By Sarah Graham, Communications Executive
For many of us, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year – but the festive period can feel quite strange for refugee women, far away from home, often separated from family and friends. We asked three members of Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) London, who were taking part in a wreath-making class run by Bread & Roses, what Christmas will be like for them this year…
“I’m really excited, I can’t wait for Christmas!” says Monica, who comes from Ghana. “This year I’m going to a friend’s house – she’s got two dogs and a flat near the river, so we’re going to go for a really nice walk, and do lots of cooking.”
Her friend’s Syrian and used to be a chef, Monica explains, so she’s expecting a feast of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. “She does a really good couscous and makes her own humous. I’m not sure what she’s got planned for Christmas dinner though, so it’ll be a nice surprise!”
Like her, Algerian Malika will be spending Christmas at a friend’s house. “She’s English, and she’s invited another friend from Vietnam, so we’ll cook and spend the day together. My friend is going to cook the English Christmas dinner, with meat and vegetables, and I’m making traditional Algerian sweets,” she says. “I don’t know what her Vietnamese friend will bring, but we’re each making something.”
As a Muslim, Malika didn’t celebrate Christmas in Algeria but says: “I like Christmas in England, especially all the beautiful lights. I’m still Muslim, but I like to celebrate Christmas because it’s a good time with friends. My friend says we all have to perform this year too, so I’ll be singing an Algerian song – I haven’t decided which yet!”
Although Monica’s looking forward to catching up with her friend, she says: “Christmas in England is boring compared to back home”. She’s used to the hustle and bustle of vehicles and public transport continuing to run throughout the 25th.
“Everyone would go to church in the morning, and then after that there’s a huge feast. Everyone cooks so much food – lots of rice, meat, vegetables, soup and fufu, a kind of semolina-like paste made from plantain and cassava powder,” she says.
“We’d spend the whole day going round to different people’s houses, wishing them merry Christmas and a happy new year, and we’ll have something to eat in each house – or take something away. My mum used to do desserts too, which is something you don’t normally get in African households. It’s all about the food! And plenty of music and dancing too,” Monica adds.
For Sarah, from Uganda, the lack of public transport is the biggest inconvenience of spending Christmas in England. She too is used to a busy Christmas day, with lots of people traveling from place to place, visiting friends and relatives. This year, she’ll be spending Christmas at a friend’s house, with a group of other refugee women.
“Everyone will cook at home and bring a little bit, and then we’ll all share together,” Sarah explains. Her contribution will be traditional African food: “I’m going to cook green banana – you boil and mash it, and then eat it with chicken or fish,” she says.
Sarah’s favourite British Christmas tradition is the idea of Father Christmas bringing presents but adds that, as a refugee, it’s difficult to buy gifts for her friends as she’d like to. “It’s really hard,” Monica agrees. “I like to buy a lot of presents and do everything myself, cook for everyone, but I can’t do that as an asylum seeker.”
For her, the best thing about spending Christmas in England is the smell: “I love the smell in the air when the weather changes from autumn to winter – it’s like this wet, cold smell, and it just smells like Christmas,” she says.
And while it may be more low key than she’s used to, Monica admits she does quite like the way public transport shuts down for the day. “It’s so quiet, it’s nice to be able to go out for a walk and enjoy the quiet,” she says. “But I do miss Christmas at home.”