Nazieh Fazli on Perseverance
The story of Nazieh is one of perseverance. It teaches us that courage comes from walking through your fears, through all that’s uncomfortable, and ultimately letting yourself be seen.
From Jungle Keva, a luxury boutique hotel in Tulum, Mexico, we will experience Nazieh's story together. Her path towards stepping into her own was fraught with risks. Ones that she bravely took, despite the cultural boundaries and expectations. From her arrival in Iran with her family as refugees to immigrating to Australia. And eventually, against her parents' wishes, she ventured out on her own to London.
Here, in this beautiful place, Nazieh is a prominent entrepreneur. CoWorking Tulum is the membership-based community she founded. Its purpose is to provide a premium CoWorking experience and community to remote workers in Tulum, many of which moved to Tulum alone due to the pandemic, creating a sense of belonging in a foreign place.
"I ended up having a life that I couldn't have ever imagined for myself,” she says in awe as she cups the side of her face, eyes wide, moving her head from side to side.
Roots - Seeds - Love & Connection
We begin on a Saturday at Jungle Keva, a luxury boutique hotel in Tulum, Mexico. A tranquil oasis of a space that was the ideal place to start our conversation with Nazieh.
I had arrived a little early to prepare and went over questions I thought may be needed to keep the story moving. However, as Nazieh begins to tell her story, it was like listening to a well-edited podcast. Every second I was engaged! Perhaps it was because I resonated with her as a first-generation immigrant, growing up with strict traditional rules and minimal means.
She began with a hook, "A lot of people look at my life, living in London and New York independently, and now in Tulum, they wonder how is it possible I end up where I am today. Especially Afghans, they would tell me - your parents must be the most chill Afghan parents on earth because look at your life! And my parents are amazing, but they also had stringent rules. I was never allowed out of my house to do anything."
Nazieh pauses and tucks her long black hair behind her ears; an expectant pause hangs in the air. I fill the gap with a question about her childhood and where her parents were originally from.
She explains that her parents are from Afghanistan, and this is also where her older brother and sister were born. During the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s, the family decided that they must flee their country.
"All the men were expected to go to war. My father was the breadwinner, and him going off to war, leaving my mother with my siblings, was just not a viable option."
So, her mother took the children and began their journey towards Iran, telling people they came across that she was a widow.
In reality, her father had to disappear to be safe from the military. No one heard from him for months.
"We all thought he had died; we even had a funeral for him."
Shortly after a year, her father returned and reunited with his family, and soon Nazieh, her younger sister, and her younger brother were born. The family lived in the outskirts of Tehran under refugee status in an apartment. In Afghanistan, her father had been a psychology professor at Kabul University; in Tehran, he worked his way up from factory laborer to management. When they were granted asylum, the family immigrated to Australia. Nazieh was then five, and she still remembers what life was like in Tehran.
"There was a store close to our apartment, and it carried this gum that I loved, and I can still remember the taste; it's very nostalgic." Nazieh described her memories of Tehran as comfortable, but it was time for her family to move again. Like so many, as she grows into the pre-teen and adolescent years, she is confronted with the conflict that many first-generation immigrants face—finding her own identity and sense of belonging.
I can relate to moments in Nazieh's early days of schooling in Australia. The guilt of wanting to participate in school-organized activities but being unable to pay the fees. Or the first time I felt embarrassed for just being myself.
Nazieh's voice rises and falls as she engages her past emotions, and her story tumbles out. Her breakfast of chilaquiles lay barely touched between us; to take a moment to eat seemed of little importance as we connected over her words.
"I'm not sure why they make kids do this, but the teachers made us show what we're having for lunch. 90% bought lunch from the cafeteria, and I had rice in a lunchbox - not a chicken sandwich. It really highlighted that I was different, I'm not the same, and all you want to do as a kid is to be the same. Till this day, rice in a lunchbox makes me cringe - I love rice, though, love rice, always."
Because of this, she refused to eat her lunch, and soon her parents succumbed to the pressure and packed her Nutella sandwiches.
"We went for fast food and to food courts, yes, but can you imagine us, a family of seven, going to a restaurant, never. The first time I ate at a restaurant was after University as an intern for a company."
Hers was a tight-knit family. Her father had tried to look for all sorts of labor jobs, but he turned to entrepreneurism when working for others did not pan out. He began modestly buying and selling second-hand items, eventually bringing in Bali and Thailand items to sell in markets. The 10-year Nazieh helped alongside the whole family to make the business thrive.
Even though Neziah was a good daughter, following the rules laid out by her parents, she also developed an independent streak and questioned everything.
