Today, I’m sharing news that feels pretty momentous for me. After 14 years of leading Women for Refugee Women I’ve decided to step aside from the role of director. I won’t be leaving the charity entirely. I’m taking on a new creative role so that I can continue to contribute to the work of Women for Refugee Women, and I’ll share more about that later.

When I founded Women for Refugee Women in 2006 I had absolutely no idea how far I would go on this journey. At the time, I was a journalist at the Guardian. I had spent some time working on a story about asylum seekers being forced into destitution in the UK, and had met a woman called Angelique. She had fled sexual violence in DR Congo, but when she arrived in the UK had been refused asylum and left on the streets. When I met her, she was homeless and heavily pregnant, walking from one end of London to another in search of food and shelter.

Listening to her, I felt so furious at how our broken asylum system lets down women who are fleeing violence, and so frustrated by the silence that surrounds their plight. With my friend Sarah Cutler I decided to organise an event to draw attention to this hidden scandal. The event took place on a warm May evening at the ICA in London. It was extraordinary. The courage of refugee women who shared their stories for actors to tell, or spoke themselves, met the generosity of the audience. I felt on that night that something magical had happened – that women were being heard, that sisterhood was being formed.

I knew that I couldn’t stop at that one event. But all we had at that time was a great deal of passion, a couple of thousand pounds from our first donors, and a network of courageous refugee women who wanted to speak up on this issue.

So we went on, step by step. We held meetings and pitched stories to journalists. We set up a trustee board and took on a first volunteer, and then a staff member. Ten years ago, we employed Marchu Girma as Grassroots Co-ordinator and the charity as it is now came into being. Marchu, a refugee woman herself, worked to ensure that refugee women’s voices and leadership are recognised at the charity and that refugee women are given pathways to develop their confidence and skills.

Over the years, WRW has taken on campaigns with honesty and passion, always looking for new allies and new ways to tell stories. In 2007, I visited Yarl’s Wood detention centre with Juliet Stevenson and we met two families with 13-year-old girls who were locked up there.  I wrote a play, Motherland, based on the experiences of Meltem Avcil and other children who had been detained, and Juliet Stevenson put it on at the Young Vic with other great actors including Harriet Walter and Noma Dumezweni. The play helped to change the conversation about this scandal, and we continued to work closely with others in the field – including the Children’s Society, Medical Justice and Bail for Immigration Detainees – against the detention of children. When the government announced the end of the detention of children in 2010, we could celebrate a step forward.

After that, the debate around detention died down, and so in 2014, we started the Set Her Free campaign against the detention of women in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. This campaign has transformed public understanding of detention, as well as changing practice and policy. The launch showed the way. It was led by refugee women who had been held at Yarl’s Wood, who spoke directly to influential supporters, including Philippe Sands, Stella Creasy, Leyla Hussein, Caroline Criado Perez and Laura Bates.

We then organised a demonstration at Yarl’s Wood, one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen outside a UK detention centre, with speakers including Rahela Sidiqi and Nimko Ali alongside Helena Kennedy QC and the local MP, Richard Fuller. We exposed the reality of women’s experiences in the centre, working with Channel 4 News on their influential exposé of abuse in Yarl’s Wood and publishing our own reports on how male staff deny women privacy in detention and how trafficked women are routinely detained.

We organised creative actions: a solidarity quilt was stitched with messages by the Women’s Institute and exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum; women who attended the Women of the World festival wrote cards to Theresa May; 99 influential women including Charlotte Church and Mary Beard wrote messages of support for the 99 pregnant women detained that year. We sang songs outside the Home Office. We talked to Angelina Jolie at the End Sexual Violence in Conflict conference, and enabled her to write a message of support for the campaign. We wrote more plays, performed by Cush Jumbo, Bryony Hannah and Alan Rickman as well as Juliet Stevenson, and went on more demonstrations, and spoke on more radio and television programmes, and lobbied more politicians, and never stopped. In 2017 we saw over 20,000 women in Trafalgar Square shout ‘Set Her Free’ at the women’s march in response to our refugee women’s drama group.

And we have seen successes in practice. Working with MPs from all parties, we achieved a time limit on the detention of pregnant women. Pressure on the treatment of women in detention has led the Home Office to set up a pilot of alternative to detention for women. Over the years, we have seen a steady reduction overall of those detained. In August this year, we heard that there are no women detained in Yarl’s Wood.

In 2020 Women for Refugee Women launched a new campaign, Sisters Not Strangers, against the forced destitution of refugee women. There are still too many women like Angelique, who have fled violence only to find themselves hungry and homeless in the UK. We now work more effectively at the grassroots, and in February 2020 we saw more than 250 refugee women and supporters come together to launch the campaign at a conference in Birmingham.

So here we are now. An organisation that started with a single event and a couple of donations and a lot of goodwill is now a registered charity with eight staff, two freelancers, 12 trustees and dozens of volunteers, and partner organisations all over the UK. We have a track record of insightful research and successful campaigning. Over 300 asylum-seeking women are on our register in London, and before the pandemic were attending our centre regularly for English classes, advice, support and creative projects. We are supported by trusts and foundations, and donors and fundraisers both small and large.

We have weathered a number of internal challenges that will be familiar to those working in this area. Trying to create an equal, kind, hopeful organisation in a society that is often none of those things can feel like an uphill struggle at times. We have made mistakes, and we – and I – have learnt a tremendous amount. Above all we work in an increasingly challenging political environment which is making some of the injustices faced by refugee women even harder to overcome.

But none of those challenges are why I have decided to step aside from the role of director. When I started Women for Refugee Women I was working as a writer, and writing is still my passion. I have published two books while running the charity. I completed the first while on maternity leave with my second child and my second on a short sabbatical. I am way overdue on a contract to write the next one.

For months, I have found myself trying to manage the charity and also write this book, wondering how long I could go on working at that pace. In March, the pandemic hit, and I found myself running even faster. I realised that there are only so many hours in the day, and this charity – this cause – needs a leader who can guide colleagues through new challenges with renewed zeal. In the summer my valued colleague Marchu Girma told me that she was leaving to take up a new role as CEO at Hibiscus Initiatives. I felt that the charity now has an opportunity to find new leadership, an opportunity which we should seize immediately.

As I say, I won’t be leaving the charity entirely. I will go on working on our creative projects, alongside refugee women who want to develop their communication and leadership skills. I want to carve out new spaces for their voices to be heard, and ensure that their stories and voices find new audiences.

The reason why WRW has achieved so much, from that one event back in May 2006, is because of all the extraordinary women who have worked with us. Refugee women such as Marjorie Ojule and Meltem Avcil, Farhat Khan and Rahela Sidiqi, Jade Amoli-Jackson and Loraine Mponela, and hundreds more, have shaped our values and work. Staff, trustees and volunteers have given time, energy and imagination. Politicians, journalists and lawyers have listened to us and worked alongside us. Funders and donors have ensured we have the resources we need. You – women and men in all walks of life –have supported us by listening, donating, turning up to events, demonstrating, and sharing our work. I’m very lucky to be able to continue being part of an amazing network that puts solidarity and sisterhood into action.

This is the start of a new chapter for Women for Refugee Women, and I’m really excited to turn the next page.

If you could be our next leader or know someone else who would be great for this role, please click here for more information about the role and how to apply.