Volunteer Week: "I volunteer...to be part of a political movement for refugee women"

by Katie, volunteer for Women for Refugee Women

Volunteers are people who take on unpaid work because they have a deep belief about service and what they are meant to do with their lives. And they keep doing it even if it is difficult or heart-breaking. And there are rewards.

One of the biggest rewards for me has been the connections with other volunteers: the other women who do check-in calls to women in our network.  The volunteers in other organisations that I liaise with who make sure food and nappies and clothes get delivered. The volunteers who teach English, knitting, writing and lullabies- a shout out to Mariam, Sandra, Jane, Helen, Stephanie and Hilkka-Liisa. We share how we are affected by the women we support and think together how we can support them better.

Being able to enrol one of the women I support in a class was a delight, added to later by hearing how much they were getting out of it.

I volunteer for Women for Refugee Women in order to be part of a political movement for refugee women. So, to the women in our network who volunteer to develop and promote the wider political work, I salute you.

This week is Volunteers’ Week! At Women for Refugee Women we are so grateful to our talented volunteers who share their time and skills with us each week, helping us to welcome and support our London network of over 350 refugee and asylum-seeking women. Each day this week we will be sharing one of our wonderful volunteer’s reflections, read the rest of this series here.

Volunteer Week: "The organisation inspires me"

by Sandra, volunteer for Women for Refugee Women

My experience of volunteering with WRW is many-layered and the organisation inspires me on many levels.

When I first started to call the women in the group I was allocated at the beginning of the second lockdown, I thought it would simply involve a friendly ear every couple of weeks.  As the months pass by and my involvement with the lives of individual women in a range of situations, some distressed, some in pain, some resigned and others just getting on with life, this meant much more to me and to them, I think.

Often, I can offer support through WRW, referrals or just talk through thorny issues as one human to another. Sometimes I can feel helpless or even guilty, and this is one area in which WRW are so impressive - not only are they committed to giving the women from refugee backgrounds a voice, they also listen to the volunteers' anxieties and concerns.  Not only through regular team meetings and one-to-one calls with our Co-ordinator, but also by offering us sessions with a professional psychologist and zoom space just for the volunteers.

WRW also listens to our suggestions and has supported me in setting up a Radical Knitting session for those women who want to learn.  The experience of seeing the pride of six women who can now knit is joyous! The sessions are chaotic and full of laughter.

Finally, through the other volunteers and my own reflections on my experience, I am continuing on a journey of my own self-development, signing up for a module in working with people from refugee backgrounds and workshops on shame resilience and transformation skills. The continuing evolution of WRW, its self-awareness and willingness to listen and respond is laudable.

This week is Volunteers’ Week! At Women for Refugee Women we are so grateful to our talented volunteers who share their time and skills with us each week, helping us to welcome and support our London network of over 350 refugee and asylum-seeking women. Each day this week we will be sharing one of our wonderful volunteer’s reflections, read the rest of this series here.

Volunteer Week: "Seven years later, I am still here, and I still love it"

by Helen, volunteer for Women for Refugee Women

I had my first hip replacement in 2014 and, knowing that my normal busy life would have to be restricted for a few months, I emailed everyone I knew and asked them for suggestions about how to use this time most productively.

The long list that came back was amazing – random, creative, off-the-wall, serious... I can't remember which of the ideas I did take up, except for one – a friend who was volunteering at WAST suggested that if I could make my way down to Old Street (one bus journey away), I might be of any general help...  So I did and met some of the other volunteers and workers and some of the women coming to drop-in classes.  I immediately loved the atmosphere and it soon became obvious the best use of my skills would be to help with the English classes (I'd been a teacher of English in a French secondary school for several years).

And seven years later (seven?? how can that be already?), I am still here, and I still love it (although obviously it's going to be much better when we can do face-to-face classes again).

