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.


Our diary: books for refugee children 

Refugee and asylum-seeking mums and their young children have been hit hard by the coronavirus lockdown measures. These families were very often isolated and struggling to rebuild their lives before the pandemic, but now these challenges are intensified.  

The very limited support that mums are eligible for barely stretches to cover basic essentials like food and cleaning products, let alone to purchase educational materials and activities to keep their children occupied and learning during lockdown. School closures have made it difficult for mums to continue their children’s education when English may not be their first language and they may not have access to the internet and digital equipment where resources are available. 

We were therefore delighted when one of our amazing supporters, Anna Bowles, reached out to us with her idea of sending refugee children books during the lockdown.

Anna says, 

“I’ve been a supporter of Women for Refugee Women for some time, and when the lockdown started I immediately thought of how especially hard it would be on mothers stuck in cramped accommodation with barely enough resources even under normal circumstances. I work as a freelance book editor, and HarperCollins were kind enough to provide me with some free copies of The World of David Walliams (the kind of book where children do puzzles, answer quizzes and draw their own pictures). Apparently Poundland is an ‘essential retailer’ so in the first week of the lockdown I was able to go in there and buy pens, stickers and buttons too. 

I hoped the packages would help show refugee families that they haven’t been forgotten during the crisis, and bring a smile to the kids’ faces as well as giving Mum an hour’s peace!”  

One mum who is a single parent with two primary school kids, and hasn’t been out of the flat with them since the start of the lockdown as she is vulnerable, said: 

“I struggle to find things for the boys to do. It was a treat for them to get these, especially as one of them loves David Walliams’ books. He is missing the school library. It made the time pass well for him.” 

Another refugee mum was delighted that the books arrived just in time for her son's birthday:

The books arrived at just the right time – on the morning of my son’s birthday! He was so excited to have something to open and it really put a smile on him! There were also stickers and pens in the package and he has had so much fun playing with them and drawing.” 

 And another mum shared her gratitude at getting a moment to herself while her son was enjoying his books:

“My son was so happy to get the books. He is somebody who really loves books. His favourite thing is to spend time reading, and it gives me a little bit of ‘me’ time when he’s doing this! Thank you so much for remembering us, this really was so thoughtful and we both feel so grateful.” 

Thank you so much to Anna and HarperCollins for bringing so much joy to these mums and their young children.

If you would like to support refugee and asylum-seeking women during this difficult time, please consider supporting our current appeal.

 

 

 


Our diary: how our partners are supporting refugee women across the UK

Women for Refugee Women is proud to work alongside inspiring grassroots groups that support refugee and asylum-seeking women across England and Wales. This week we are sharing an update from some of these groups on how they are responding and how you can support them.

Women with Hope, Birmingham
  • Refugee women are staying in touch and supporting one another by text and phone calls.
  • Women with Hope have been able to provide phone top-up vouchers to 30 women to enable them to stay in touch with their friends and support networks.
Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group (CARAG)
  • Loraine Masiya Mponela, the chairperson of CARAG, wrote about the unique challenges that people seeking asylum in the UK are facing during the pandemic. You can read her piece here.
  • CARAG are already thinking of how to support women who are at risk of being made homeless again once lockdown is over.

To find out more about CARAG’s work you can visit their website or follow them on Twitter.

Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) Manchester
  • WAST Manchester are finding ways to continue running their sessions remotely over Zoom so that women can stay connected and support one another.
  • WAST’s volunteers are driving and cycling to women across the city and beyond to provide food parcels and emergency cash support to women in desperate need.

To find out more about WAST Manchester’s work you can visit their website or follow them on Twitter. WAST Manchester are currently looking for donations of tablets to help mothers educate and entertain their children while they are not at school, and you can donate to support their work here.

Oasis Cardiff
  • Oasis have started a Zoom meeting on storytelling with the women in their network for them to chat together and share experiences whilst they remain in isolation.
  • Oasis have also set up a wellbeing group on WhatsApp, to share mindfulness and meditation-related resources for the women, as well as activities they can do with their children at home. Women have been responding really well to it and Oasis are now sharing these resources with CARAG so that women in Coventry can benefit too!
  • The group is also distributing food parcels to women who are struggling to meet their basic needs.
  • Oasis has partnered with lots of well-known brands to host an online silent auction from 10 am on Monday 4th May until midnight on Sunday 10th May 2020. For more information, visit the auction website here.

