed. I'm still the same person and I always operated as a human, not as one gender or another gender. So, for me it was never a change, but for the world it changed everything as soon as they came to know about me that I'm a girl.

TAMARA STANNERS: Maria lost her coach. She had no one to play against, but she kept going to the courts. She'd play on her own for hours and hours creating drills for herself. Working at it for 10 hours a day, getting better and better through sheer determination.

MARIA TOORPAKI: With all that hard work that I did I finally proved that I am- I'm good and I'm not an dishonorable girl, I'm there only to play squash and I started winning championships and, you know, I won all the Pakistan National Championships. I won international tournaments at the same time I ended up third in a World Juniors and it was semi-finals in many tournaments. Even silver medalist in South Asian Games. And I got recognition from the government. The government awarded me many national awards.


MARIA TOORPAKI: After that I got threats from the Taliban. First we got few phone calls, we also got a letter to my dad. It was all about how we do things in our family and they were threatening my dad to stop his daughters to be in public or doing such things. So, my father, you know, he came to me and he said, you know, "What do you want to do? Like, do you want to play squash? I am still supporting you. If you stop squash I, you know, it's your decision." So, for that reason I had to stop playing squash. For three years I didn't play squash, but I was playing in my room.

And then Pakistan Squash Federation, the Air Chief Marshall, he called me, he asked me why I'm not coming to the squash academy. He's an air force guy, he's an Air Chief Marshall, if you tell this kind of thing, a threat from Taliban, you think what's gonna happen. He became so upset and he said, "Well ..." He hung up the phone. In the evening I see the whole parliament in Pakistan, they were discussing my security issue and it was all over the news. And they provided me with undercover security, they put the snipers around our house, in the area, even on the squash courts, everything was put snipers everywhere.

TAMARA STANNERS: Maria was being protected by the state, but it was no way to live and certainly no way to develop as an athlete, always looking over her shoulder in fear for her life. So, like she did at five years old, she came up with a plan to solve her problem. She wrote emails to squash organizations around the world.

MARIA TOORPAKI: Three years later I heard from the National Squash Academy in Toronto.

TAMARA STANNERS: The Directors of the academy in Canada offered to sponsor Maria to come and train in Toronto. Maria could finally dedicate herself to her passion without fear of violence. Today, Maria Toorpakai has a successful career. She supports herself by competing and coaching in the sport she loves.

MARIA TOORPAKI: I'm playing squash in peace; I'm working. I have a skill that with that skill I am, today, supporting myself, my living. At the same time, it doesn't seem real to me because it's, as I said, it's a miracle and sometimes I question that maybe God chose me for something special.

TAMARA STANNERS: She may have been chosen by fate or God, but her father who named her for a time after the fierce warrior, Genghis Khan, he must have had a sense that one of the best ways to help someone thrive is to accept them for who they are. You can read more about Maria Toorpakai's story in her book, A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid From the Taliban in Plain Sight, published by Viking Press.

There's clearly an intense bias against women and girls in the region where Maria grew up and it's easy to condemn, but the fact is we're all biased in some way. It's built into human nature. The trick is identifying and understanding bias. If you want to learn how to minimize your own biases check out The Relate online magazine. There's an article there called “The Art of The Unbiased Interview.” It breaks down all the ways you might be biased and helps you clarify your thinking, especially when it comes to hiring new staff. You can find that article and tons more helpful stuff at

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TAMARA STANNERS: The news out of Syria has been consistently awful since the war began there in 2011 and the refugee crisis never seems to end. One of the typical stories is of how refugees languish in camps with nowhere to go and no community to rely on, but there's a sliver of light in an otherwise terrible situation. One that could influence not only how refugees are treated, but how immigrants around the world can better integrate into their new communities.

Jay Asad is a Syrian entrepreneur who’s lived and worked all over the world. This story begins with the start of the Syrian war in 2011. Jay was working in Dubai at the time and he decided to return home.

JAY ASAD: At that time I felt, uh, I really should go back because my parents are elders were in Syria and I felt maybe it's best that we are together, you know, at this hard time. And I never thought that it would go this far, I mean, this bad and would take this long. I thought maybe one year then it would be over, but unfortunately things went completely against what- whoever imagined, you know?

TAMARA STANNERS: Since the war began more than five million Syrians have fled the country for their own safety. Jay was one of them.

JAY ASAD: In almost the end of 2014 when Isis just showed up it was a clear sign for me to get out because it was impossible to live with that. And I took the decision to take the flight, but because it's very dangerous I had to do it by myself. I left my family in Damascus and I took the trip that everybody knows. The boat, the train, the flight, the everything you can imagine. And the moment you take the decision to make this trip you believe you are a Superman, that nothing's gonna happen to you and at the same time this is your only choice. So, when I decided to go I even spoke to my family telling them, "I would never take the- the boat, the rubber boat thing, you know?" But, of course, when I arrived there and they told me this is the only one that's available I said ... I jumped at it. I said, "I'll go."

TAMARA STANNERS: Jay wound up in the Netherlands at the end of 2014. He received a residency permit four months after he arrived, but it took him another year to arrange for his family to join him. In the meantime, he was staying at a camp for asylum seekers with many other refugees who were in limbo. In the Netherlands, people with a residency permit are allowed to work, but work is not always easy to find.