I love the contact with the wide range of amazing women are involved in the project.  The students never fail to amaze me with their resilience, warmth and commitment and I love to see them growing in confidence. The other volunteers and staff members are welcoming, efficient, and committed.  I really enjoy the intellectual challenge of designing classes that are appropriate for such a wide range of experiences and skill levels, that are challenging and interesting as well as informative. And there's no greater thrill than when a student comes out with an expression or correct grammatical construction that we studied maybe weeks earlier.

I feel so privileged to have had this opportunity to be involved with WAST  - thank you to everyone involved.

This week is Volunteers’ Week! At Women for Refugee Women we are so grateful to our talented volunteers who share their time and skills with us each week, helping us to welcome and support our London network of over 350 refugee and asylum-seeking women. Each day this week we will be sharing one of our wonderful volunteer’s reflections, read the rest of this series here.

Volunteer Week: "I hope that lending a hand continues to be an important part of everyone's lives"

by Enez, volunteer for Women for Refugee Women

I started volunteering with Women for Refugee Women in January 2020. I was in my final year of my undergraduate degree in Social Sciences and feeling exasperated with the discourse surrounding immigration, race and sexism. Instead of languishing in my hopelessness, I decided I wanted to become involved in a community that was actively celebrating the work that refugee women are doing to change narratives and campaign for better rights. That’s when I started helping facilitate the ‘mothers and toddlers’ group. Every Monday morning for an hour or so we would sing, dance and play with the mothers and children who enthusiastically joined in to the endless repetitions of ‘The Wheels on the Bus’. But then March came around and everything changed. As we transitioned to on-the-phone support, it was hard to imagine that the hugs, laughs and dancing we shared were only weeks in the past. But still, over the phone I got to know many women in the network that I had never previously met. We still laugh and talk – without seeing each other's smiles – and speak fondly of the day we will be able to meet and hug again.

Volunteering with Women for Refugee Women has been an important part of my life for the past year and a half. At moments where I felt more disconnected from my communities than ever before, I still had a network of women that I never lost touch with. I have also come to know my fellow volunteers better from my computer screen. Meeting weekly, then fortnightly, on zoom for the past year; I look forward to hearing about their lives and working together to try and help someone in the network. We have also had important conversations about positionality, boundaries and our role as volunteers. These are ongoing concerns which were further brought to light by the pandemic, as well as conversations about race and lived experience. They are not always easy conversations to have, but they are certainly important ones which have been incredibly impactful on the way we provide support as volunteers.

I hope that the sense of community which has been absolutely vital over the past year won’t disappear. I know that Women for Refugee Women has been, and will continue to, empower and foster its growing community. But, I have also seen the critical role of the mutual aid groups and food banks which popped up to support those worst affected by the pandemic. I hope that lending a hand continues being an important part of everyone's lives and that we continue to build communities of care.

This week is Volunteers’ Week! At Women for Refugee Women we are so grateful to our talented volunteers who share their time and skills with us each week, helping us to welcome and support our London network of over 350 refugee and asylum-seeking women. Each day this week we will be sharing one of our wonderful volunteer’s reflections, read the rest of this series here.

Volunteer Week: "I want to be part of that!"

by Liane, volunteer for Women for Refugee Women

One day, a few years ago, I decided I wanted to do some volunteer work that complimented the nature of the participatory photography projects that I run. My projects are about empowerment, self-representation, creativity and working together towards a shared outcome.

Women for Refugee Women is the embodiment of this way of working.

They use creativity to empower and give voice to the extraordinary women in their network.

Together, they work towards and accomplish real change in a hostile political system.

Yes please, I want to be part of that!

So I have had the privilege of volunteering with them since 2019.

Pre-pandemic, I helped with their Monday drop-in centre, where over 200 women would attend classes and various other activities throughout the day.

It was a joyful experience, full of love, chaos, positive energy and connection. And an abundance of humour.

I loved it.