Oasis Cardiff has sent us updates directly from the refugee women whom they are supporting.

Maryam from Iran shared:

“I was granted asylum in the in the middle of the pandemic. When I was granted asylum, I am going through so much anxiety as I am separated from my parents who live in Iran where the pandemic is worse. The thought of losing my loved ones is painful as hell, especially when you realise if you lose them you won’t be able to bid farewell to them. I feel very lonely because I cannot go out and meet the few friends that I have made here.”

UB who is staying in Newport shared:

“I am a single mother of a child age of 11 who is wheelchair-bound. I have isolated myself due to the coronavirus crisis, because my son has very low immune system. I'm afraid to go out to buy my daily essential items. I am protecting my son and saving lives.

Being at home without any interaction of outside world is difficult since we are already facing hard times being asylum seekers. We have no family and friends around us and the only happiness we had was just going out, taking a fresh air and restarting our lives. I am much more worried about our future now.

I’m thankful for my friends and the council for dropping me food when I need it.”

Nesrin from Sudan shared how she is coping at the moment:

As our life flipped upside down and the world evolves in unimaginable ways because of coronavirus outbreak, daily routines have been uprooted or disregarded altogether. I like to share with you some useful tips helping me to overcome this hard time so far…

I put my mental health on the top by keeping myself away from negative people and bad news. I do exercise in the morning and share favourite healthy meals with my family in the afternoon.

I make time to do some activities and watch TV with my kids in the evening.

I do online course and zoom meeting twice a week.

I found talking to friends and give emotional support really helpful to reduce stress during this difficult time.”

And two young women from Sudan share this message about having fun and staying safe during the pandemic:

A message from members of the Oasis Cardiff network!

To find out more about Oasis’s work you can visit their website or follow them on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter!


Keeping strong during lockdown - a poem by Olivia

Olivia Namutebi is a member of the Women for Refugee Women drama group. She has written this poem to share what has helped her to stay strong during the lockdown. She says, "I hope that my poem will encourage someone else and give them strength during this challenging time."

 

Fear Panic Anxiety

The first three weeks of lockdown

Overwhelmed with fear, panic and anxiety

I didn’t know how I would cope.

This is how I’ve managed to help myself,

I felt very alone, I knew I had to manage to help myself.

 

I read recently that anything is possible if you put your mind to it

Those words have kept me driving myself forward.

I had to acknowledge all my feelings

And remember that actually I’m NOT alone:

Everyone is in lockdown

But this will end, this will end.

 

A positive attitude is everything

I am learning to appreciate the things I was taking for granted

Life, the support network around me, my children, a hot meal, a bed to sleep in, I can take a shower or a bath, I can do my laundry…

Perhaps someone else doesn’t even have that.

Think of the things that bring you joy

That help you live.

 

I disconnected myself from social media and all the bad news

Switch off the TV

Switch off your phone

Switch off all the breaking news

A quick check once a day is enough

Escape the endless repetitive news

Disconnect from the media and take time to talk so someone

Take your brain away from the screens

Talk safely to those near you, those around you,

Take time to hear their voices.

 

I’ve remembered to move my body

A simple workout, yoga, a dance

Twenty minutes of moving my body

Simple movements

Move your body in a way that works for you.

Stretching my arms over my head

Turning and stretching my neck

Coming back to centre

Coming back to feel the pleasure in my body

Hold your hips and swing them in circles

Turning my ankles and stretching my feet

It makes me happy, I’m laughing when I think of it!

 

Take a walk to slow the pressure of life

Safely walk far from strangers

Walking through the sunny park

Listening to the birds singing

Just watching them fly

Watching the birds having fun against the blue sky

The greenery blossoming in the sunshine

Yellow, white, pink flowers by my feet

New green leaves appearing each day

It uplifts my spirit!

