An activist turned business adviser has been recognised by banking giant Visa for the ‘extraordinary contribution’ she has made in the North East of England.

Sarah Ahmadi, a project delivery manager at North East BIC, is one of 20 women who has been included in the inaugural Visa Everywhere Pioneer20 project.

The listing – run by WeAreTheCity and digital payments leader Visa – shines a spotlight on the amazing work of 20 trailblazing refugee women living in Europe.

The aim is to recognise women who are breaking down stigmas and stereotypes, campaigning, changing lives, challenging narratives and empowering women and girls across the continent.

Sarah moved to the UK from Afghanistan almost 23 years ago to flee Taliban rule. As the head of the Afghan Women’s Education Centre and chief editor of a magazine called Women, she felt it was no longer safe for her to stay in the country.

Fast-forward two decades and her decision has not only helped her to lead a happier, more fulfilled life in the UK, but also hundreds of other refugee women who have sought to use their skills and expertise to contribute to their communities.

She said: “It is an absolute honour to have been named among Visa and WeAreTheCity’s ‘20 trailblazing refugee women living in Europe’ list for 2023.

“Over the past 23 years, I have had the great pleasure of working with hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers to help them better integrate into North East life, both through my work with the Afghan British Association and United Community Action, which I chair.

“However, we could never have achieved this had it not been for the fantastic support and work of my colleagues and those that have supported us on our journey.

“The support we’ve had from the region’s business community and the communities we serve has been absolutely fantastic, so it has very much been a team effort.”

Sarah added: “I’m just one of the many refugees who come to the UK holding high level qualifications in fields such as medicine, law, entrepreneurship and management.

“Unfortunately, most who come here end up in menial labour work due to the language barrier. They have the potential to make a real contribution to the UK economy and that is why we launched RISE, to help them to do just that.”

Paul McEldon OBE, Chief Executive of the BIC, said: “I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this accolade than Sarah.

“Since she joined the BIC in 2018, she has made a real impact not only upon the team, but on the lives of so many people across the region seeking a better, more prosperous life.

“She is a real credit to her profession and we are absolutely delighted to have her as part of our team.”

Katherine Brown, Vice-President, Inclusive Impact & Sustainability at Visa Europe, said: “It is an honour to be able to highlight the journeys of these inspirational women such as Sarah who make up the inaugural Pioneer 20 list.

“In many different ways, they have all worked incredibly hard to not only rebuild their lives after significant trauma and upheaval, but to support others who are going through similar experiences.”