Once Covid hit, the remarkable staff at WRW had to adapt quickly, and the role of the volunteers changed dramatically.

We were each given a list of women to make supportive weekly calls to in order to stay connected.

Two amazing things then happened.

Firstly, the volunteers (alongside the stupendous grassroots coordinator, Viki) became a team. Together we tapped into the whole world of charities, such as food and baby banks, sharing information in order to help accommodate the needs of the women we were calling. It has been a real team effort, and I have felt completely supported by this exceptional group of women volunteers.

Secondly, it has been a profound experience making strong and meaningful connections with many of the women from the network that I’ve been speaking so frequently with over the past year. I feel honoured that many have shared their difficult stories with me. I have also felt uplifted by their personal breakthroughs and successes. There is a real sense of mutual respect alongside sharing a good laugh, a few tears, and a lot of hope.

I could not have asked for a better volunteer experience.


This week is Volunteers' Week! At Women for Refugee Women we are so grateful to our talented volunteers who share their time and skills with us each week, helping us to welcome and support our London network of over 350 refugee and asylum-seeking women. Each day this week we will be sharing one of our wonderful volunteer's reflections, read the rest of this series here.

The day I survived

By Alphonsine Kabagabo, director of Women for Refugee Women

On 13 April 1994, a miracle happened to me and my family.

When we learnt about the death of the Rwandan President, Juvénal Habyarimana, on 7 April 1994, we knew that it was over for every Tutsi person in Rwanda. On that day, I was with my daughter who was 6 months old, one of my sisters and her two children, my parents and few other extended family members. We decided to gather in a small house in the garden of my parents’ house hoping the militia killers would not find us.

But a few hours later, some militia and soldiers came to our house. They said, ‘We are going to kill you.’ My dad gave them whatever he could find and they left. Two hours later they came back. My dad begged them, ‘Please don’t kill my children!’ He gave them the rest of his money and asked one of them to take us to the church. He could have killed us, but instead he took us to a Catholic church that was just 5 minutes away from our house. When we got there, we thought we were safe, but that was not the case.

There were so many people – some injured, others dying. We were all so scared.

I was the teacher at the school just next to the church, so I knew the priest well. I went to him and told him there was small house where some other teachers lived nearby. I asked him if myself and my daughter, my sister and her children could go to hide there, so we could try and find milk for the children. He agreed and we went to hide in this house with few of my colleagues.

An hour after we had left, the militia and soldiers came to kill the people in the church. My mum, dad, nephew and niece were all at the church. Someone came running and told us they were killing people, so we thought, ‘That’s it, they are dead.’ But during the night the priest brought my dad and my nephew to the house. We could not believe it! My mum and my niece, Yvette, were not with them, and we cried because and we were sure that they must have been killed.

On 13 April 1994, a week after the beginning of the genocide, the priest who called my dad and told him that someone was looking for him and me. I thought it was the end and that we were going to be killed. We got out of our hiding place for the first time in seven days and were shocked to see Guy, my Belgian brother-in-law, and his colleagues standing there! It is a moment that I will never forget. It was like seeing God himself appearing! I was overcome with emotion as I ran back to the house to take my baby and call my sister, my nephew, my dad and my nieces.

The miracle continued as we were reunited with two of our loved ones, who we had thought were dead. When they had started killing people in the church, my mum fell on the floor and bodies fell on top of her. She was found amongst the bodies by the priest, who hid her in another place with few other survivors of the attack. My niece was also hiding with my mum - she had managed to run and hide in the bush during the attack!

Guy took us from College St Andre in Nyamirambo to Kanombe airport in a military tank, then to Kenya, and a few days later to Belgium. We were safe! Guy had negotiated special permission to find his in-laws and was only supposed to take them, but he couldn’t leave the rest of us behind. He ended up taking nine of us to a safe country! We were lucky to be rescued and to be given refugee status only a few months after our arrival in Belgium.