 

Do nothing.  Sit and listen to the sounds of life.

Cars. The wind in the trees.

I take time to listen to the sounds of the world as it turns.

It calms me.

 

Be creative, write, I let my mind wander,

Remembering something I’ve read

Reading something new

My books and newspapers give me ideas

I record my new ideas

Building my collage of ideas that keeps my mind active and learning.

Do what you like: do it!  Cleaning, cooking, a massage, perfect your make up, do some painting.

Do the things that make you feel good.

A little head rub to make you smile.

 

Get enough sleep.  Eat well if you can.  Eat healthy food to keep strong.

It’s new to me feeling like this, so alone and isolated,

But I realise for some people this is always their life.

Those people inspire me.

For me it’s temporary, so I need to be optimistic, to keep my hope strong.

 

When we meet again

We’ll be so full of ideas but also mindful, careful,

Making sure we look after each other and keep safe.

Safe together again for the future.

Everything has shut down, it will open again.

As the world carries on turning we’ll have another chance,

A different way of looking at the whole world.

Hope, optimism, love

In the time after lockdown

Hope, optimism, love

That’s how we will cope…


Our diary: Supporting refugee women through the pandemic

Women for Refugee Women is a small charity that works directly with women who are seeking asylum in the UK. Most of the women we work with have survived rape or torture in their countries of origin and have come to this country seeking safety.   

Yet many find themselves hungry, homeless and vulnerable to abuse in the UK. The outbreak of coronavirus is hitting the women we work with particularly hard, exacerbating the difficulties they already faced.  

On Monday 16 March, we had to make the sad decision to suspend our face-to-face activities, but we are adapting our work to continue to support refugee women in other ways: 

Checking in with the women in our network 

Our amazing volunteers are helping us to check in over the phone with around 300 women in our London network on a regular basis, to make sure that women understand the current guidance on keeping safe and for a friendly chatWe are hearing from women about the challenges they are facing but also about how women are managing to support one another at this difficult time.  

Mary* told us,

Women for Refugee Women is always here for me. It means so much that you are thinking about me. Just hearing a friendly voice has brightened my day!” 

Supporting the most vulnerable 

Thanks to the continued support of our generous donors, we have been able to provide women in extreme hardship with small grants to enable them to meet their basic needs. For example, we gave £20 to a woman who has just given birth and who was struggling to buy nutritious food. Her friend managed to get her what she needed and she has been chatting with one of our volunteers about the joys and challenges of motherhood! 

We are also working with two qualified advisors, in partnership with Notre Dame Refugee Centre, who are able to provide quality telephone advice to women on their asylum claims and to connect them with other forms of support. 

Advocating for the safe release of women locked up at Yarl’s Wood 

Following the confirmed case of coronavirus in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, we have been working hard to draw attention to the inhumanity of locking vulnerable people up in close proximity during a global pandemic. We have been supporting women who have serious health conditions or who have survived trafficking, rape and other extreme abuses – women who should never be detained, even under normal circumstances. 

We have heard that there are only around 20 women still detained at Yarl’s Wood. These women should all be released into accommodation where they can safely self-isolate within the community. We will keep supporting women in Yarl’s Wood and connecting them with good solicitors who can challenge their detention, as well as maintaining pressure for the complete closure of Yarl’s Wood 

Ann*, who was released this week, told us:

Yarl’s Wood turned my world upside down. Now I have been released, I am still trying to adjust. This is such a strange time. But because you are with me every step of the way I am starting to get my smile back. Thank you for making me feel that I am not alone right now.” 

Speaking on BBC Woman’s Hour yesterday, our director Natasha Walter said, 

“We'll only come through this crisis with our values intact if we remember our solidarity with the most vulnerable in our community.” 

Sharing solidarity 

A real sense of solidarity and community is apparent even in these challenging times. It has been amazing to see communities come together to support one another through mutual aid groups and neighbourly kindness. 