Throughout her childhood, she was repeatedly made aware that her reputation is tied to her family, and if she does anything to tarnish that, there would be significant consequences.
"To this day, I try to keep my life super private. Back then, I'd go to the mall with my friends, and six people would report to my parents. I'd try not to make eye contact with any guys. I dressed very conservatively."
In her mid 20's, Nazieh had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan for a family member's wedding. She was stunned to see her female cousin wearing what she wanted - a spaghetti-strapped dress. Nazieh looks back on this moment and realizes now that her parents had kept her family enclosed in a time capsule.
"When my parents left Afghanistan, they took the culture they knew of with them. They then tried to keep that alive with my siblings and me, and I get that, but what I saw is that our country and people have evolved - and in some ways, we were stuck in the past."
After many years of study, Nazieh was accomplished academically, and she began a job with PWC (Price Waterhouse Coopers) and was soon in management. When a transfer opportunity arose, Nazieh jumped at it and relocated to London. She was both ecstatic and hesitant. For all the joy it brought her, she knew telling her parents would be terrifying.
"Early in my career, I was asked to go spend one night in a city outside of Sydney for a conference. I still remember the exact words from my father when I told him, 'I can't believe you even have the courage to ask me that, a daughter of mine, is this a joke, you're quitting tomorrow, you don't need this job."
This was not just one night - this was moving her life to London. So what did Nazieh do? She gathered her courage and chose to move.
LOVE AND CONNECTION
Her whole life, Nazieh was told that she needed to live by certain rules and to make her way down a pre-paved path. But it didn’t feel right. She felt there was more to life than what she saw. So, to prove this, she chose to take a different path.
"They thought I was leaving for a couple of weeks. I only packed for a couple of weeks. When I got to the gate, so much went through my mind - what are you doing? They’ll never forgive you."
While she cried and her parents cried, she kept her secret and bravely walked through the gates towards security, leaving for London. For every ounce of exhilaration, there was fear of regret. She pushed out of her mind thinking about how her relationship with her family would be once they found out she had defied them.
"When I was young, I wanted to be a flight attendant. I desperately wanted to explore outside the 5km that we lived in."
Not only was she traveling outside of the 5km radius, but Nazieh knew she was taking the first powerful and significant step towards becoming the woman she knew she could be.
"As soon as I landed in London, it felt so good, so right, I was like Dora the Explorer - it was pouring rain and snow, and I was like 'this is heaven. I didn't have to worry about people seeing me on the street; I can wear what I want; it took me two to three years to really become more comfortable."
"The funny thing is, a lot of people seek freedom in doing all of these things, partying, drinking, but actually, even though I wanted these things growing up, I didn't want to anymore." She had a mission to prove to herself that she's capable of taking care of herself. And she did just that and even more.
Today, Nazieh lives in Tulum, Mexico. During her first few weeks in this seaside town, she worked remotely for Brookfield Asset Management as a Vice President in their Corporate Finance team.
Each morning she would wake up and begin an internet search for the best locations to access wifi and then set off to begin another 'day at the office' in paradise. Perhaps it is the 'energy vortex' that Tulum is known for, but one day as she went through her daily motions that Nazieh formulated the concept that would create CoWorking Tulum.
Soon her brother would join her from London to grow this incredible opportunity. Together, they began scouting locations, pitching restaurant and hotel owners, and organizing social and networking events for members.
Witnessing the ease with which Nazieh navigates through a crowd of members, I would never have guessed that she came from a confining upbringing. She greets everyone with a warm hug and gives them her undivided attention.
"My entire life - I've been told I cannot do things. Not just you cannot go out, but also, you do not have the ability to be a certain person - to be independent."
As our conversation comes to a close, Nazieh quickly takes the last few bites of her breakfast. She has the first of many daily meetings. For an entrepreneur like Nazieh, there are no days off, as she works hard to rapidly scale her business while also maintaining her position as Vice President of Finance at Brooksfield. She is passionate about the life she has built, and working seven days a week does not deter her enthusiasm.
From her humble beginnings to where she is standing before me in Tulum, Nazieh shares one final thing with me.
"I wanted to prove that I can be by myself and survive - and wanting to prove that - was the ultimate thing that pushed me to risk everything - to prove that I don't have to be dependent on anyone."
I am proud to say I am a member of CoWorking Tulum and have been since the beginning. Being involved in this venture has truly changed the way I feel about life and 'being.'
The community surrounding me is one that Neziah has built and has brought many of us a sense of belonging in a foreign place.
To give ourselves the love we deserve, we have to dare to set boundaries, even when we risk disappointing others.