Dear Sister

A letter to women arriving in the UK from Afghanistan, from members of the Writing Group at Women for Refugee Women


Dear Sister,

Firstly, we would like to say, “Welcome!”

We can imagine this time is a time of great challenge for you. Relief that you are safe, but also grief for the home, the people and the life you left behind.

You’ll meet so many women who’ve had different problems and troubles but the same pain in your heart as you have now. Maybe you think the pain in your heart will continue forever. Maybe you think you can’t have a different life with new opportunities. But there are many ways to have a better life here. You just need to discover the best one for yourself.

We want to tell you that you are not alone here. Don’t isolate yourself. Reach out, speak out, be bold. You have people around that understand what you are going through and are there to walk alongside you, to be there for you and with you in your new journey.

We also want to tell you that it is also all right if you want to be by yourself. To be alone, quiet, to want to wrap yourself up and be still, for as long as you need. Then, when you are ready, we will be here.

Take care of your body. Keep warm. Get some thick socks, a good winter coat. Be kind to yourself. Eat good, nourishing food. Listen to music you love. Dance. Go on walks, explore your new home. And watch British telly, it is a spectacle.

In this country you will be able to find your traditional food and clothes. Each nation is free to live their own culture. You don’t have to give up your culture, religion, friends here. Just don’t forget that you also have a chance to see and live the cultures of the UK. You will see so many different rules here. Try to accept official rules. It will make your life easier and better.

Take care of your mind. Reach out to people, to organisations. There is no shame in this. We have all been there. Get the tools you need to cope, to survive and then ultimately, to thrive and thrive well.

Knowledge is power. Try to learn English, the health system, job options. Try to have routines, to go to the park, have a walk, attend workshops or courses according to your interests and abilities.

You’re safe here. You can get help whenever you need. You don’t need anything special to be important and accepted in this country. You are valuable as you are.

We want you to feel alive again, to find hope and love and support and belonging, to live freely in the community.

Be strong. Don’t hide. Ask for help. You are not alone.

With love,

Your Sisters


Agnes Tanoh's speech for local demonstration against Hassockfield detention centre

Today, Saturday 21 August, local campaign groups No To Hassockfield, Abolish Hassockfield and the Durham People's Assembly are demonstrating against the planned new detention centre for women at Hassockfield in County Durham. Our Agnes Tanoh shares this speech in support of this demonstration to stop Hassockfield.

 

 

My name is Agnes.
I am a 60 year old woman.
I was locked up at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, when I was seeking sanctuary.

In my country, I was the assistant to the First Lady.
When civil war broke out my life was in danger. Friends and colleagues were killed. Escaping was the only way to survive. So I came to the UK.
I needed safety. But instead, I was locked up for more than 3 months.

After 7 years of waiting, telling the same story, I finally got my refugee status.
The government finally agreed I needed protection.
So, why was I locked up?
Why was I harmed?

Can you imagine the things I saw in detention?
Detention destroys a woman, destroys our mental health, destroys our hope.
I saw a woman try to kill herself.
I saw guards abuse women.
I saw families broken down.
Can you imagine what happens to a child separated from their mum because she is in prison?
Detention achieves nothing except making a few private companies richer.
All it does is harm our fellow human beings.

My heart is here with you today.
Together we are standing against the detention of vulnerable women.
Together we want to support women who have fled persecution, torture or slavery.
Together we will keep fighting to stop Hassockfield.
Together we will win.

The Home Office promised to detain fewer women.
We must hold them to account!
No more detention centres should be built.
Instead, shut them down!

I say, 'SET HER FREE'!
Give her a chance to rebuild her life.
Give her a chance to be a human being.
Give her a chance to be free.

Let us say something,
Let us do something good,
Let us be compassionate,
Let us share love.

Can we women who are seeking safety count on you?
If yes, then let us say together ‘No to Hassockfield’!
NO TO HASSOCKFIELD!


Take action with Agnes! Please sign and share Agnes's petition against the proposed new detention centre for women at Hassockfield: www.change.org/stop-detaining-women


The Home Office’s reckless approach to detaining women

By Gemma Lousley, Detention Policy and Research Coordinator at Women for Refugee Women

In February this year, it emerged that the Home Office is planning to open a new immigration detention centre for women at Hassockfield in County Durham. This is despite the fact that the number of women detained is currently at a historic low. Five years ago, at the beginning of 2016, there were over 300 women in detention. By the end of March this year, this number had fallen to just 25.

The Home Office could end its use of detention for women today, then. Instead, it has decided to open a new immigration prison which will hold around 80 women.

The Home Office is fully aware of the immense harm that detention inflicts. Women for Refugee Women has been supporting and listening to women in detention for many years – and the research we have published has repeatedly shown that the majority of women detained are survivors of serious human rights abuses, including torture, rape and trafficking. Locking these women up devastates their mental health.

Our 2014 report Detained, for instance, found that one in five of the women we interviewed who had been locked up in Yarl’s Wood – until recently the main detention centre for women – had tried to kill themselves there.

One woman who we interviewed for the report told us:

‘I was tortured in my country of origin and now I am getting a second torture by the Home Office. Being back in detention has brought back all the memories of torture.’

Another woman said:

‘I saw so much misery and depression and mental illness while I was in detention. There is constant crying and self-harm because the women don’t know why they are there or for how long. These are women who are desperate.’