Our drama group are adjusting to not being able to meet face-to-face by sharing songs and short exercises over video:

 

 

And our Rainbow Sisters group for LGBT asylum-seeking women are holding weekly group video calls to stay in touch and support one another:

 

 

Grassroots groups across the UK are doing amazing work to continue supporting refugee women through this time 

We are also continuing to work alongside grassroots groups who are supporting refugee and asylum-seeking women across the UK. They have been sending us moving updates from women in their networks. Here are just a few examples: 

Oasis Cardiff are distributing emergency supplies to women in hardship and continuing to provide a warm Welsh welcome to asylum-seeking women through their wellbeing WhatsApp group. One woman they supported says:

“I would like to thank Oasis for helping us in this situation. Their food parcels are great and will help to get through this terrible time. It’s like you guys pour water over a forever dry desert. Be safe and keep on saving!!” 

Agnes from Women with Hope in Birmingham is doing incredible work to help keep women in their network connected:

Since yesterday I have been able to buy phone top up vouchers so that the women in our network can check on their friends. I have been working to distribute these vouchers."

Eunice from WAST Manchester shared an update on one of the asylum-seeking women in their network: 

“She’s really struggling to cope with the situation because she’s lonely and there’s no TV in her room. She is stressed.”  

WAST Manchester is a supportive community, providing a lifeline for isolated women. 

We would like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who has supported us through this difficult time so far! We couldn’t do this work without you. 

If you would like to donate to help us continue our support for refugee women and our regional partners, you can do so here.

 

*All names have been changed 


Women in our network are looking forward to the National Refugee Women's Conference in Birmingham!

On 14 February 2020, we are holding the fourth National Refugee Women's Conference, this time in Birmingham.

The Home Office continues to make women who have come to the UK to seek safety homeless, hungry and vulnerable to further abuse. So, this year, the conference will be focussing on growing and supporting grassroots campaigns against destitution.

The conference is organised by Women for Refugee Women together with our wonderful partner organisations: Women with Hope, WAST ManchesterCARAGRefugee Women Connect, and other grassroots groups. It will bring together refugee and asylum-seeking women, and others, from across the UK for a day of learning and building solidarity – as well as some poetry and singing!

Everyone is welcome! There's still time to book your tickets here.

This week, refugee and asylum-seeking women in our London network told us why they want to come to the conference. This is what they said:

As I am seeking asylum, I feel that my participation will contribute to generating new knowledge. I am looking forward to networking and sharing my ideas and experiences.

This will be my first conference. I am looking forward to meeting new people and discussing the challenges that we face as refugees. It will be a great opportunity for me to meet other women and tell them about our Rainbow Sisters group.

I will be getting to meet more people like myself.

I want to exchange ideas and speak out my mind about what I know and what needs to change. As a woman it will be good for me to associate with other women.

I would like to take part in this conference to know more about the experiences of other women who are destitute. I took part in the Storytelling with a Purpose course last year and I would like to gain more experience and confidence sharing my story to the public.

I would like to take part in the conference to support all refugee women and to have the chance to express myself about the difficult situation that I have been through.

I would like to see a new place and make new friends.

I want to get involved and learn from others.

I want to learn more about how to be a strong woman.

I always enjoy going to a conference where I can be part of something interesting and give my point of view.

As a destitute woman myself, I want to join the movement to end destitution. To be destitute is particularly hard for women like me who have young children. I worry that my child will be homeless, unable to join activities at school and will fall in with the wrong crowd. I want to support other women for a better future.

I want to take part in the campaign against destitution and talk about my own experience: the hardship and the frustration.

I would like to take part in the conference to be involved in different workshops, to connect to different people and above all to be able to speak and ask questions about the steps being taken to end destitution.

I would like to improve my knowledge and communication skills.

A fairer, more equal world is possible. Be part of the change!

Join us at the conference on 14 February! For more information about the speakers, workshops and delicious lunch provided by Change kitchen, please head to our Eventbrite page, where you can also book your tickets.


Listen to refugee women this election

Asylum-seeking women in our English classes at Women for Refugee Women have been discussing what the upcoming election means to them. Refugee and migrant women in the UK often do not have the right to vote, and yet are affected by laws and policies decided in Westminster. This election, let’s not forget those women whose voices are too often not heard.