I am grateful to the family, friends and organisations who helped us to rebuild our lives. I can’t forget the sense of happiness I felt because we were safe. But life as a refugee was not easy. I could feel myself losing self-esteem and confidence because of the social system and because some people made us feel so unwelcome! As a professional with experience of teaching and leading youth organisations in Rwanda, I was told that all I could do is to become a cleaner! However, with resilience and support from family and friends, I managed to rebuild my life and build a career allowing me to fulfill my passion of empowering girls and young women. I worked as the Regional Director for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts for over 20 years.

I am now the Director for Women for Refugee Women, a job that allows me to continue to support the most vulnerable women in our society!

Today, I celebrate being alive. But it’s a day of sadness for me too, remembering the friends and extended family members who were killed or who lost loved ones, the women who were raped, the children who were made orphans. Today is a day that reminds me the failure of the international community as the genocide was committed in the presence of UN peace keepers who weren’t allowed to rescue Rwandese people. I am grateful for what happened to my family, but always feel upset that the Belgian soldiers and UN peace keepers were not allowed to save more people.

Today it is also almost a month since Priti Patel announced the launch of the UK’s ‘New Plan for Immigration’. This plan will make it even harder for women like me, who have to flee for their lives, to find safety in the UK and begin to rebuild their lives. It disgusts and upsets me to think that women seeking safety from wars, gender-based violence, trafficking, rape and other violence will not be supported to be safe and to rebuild their lives. I will do all I can to share my story so that people can understand the reality of why women like me need to be able to cross borders to seek safety.

I hope that one day there will be no more genocide. I hope that every child and young person will grow up understanding the importance of love and compassion for one another.

One day love will win!

The ‘re-purposing’ of Yarl’s Wood and the invisibility of women in immigration detention

by Gemma Lousley, Detention Policy and Research Coordinator

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of women held in immigration detention in the UK has dropped dramatically. At the end of December 2019, there were 121 women in detention. By the end of March 2020 – just after the first national lockdown came into force – this number had fallen to 42. By mid-August, there were fewer than 20 women in detention.

At this point, the Home Office announced that they were ‘re-purposing’ Yarl’s Wood, which for so long had been the only detention centre in the UK predominantly for women. It was stated that Yarl’s Wood would become a short-term holding facility, instead, for men arriving in the UK by boat.

The arrival of refugees in the UK via the English Channel has, increasingly over the past six months, been whipped up as a ‘crisis’ by the government and some sections of the media – despite the fact that the proportion of the world’s refugees who manage to get to the UK is tiny. As some have pointed out, by presenting the arrival of refugees via the Channel as a ‘crisis’ and proposing various ‘solutions’ to this, including the re-deployment of Yarl’s Wood, the government has attempted to distract from its incompetence and neglect in the handling of the pandemic.

So, Yarl’s Wood did not close; it simply became a different type of detention centre. For the men held there since its ‘re-purposing’, Yarl’s Wood has continued to inflict the same racist harms that defined it while it was locking up women. A recent report on the use of Yarl’s Wood as a short-term holding facility highlights that the men detained there are from countries including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Sudan. These men have found it almost impossible to get proper legal advice; they have not been able to access safeguarding mechanisms for survivors of torture and trafficking, which are supposed to protect against their detention; and they have not been provided with adequate medical care.

Keeping Yarl’s Wood ‘open’ has also meant that the Home Office could ‘re-purpose’ it once more at a moment’s notice – which it now has done. We have just learned that, alongside operating it as a short-term holding facility for men, the Home Office has started indefinitely detaining women at Yarl’s Wood again. We understand that there are currently around 10 women locked up there.

The Home Office apparently re-started the indefinite detention of women at Yarl’s Wood about three weeks ago. In contrast with the ‘re-purposing’ of Yarl’s Wood in August, however – and indeed the ‘closure’ of Morton Hall detention centre in July, which has not in fact been closed but turned into a prison – the Home Office has not made any public announcement about this latest development. Re-starting the indefinite detention of women at Yarl’s Wood – a place that in 2015 the Chief Inspector of Prisons labelled ‘a place of national concern’ – is apparently not considered significant enough to warrant this. It just happened.