Nonetheless, the Home Office is planning to open the new Hassockfield detention centre for women in early October. Attempting to justify this decision, the Immigration Minister, Chris Philp, has recently stated that the operation of Hassockfield will ‘reflect the lessons learned from detaining women at Yarl’s Wood’.

Yet there is very little evidence of this. In fact, what we know of the Home Office’s approach to Hassockfield so far indicates that it will also be characterised by the lack of concern for women’s dignity and rights with which Yarl’s Wood became synonymous.

One of the most significant issues that we highlighted through our research on Yarl’s Wood was the complete lack of regard for women’s privacy and dignity there. Our 2015 report I Am Human showed how, for instance, women were being subjected to pat-down body searches by male officers, or while male officers were present. Male staff were also searching women’s rooms.

Additionally, women were routinely being watched in intimate situations by male staff. So, women who were deemed to be at risk of suicide, and placed on ‘constant supervision’ – meaning that they were watched at all times by detention centre staff – were being watched by male officers while they were showering, on the toilet, or getting undressed.

One woman we spoke to for I Am Human said:

‘I felt ashamed. A total stranger just saw you naked and you have to see them all day. It breaks your confidence.’

When we initially raised these concerns with the Home Office, they denied this was happening, and stated: ‘Male staff would not supervise women showering, dressing or undressing, even if on constant supervision through risk of self-harm.’

Yet, the Prison Inspectorate’s subsequent report on Yarl’s Wood, published in late 2015, corroborated our findings. Following this, the Home Office accepted the recommendation that, in women’s detention centres, at least 60% of staff in direct contact with women should also be women – to ensure that male staff are not used in inappropriate situations.

Despite this, the Home Office has been deliberately vague on this issue in relation to Hassockfield. In a recent parliamentary answer, for example, the Immigration Minister gave the weak response that: ‘It is our aim that around 60% of uniformed staff will be women.

The reasons for his non-committal answer seem clear. Yarl’s Wood consistently struggled to reach the minimum target of 60% and recruit enough female staff. Two years after the Home Office accepted this target, in 2017, the Prisons Inspectorate went to Yarl’s Wood again and found that the proportion of female officers there ‘was still too low, at 54%’.

Alongside this, the Home Office has contracted a private company to run Hassockfield that has recently had allegations of sexual harassment made about its staff. In July this year, a woman quarantining at a hotel in Birmingham said that a male security guard provided by Mitie – which has been given a contract worth £166 million to run Hassockfield – had sexually harassed her.

The Home Office’s careless approach to conditions for women at Hassockfield demonstrates how little they are concerned with treating women with dignity and respect, and upholding and protecting their rights.

The Home Office also knows that detaining women is usually completely pointless. The stated purpose of detention is removal from the UK. Yet, figures that we recently obtained show that in 2019, just 122 of the 1,550 asylum-seeking women released from detention were removed from the UK. That’s 8%.

The vast majority – 1,428 women, or 92% – were released back into the community, to continue with their cases.

Soon after the decision to open Hassockfield became public knowledge, the Immigration Minister said: ‘The public rightly expects us to maintain a robust immigration system, and immigration detention plays a crucial role in this’. But, as the Home Office is well aware, immigration detention is not a necessary or inevitable part of the immigration system.

In early 2019 the Home Office began an ‘alternative to detention’ pilot scheme, focused on resolving women’s immigration cases without the use of detention. This scheme has now been abandoned, even though fewer than half the number of women the Home Office intended actually participated in it.

But it is not too late to reverse this harmful change in direction. We are calling on the Home Office to halt its reckless approach to detaining women, by cancelling its plans for Hassockfield immediately. Instead, it should invest in programmes that support women to resolve their immigration cases, and rebuild their lives, in the community.


Please sign and share Agnes Tanoh's petition to stop Hassockfield detention centre for women from opening: www.change.org/stop-detaining-women


Rainbow Sisters social media Takeover - Pride 2021

To mark Pride 2021, Rainbow Sisters, our support group for LGBT+ women and non-binary individuals, have planned a takeover of Women for Refugee Women's social media!

Make sure you're following us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to see what they get up to!

Who are we?

In Rainbow Sisters, we have a professional netball player, a microbiologist, a makeup artist, a singer, an accountant and so many more diverse skills and talents.

CeeCee, one of our members, is a phenomenal make-up artist! Here's her special look for pride. Check out more of her amazing work on TikTok.

 

 

Rainbow Sisters helps us love who we are.

Pride makes us feel recognised. When we can march together, we feel love from the crowd. It's a time to be yourself, without judgement.

But Pride isn't perfect. The fact that we need a Black Pride shows how Black people have been marginalised from Pride. We mustn't forget that Pride started as a protest by a black trans woman: Marsha P. Johnson.

The Home Office makes it extremely difficult for LGBT+ people to find safety here in the UK. All we are asking for is a chance to have a fair hearing and to rebuild our lives in safety.

"The Home Office assumes you are lying. When you go to them, it is not to share your story, it is to defend yourself, because they've already decided you are lying. They have to start seeing us as people."

As Rainbow Sisters, we just want to be us! You can support us by donating here.

And finally, we are proud to be...

We hope you enjoyed our takeover!


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!