Intersectional Feminism group: Prioritise our safety, dignity and liberty

By Haje Keli, volunteer Intersectional Feminism group facilitator

 

The main debates of the upcoming general election on 12 December centre around Brexit and the future of the NHS. These are crucial issues that are at the core of what matters to most of those who live in the UK. But while these issues are dominating attention, the struggles of those pushed to the margins of society, such as asylum-seeking women, are being overlooked.

Among the countless media pieces, television segments and tweets on what the UK public wants from its next government there has been little mention of how the policy proposals of the various parties may affect refugee and asylum-seeking women, let alone what changes these women themselves need or want. It is possible to be concerned about healthcare and the consequences of a possible Brexit and also to listen to and stand in solidarity with refugee and asylum-seeking women.

Every Monday during term time, a group of over 20 women gather at the Women for Refugee Women spaces to discuss topics that are relevant to their lives and overall life in the UK. The Intersectional Feminism group enables women to improve their already advanced English language skills, and to engage critically with current events and political and social theories. We have built a trusting environment in which women of a broad range of ages and backgrounds can discuss their experiences and opinions.

During a recent session about the election, the women discussed the issues important to them and that they hope the next government will address. The women insisted that they wanted a more equal British society. They mentioned how poverty, racism and misogyny were becoming increasingly visible to them. The women want to see a more equal world, in which the most vulnerable members of our communities are treated fairly and are able to access opportunities.

More specific to their own experiences, the women wished that people seeking asylum were granted better rights and that the waiting time for a decision on their asylum claim would be reduced. “Many of us have been here for years with no end in sight,” one woman lamented. Most of the women suggested that they should be granted the right to work while waiting for a decision on their claims.  One young woman explained how she felt she had lost years of her life feeling invisible and wasting her skills while waiting for a decision on her asylum claim. All of the women agreed that if they were allowed to work they could contribute to society and be able to start rebuilding their lives.

The women also called for a fairer asylum process. They wished to receive increased support and better housing while waiting for a decision on their application. Women in the group also wanted to be able to access more guidance on opportunities to study while seeking asylum. They also hoped the new government would not deport those who have been denied asylum in the UK, because so often women’s asylum claims are wrongly refused. Women need to be given a fair hearing so that better decisions can be made on their initial asylum claim.

Finally, the most crucial point the participants made was their plea to whoever forms the next government to make their lives safer in the UK. One woman interjected that when women are not protected, they become at risk of abuse and exploitation. They fear being abused, coerced and subjected to violence because perpetrators know that there are rarely consequences to hurting women with insecure immigration status. The women all agreed with this point, which sadly confirms with the initial point of this article, that refugee and asylum-seeking women’s rights and wishes are not a current political priority.

The participants of the intersectional feminism group hope that the new government considers and addresses their needs in the larger discussion of what is crucial for the future of the United Kingdom.


Intermediate English Class: Real change is possible

By Jane Coles, volunteer English teacher

 

Each week our Intermediate English class focuses on improving refugee women's English language skills whilst learning about culture, sharing stories and encouraging one another. For the past two weeks we have been looking at the topic of politics, the general election and Brexit.

These topics are often not accessible for many of the women in the class, especially those who are not fluent English speakers. British politics in mass media tends to be surrounded by alienating language, unclear intentions and an unwillingness to break down barriers to include diverse voices in the conversation. When faced with these topics, the women in our class spoke loud and clear on their views for the British political system and the upcoming general election. Here is what they had to say:

We asked the women in our class "Why do you think it is important to vote?"

"It's important to vote if you want something to change!" - Sisika

"It is important to vote to fulfill your human rights. It is also important to vote to get the party that has the general public interest at heart with positive mission and vision." - Abi

"To have your say in what's going on with everyday life" - Cordel

When asked what policies were most important to them, the women spoke overwhelmingly to promote policies that champion equality. They expressed their frustration with policies that have become increasingly hostile towards people who have crossed borders in search of safety, and wished for better housing and healthcare.