The Home Office’s non-announcement of this latest development at Yarl’s Wood is partly about its lack of transparency and desire to avoid any accountability. But it is also about the invisibility of women in immigration detention. Women have always made up a small proportion of those held under immigration powers – and, currently, their numbers are very low. Consequently, what happens to women in detention is often overlooked and considered unimportant – and not only by the Home Office.

Earlier this year, for example, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration published the first annual inspection of the Adults at Risk process, which is the process designed by the Home Office to supposedly prevent the detention of people who are vulnerable. In the report, the Chief Inspector explains that to conduct the inspection it was not only detention centres that were visited; inspectors also went to four prisons where people were being held under immigration powers. What the Chief Inspector should have said, however, was that four prisons for men had been visited. No women’s prisons were visited during the inspection at all.

But the small numbers of women in immigration detention does not mean that the use of detention for them is insignificant. As Women for Refugee Women has repeatedly highlighted, the majority of women detained are survivors of rape and other forms of gender-based violence. Locking up these women indefinitely causes immense harm and re-traumatises them. One in five of the women we spoke to for our 2014 report Detained said that they had tried to kill themselves in detention. Forty per cent of the women we interviewed for our 2015 report I Am Human said that they had self-harmed while detained. One woman we interviewed for our 2017 report We Are Still Here told us: ‘Detention is another form of torture. You think you’ve escaped it in your country, but then you get here and you go through more.’ 

Moreover, the vast majority of women locked up in detention are not removed from the country, but released back into the community to continue with their cases. In 2018, just 14% of asylum-seeking women leaving detention were removed from the UK. This, of course, has been exacerbated by the global pandemic we are now living under. In a recent ‘short scrutiny’ report of four detention centres, including Yarl’s Wood, HM Inspectorate of Prisons highlighted that since the start of the pandemic 'few removals had taken place and few were scheduled'.

What the small number of women currently in immigration detention does mean, however, is that the Home Office could formally put an end to the detention of women today. Since 2019 the Home Office, with the charity Action Foundation, has been running a case management-focused alternative to detention pilot for women – a pilot that is due to come to an end in early 2021. The Home Office is therefore in a position to use emerging findings from this pilot to develop and expand the use of alternatives to detention for women, and to stop locking them up now.

At the time of Yarl’s Wood’s first ‘re-purposing’ in August this year, Mariam Yusuf, a campaigner who was detained at Yarl’s Wood, said: It is time to shut down Yarl’s Wood for good to put an end to this site of injustice and inhumanity.’ We are calling on the Home Office to recognise that the historically low numbers of women currently in detention presents a real opportunity for meaningful change. Given how low these numbers are, the Home Office could formally end the detention of women immediately. This would be an important step towards abolishing immigration detention, and the immense harm that it inflicts, in the UK altogether.

A message from our director, Natasha Walter

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.

Refugee Week 2020: Keeping our sisters safe in Halifax!

This Refugee Week, we are sharing a series of blogs written by refugee and asylum-seeking women who are supporting other women in their local communities.

Today, Jolanda Skura (pictured right), Co-Founder of Sisters United, writes about their amazing work in Halifax.

Sisters United was set up in 2017 by and for women in Halifax. Many of us have lived experience of the UK’s asylum system. Supporting one another is our main objective and we have been doing this for a long time. But we are now facing many new and different challenges because of COVID-19. Now more than ever our sisters need help, but due to the pandemic we have had to close the doors of our centre where we used to meet every week to provide vital support to vulnerable women.

We support women who are seeking asylum, who are forced to live on £5.39 a day. Many other women, who have been refused asylum, are living completely destitute with no support at all. These women are struggling to survive. They are some of the most vulnerable people in our country and the government has completely abandoned them.

