By Marchu Girma, Grassroots Coordinator at Women for Refugee Women
It’s not every day I question my career choice, but recently I had the opportunity to teach English to a group of refugee women, and I thought ‘I want to do this all the time!’
The class is attended by around 20 women, from countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast, Uganda, and more. They are all on a journey towards seeking asylum. Some have been refused, some are destitute and have nowhere to go after the class, and some have British citizenship. No matter where they are on this journey though, they sit next to each other, keen to learn English so they can better communicate in their everyday lives.
The lesson I planned consisted of reading two poems, ‘Ain’t I a woman’ by Sojourner Truth and ‘Still I rise’ by Maya Angelou. I chose these two because these are my favourite poems and I admire both the authors. The message in both is uplifting and empowering.
After reading each poem, we had a discussion. When we discussed the first poem, ‘Ain’t I a woman’, many of the women felt a real connection to the themes in the poem, especially the theme of being a separated mother:
‘I have born 13 children
And seen most all sold into slavery
And when I cried out a mother’s grief
None but Jesus heard me’
Some women spoke about how the asylum system was unfair; how, because the decision on their asylum application has taken so long (for some, it’s been more than 10 years), they have been separated from their children for just as long, and missed them growing up. Some spoke about the fact they will never be reunited with their children, because the decision-making process has taken so long that they can never bring their children to this country, because their children are now adults.
The second poem, ‘Still I Rise’ was received with much enthusiasm. By the second round of reading, the class was chanting ‘I rise, I rise, I rise’, the poem’s closing lines. After we finished reading and discussing the second poem, I gave the women all some time to write a poem of their own, entitled ‘Still I Rise’. I then invited each woman who wanted to share her poem to read it out loud in front of the group.
There was a real sense of empowerment and solidarity as the women read out their poems. Many of them shared their personal stories through the words they wrote, standing in front of the class with dignity.
Many of the poems they wrote were about rising above the Home Office’s ‘bitter twisted lies’. One woman wrote:
‘When I came to this country
I was thinking a lot
But now its more
I know one day
I will get my paper
When I get them
I will dance all day
Another woman wrote:
‘I am always fighting for my life
It’s always difficult for me to get what I want
But I never give up
The class ended with sisterly applause. It can be overwhelming, the heady feeling of standing in front of such determined women, and teaching. By the end of the session there was a real sense of empowerment and accomplishment. I think we all felt as Sojourner Truth said: ‘together women ought to be able to turn it [the world] Right side up again!’