JAY ASAD: Believe it or not, I could not work. I mean, I even tried to go do volunteer work and I visited many place and I talked to them. They said, "Well, sorry. Without Dutch, we can't even hire you as a volunteer." And Netherlands have a very elaborate and complex system of receiving and housing refugees, which, I mean, we thank them for, but the problem is it was tailor made for receiving these people and putting them on the sideline of society rather than blending them really and actually they say, “This is their main goal: is to integrate these refugees in the society.” Looking at the past I think it did not do a very good job in my opinion.

For me, it felt like, the movie of Tom Hanks, Terminal? I woke up every day like this guy, waiting for my mail or maybe for news or ... But I don't know what's gonna happen to me. I felt that the system is requiring me just to sit and be quiet and, “Don't make trouble and you are fine. Here's your food, here's a place to sleep. Okay? You all right? Then fine."

TAMARA STANNERS: The waiting was killing ambition and Jay saw it happening all around him.

JAY ASAD: For me what really concerned me is the difficulties on the collective level, you know? I looked at all these refugee guys because you have to understand these guys are not here by choice. They came against their will. These people left a life behind and a lot of them had the very successful life and they want that back as soon as possible whatever it takes. And believe it or not these guys are really resilient. When you are someone who takes this trip you have powers that you don't have when you are a normal person. And I want to capitalize on that for their benefit and for everybody's because if we just leave them as what I saw in the camp sitting doing nothing and time flies and then they come back to you after five years and say, "Well, the only job we have for you is maybe to clean." And for some of these guys this is really, I mean, not the kind of life that they would hope for. And it would just destroy them. Believe me, it could be as bad as the war.

It takes long to integrate the people in and by the time they are ready to integrate they have already lost hope or maybe became used to just sitting doing nothing and this is really a problem. So, when I looked at it and I saw how these guys are just sitting and doing nothing and don't know, they can't see even the light at the end of the tunnel or there's something to live for. I felt that, you know, then I really should do something and create maybe another path for them to accelerate this process. And the best thing is I think is the private sector and with my experience as an entrepreneur. I felt entrepreneurship could be the answer.

While I was in the camp I started a course in entrepreneurship and I invited all those guys that I met that I felt they are capable of doing something and then we started exploring it together. These guys know how to make money, they know how to build businesses, but they don't know the rules, the regulations, the soft skills that you need to do it in a society that's new to you.

TAMARA STANNERS: At the camp Jay met a Dutch women named, Fleur Bakker, who'd worked with refugees for almost 15 years. They decided to join forces and start a business called Refugee Company to help provide refugees with work and experience and to get them started on their own business ideas.

JAY ASAD: And we felt the first thing they miss is their contacts and their network because here you are just a number, you know no one and nobody knows you and nobody knows what you are capable of and we felt this is the best way to help refugees is to give them what they miss. In the beginning, of course, I was an unemployed refugee just like all the other guys and when I was preaching entrepreneurship or talking about work it felt a little bit weird that, you know, people look at me and say, "Well, are you a business owner?" I said, "Well, not yet." They said, "Well, how do we know that what you telling us is something that is right because it's not experienced yet?" So, I came to decision that I think I should start a business myself and then when I tell them this is what happened with me then they can feel that somebody already paved the way, they went through the difficulties and when I give them the advice then it's something that's reasonable.

We did create a very suitable condition for refugees to explore their chanced and their abilities. I got this guy who's an upholsterer and we picked some furniture from the street, you know, and this guy reupholstered it, we just put it in our show room and all of a sudden people were interested to hire this guy and he still doesn't speak Dutch and it worked. Of course, I understand the value and the importance of learning the language, but it takes some time and to not do anything until that time I think it's a mistake.

TAMARA STANNERS: Refugee Company is located in a center for asylum seekers in Amsterdam and it's a combination of businesses.

JAY ASAD: We have started a nice event space where we have companies come in and do their dinners and functions and we have also a sewing atelier where we started a company called Refugee Company Shirts. We make custom made and handmade shirts for business people and that is doing very well. And I have Fulfill Falafel, which is I think, the first franchise company gonna be offered to refugees where they can open their own small shop almost anywhere even mobile with a central food production facility. If you just give them the hope that with time they will be able to do what they want to do then I think this makes everything a lot easier for them in the sense of, "Well, it would take three years to do that. Fine I have no problem if I know that I can do it if I follow this direction and do the following steps then I can reach that. Then, I do have a goal, I have something to work for." Develop their network and show them the path how they can follow to reach what they think they want to do in the future.

And once you help a refugee develop you're helping, uh, your society to show them that these guys can be asset rather than a liability, okay? That is, in my opinion, the biggest help. Once you see these guys can be a productive member of the society then you will tend to start, you know, looking at them in a different way. So, it's a matter of just everybody opening up to the other and seeing what is their potential, how they can help each other.

TAMARA STANNERS: That's it for Relate this time around. In two weeks we'll have stories for you about combating isolation for military families who are always moving and an international men's group that builds relationships by building stuff and fixing stuff and inventing stuff. In the meantime, you can subscribe to the show wherever you listen to podcasts, that way you'll get the next episode automatically.

For more articles on connecting your customers in deeper ways visit and if you want to explore technology built to improve your customer interactions head over to for a free trial. I'm Tamara Stanners, talk to you soon.