Zoya Jiwa defies the ordinary with her story; she has weaved the road to a vibrant life while navigating through chronic illnesses.
Hardships are often looked upon as obstacles on the path to growth and success. However, Zoya Jiwa defies the ordinary with her story; she has weaved the road to a vibrant life while navigating through chronic illnesses. Diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called lupus and a chronic pain condition called fibromyalgia since her teenage years, Zoya’s physical condition and medications significantly affected her quality of life, including her passion for fashion. Over the years, as Zoya spent time between home and medical appointments, she realized one morning that she had lost her sense of style. “I had more pajamas than pants,” recalls Zoya, who strongly believes that fashion and clothing can play a significant, positive role in how one feels emotionally, mentally and physically.
Struck by this thought, Zoya began to explore more clothing options, with adjustments like elastic waistbands or loose-fit tops that accommodated her condition. During her exploration in this field, she came across the lack of platforms for those like her. As she conducted more research, she saw an opportunity to spark a conversation around inclusive fashion, alongside highlighting and sharing the stories of people who face unique health challenges.
As Zoya was growing up, the common narrative about illness was that she could resume her life “when she was feeling better.” However, her determination prevailed as she details: “I have a chronic illness and chronic pain, so my symptoms are present each day, even if it’s a good day. I grew impatient with waiting. So, with the support of friends and family, I began to explore what a vibrant life with chronic illness could look like, just as I was.”
By creating a community around shared experiences, she desired to shift the conversation to celebrate who we are, as we are. To channel her ideas, Zoya established As We Are, a style website for people who are facing health challenges with courage and style. By combining peer mentorship and storytelling, Zoya has built a space of support for individuals experiencing symptoms and side effects of diseases, disabilities, chronic pain, and other sources of discomfort. Boasting a theme of functional fashion, the organization enables fashion to meet comfort.
During initial stages, Zoya reached out to her friends for interviews, and further connected with friends of friends. As her network grew, many began reaching out to Zoya with stories of how they used fashion to feel better in some way and live a vibrant life. Just as it was vulnerable to share her own story, Zoya recognizes the responsibility to share others’ experiences. True to the individual, each story reflects a unique narrative. For some, fashion entails adaptive clothing made for their body specifically. Others shine light on the need for education and awareness about their health condition through the lens of fashion.
In light of these conversations, when asked how one should respond if a loved one is experiencing a chronic illness, Zoya points out the following:
Offer empathy, not sympathy: Rather than pity, respond with compassion and imagine what it must be like to navigate these experiences on a daily basis. Refrain from offering ideas to ‘fix’ their illness, pain or energy levels; this usually comes across as insensitive – even when it’s meant from a place of care.
If you say you’ll be there, be there: Actions speak louder than words. If a friend finds grocery shopping exhausting, offer to be their shopping buddy, prep meals with them, or browse together for an online grocery delivery service. Support them through the activities that are particularly difficult or draining.
Listen: It feels good to be seen and heard in a space where judgment is suspended. Believe their truth and their lived experience in their body. It’s as simple as that.
Regarding what the future holds, Zoya is currently brainstorming next steps for As We Are and has exciting ideas in the realm of product and service creation to increase accessibility and independence for those who face health challenges.
A recent SFU Graduate of Sociology with a Certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Zoya has received multiple recognitions including the 2015 Terry Fox Gold Medal Award, the 2016 YWCA Young Woman of Distinction Award, and the opportunity to share her story three times on the TEDx stage. Zoya continues empowering others through her resilience, perseverance and radiance. A role-model to the community and beyond, she is a true embodiment of celebrating ourselves as we are.
Photos: Shane Sharma, Anita Cheung