"Peace of mind and good health with somewhere to live comfortably whilst avoiding the hostile environment gives a healthy community" - Abi

"Equal rights. More opportunities for black communities, access for those with disabilities. They can give every living person equal rights" - Angela

"Equality! Just equality!" - Christina

Many of the women in our class are not able to vote themselves, which made them feel a sense of hopelessness that their voices cannot be heard in this election. They urged the voting public to consider their views and vote for policies that promote equality. The women in our group feel strongly that real change is possible.


Rebecca’s Refugee Week Diary

Every year Refugee Week is filled with so many wonderful events, and people coming together in a welcoming spirit. For me being a refugee is not just a week, but my everyday experiences and the struggles I get through each moment for the past two decades.

This year’s Refugee Week theme was ‘You, me and those who came before us’; it was about recognising that all of us have a migration story somewhere in our family history. During Refugee Week, I challenged myself to attend as many events and do as many things as I could. I chose this year to take every opportunity that came my way and celebrate the week.


Monday

I’m always excited about Monday’s because it’s our drop-in day at Women for Refugee Women (WRW), with several activities to attend. However, this Monday, it was different because as well as attending the usual activities at WRW, which included yoga class, intersectional feminism class and the Rainbow Sisters group - I managed to rush out during lunch and attended a free self-defence workshop organised by Routes as part of Refugee Week. I learnt some basic boxing techniques in a really fun and supportive women-only space. It pushed me beyond my usual comfort zone and made me realise that I need new trainers, because I want to be more active.

Tuesday

I have a big day on Sunday, performing in our new show, ‘A Day in Our Lives’, so I arranged to meet with one of the volunteers of WRW to help me learn my lines. She was so fantastically supportive. She told me I had an outstanding ability to tell a story. I felt good in learning my lines.

Wednesday

Over the past few months I have been working on developing a campaign about ending destitution with WRW. I have been trained as a peer researcher and have been a key part of developing the research we are about to do. Today I was invited to a roundtable meeting about destitution with organisations such as NACCOM, Asylum Aid, City of Sanctuary etc. I strongly believe I delivered at that meeting and my voice was heard.

Thursday

This morning, I went to meet my befriender for a full English breakfast. I met my befriender through Host Nation, who matched me with a kind lady. During our breakfast I spoke to her about my upcoming performance on Sunday.

In the evening I went to the monthly Welcome Kitchen and Cinema event hosted at Amnesty International. It’s a great space that unites refugees and Londoners through a shared love of film, food and friendship. I enjoyed a delicious, freshly made and home-cooked meal made by refugees all over the world!

Friday

I got up early to attend the usual drama sessions at the Southbank Centre run by WRW. This was our final rehearsal session before our big performance on Sunday, so we all had to learn our lines. After the session, I stayed around the Southbank and watched a lunch time performance of singing by 100 primary school children who were part of Music Action International’s Harmonise programme. Through music they are raising awareness about refugees in schools, and enable people who have survived war, torture and persecution to express themselves creatively using music. I know music can be a therapy and a way to connect with other people. I have felt it when we sing together at my drama group. One of my friends said, “We dance and sing through our struggles,” and that is so true.

Saturday

Since I don’t have secure immigration status in this country, I am destitute. Currently, I am staying with a family. They provide a roof over my head and in exchange, I look after their children. I drop them off to school and back usually. Today I had to drop off the kids to their different activities, one to music and the other to football.

Later in the evening our drama group joined the Morris Folk Choir for a concert on the theme of migration in Dalston. This was our performance before our big day and it went really well. After I performed I stayed around to the end and made some good friends, who I invited to our event tomorrow.

Sunday

I got up excited and nervous at the same time, and I really wanted to do well at the performance today. The drama group means so much to me. It has enabled me to improve my confidence and look to the future.

After the performance, I was so proud of myself for remembering all my lines, and proud of everyone for doing so well.


Going to all these events has made me realise that migration is forever happening and everywhere, and that everyone has a migration story in their family. I’m a refugee because of circumstances beyond my control. But this week has taught me not to be ashamed that I came here to seek safety. It has made me feel welcomed by so many fantastic people I met throughout the week.

You all made me feel at home.