EVERYBODY is different, everybody is the same. Zakia Moulaoui Guery - homelessness activist, founder of Invisible Cities walking tours and Scotswoman of the Year finalist - does not believe in labels and stereotypes.

“One of the first things I realised is how much stigma surrounds homelessness – there is such a lack of information about it, even now,” she explains.

“When I was a director at the Homeless World Cup Foundation and I told people I was working with homeless men on the streets of France, people would gasp and say – ‘ but isn’t it very dangerous? How can you do that?’”

She adds: “Once you chat to people and hear their stories, you realise we all have more in common with each other than you might think. I felt privileged and honoured to hear the stories of the people we work with – and that was the thinking behind Invisible Cities. If it’s not your job, like it was mine, how will you ever hear these stories? How will you ever understand?”

Zakia, a 2019 Glasgow Times Scotswoman of the Year finalist, set up the social enterprise in 2015 to train people affected by homelessness to become walking tour guides of their own city.

Glasgow Times:

It runs tours in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and York and Zakia hopes to expand further now that coronavirus restrictions are easing.

“It has been a difficult few months, with a few ups and downs, but we seem to have coped quite well,” she says. “It is good that we have been able to restart some of the tours – it has been difficult for many of our guides in particular, not being able to see and talk to people, not being busy.

“Everyone has had their challenges to face.”

This is particularly true on a personal level for Zakia, whose mother died suddenly in May.

“It was a shock, nothing to do with the virus, but my sister Myriam and I had to leave Scotland fast to get back to France,” she explains.

“In the midst of everything that was happening around us, it was terrible. But then, in a strange kind of way, because nothing was happening and no-one was going anywhere, we could stop and take time to grieve.”

Zakia has recently added her mum’s surname of Guery to her own name.

Read more: Meet the 2019 Scotswoman of the Year finalists

“People keep asking me if I have got married,” she laughs. “It’s easier to say yes, but the truth is that I have wanted to add Guery for many years. My mum and dad were not married, so I was always Moulaoui. This seemed like the right time.”

Zakia grew up in Saint-Étienne in France, where she taught English.

“I moved to Edinburgh, and worked as a teaching assistant,” she explains. “I was much more interested in the educational side – developing classes, planning lessons – than in face to face teaching, so I realised early on it was not the job for me.”

An eight-month post at the Homeless World Cup Foundation, a global network of street soccer competitions, became five years, and she now considers Scotland her home.

“I go to France on holiday,” she smiles.

In 2014, after months of feeling unwell and having test after test, Zakia was diagnosed with bowel cancer.

“Having it at the age of 27 is unusual, and I got the news on my birthday,” she says, adding with a laugh: “I’m so dramatic. I don’t do things by halves.”

After surgery to remove the tumour and most of her bowel, Zakia had six months of chemotherapy.

“The doctors asked me if I wanted to go back to France but I did not want to leave my little flat in Leith,” she says. “I think that’s probably when I realised that Scotland was home, and will be forever.”

As life returns to normal for Invisible Cities, recent figures from Shelter reveal there are an estimated 320,000 people – one out of every 201 - who are homeless in the UK.

Read more: Walking tours of Glasgow by former homeless people back up and running after lockdown

“This did shock me,” Zakia says, slowly. “This is an increase of four per cent on last year, and it doesn’t even include ‘invisible’ homelessness, like the sofa-surfers, or people living insecurely in sheds or cars, or moving around from place to place. Things do not seem to be improving.

“These numbers are far too high, and we must work as a nation to lower them.”

Building up Invisible Cities has taken years of determination and hard work.

“It is hard sometimes, but it’s not just me, I work with some incredible people,” says Zakia. “The guides and their incredible stories, their resilience, inspire me to keep going. They are the real driving force.”