When the crisis started, sisters started speaking to each other about how we can support the women in our group. First, we messaged everyone, sharing information about the virus and the lockdown measures, and we’ve continued to do this through our WhatsApp group. We then started calling all the women on a weekly basis to check they understood what was going on and the official guidance, and to see if they needed any support with food, medicine, and other basics. Many sisters don’t have a TV or internet access, so we needed to make sure they were aware of how to keep themselves safe. We found this difficult at times, as not all women speak English, but we managed; nothing is impossible!

We have been topping up women’s phones so that they can call us or a community member if they need help. Some of the women we support haven’t been able to get to the supermarkets to buy food because they have no money or because they are more vulnerable due to their age or a serious medical condition. So we have also been helping them access food parcels from community organisations and churches. We have helped with clothes and cleaning products, especially for those who live in shared houses with non-family members and who are therefore more vulnerable to catching the virus.

Accessing school meal vouchers has been a big challenge for asylum-seeking women who are struggling to feed their children. Some sisters didn’t receive the vouchers and we had to contact the schools many times to advocate for them. Many sisters are single parents and being alone during this time has been really challenging. ‘What is going to happen to my children, if something happens to me?’ I have heard this many times since the pandemic.

These mothers also need WiFi and laptops or tablets so that they can support their children’s learning while they are not at school, but that has been really difficult to access. What felt good though was when we managed to find two bicycles for a couple of kids. A sister who received one for her son thanked us so many times. He was so happy to play with it!

All of this work is being done by amazing volunteers! Their work is needed every day, and I want to thank them for always trying their best to make sure our sisters are safe. But what is the government doing for us?

We are proud to work alongside wonderful women like Jolanda and the members of Sisters United.

To stay updated on their work, follow Sisters United on Twitter and Facebook!

Refugee Week 2020: Refugee women are organising to provide mutual aid in Coventry

This Refugee Week, we are sharing a series of blogs written by refugee and asylum-seeking women who are supporting other women like themselves in their local communities.

Today we are kicking off with this blog by Loraine Masiya Mponela, chairperson of the Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group (CARAG).

The arrival of Covid-19 brought various challenges to people in this country and the world over. Here at CARAG we are not spared. We needed to provide food to some of our members who by nature of things, have no access to cooking facilities or are on no support at all. The idea of cooking came up and some of the women in CARAG volunteered to render their services by cooking from their own kitchens.

Last, who is one of the people who has offered her kitchen and time to prepare the meals, said:

"Everyone needs food. I cannot sit back and relax knowing there are others who need food."

With the help of material and financial donations from members of our local community and other funders, we quickly managed to get the #Right2AMeal project off the ground.

We set up a team of local volunteers to coordinate the delivery of meals where they are needed most. The latest to join the army of volunteers for the delivery of cooked meals is our local MP, Zarah Sultana, and her team! One member of her team told me,

"It is humbling and inspiring to see asylum seekers and refugees organising and fighting for a dignified life and we want to be a part of that by doing whatever we can to work together indefinitely. That's what drives us to volunteer with CARAG."

And during one of the deliveries, Zarah Tweeted:

We have received enormous support from local organisations and individuals, including messages of solidarity, like this one from Minda Burgos-Lukes, an organiser and consultant in social justice and change:

"Incredible effort from CARAG, though I am not at all surprised. CARAG has always practiced mutual aid, long before many learnt what it is during this pandemic, offering great support and care across the community and to each other."

We are just happy that we are able to do this so no-one we are in touch with goes to bed hungry. After all, women who are seeking asylum already have enough to worry about, including but not limited to the pandemic.

We are proud to work alongside wonderful women like Loraine and the members of CARAG.

To stay updated on their work, visit their new website: www.carag.co.uk or follow them on Twitter! Loraine is also on Twitter, follow her here.