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.


In support of refugee women facing hateful narratives

by Marchu Girma, deputy director at Women for Refugee Women

Recently, I have found it hard to stop thinking about certain tweets by the American President Donald Trump. There is nothing new in the media circus Trump creates but this time, his ‘You can leave!’ and ‘Go back!’ comments directed at four Congresswomen, American citizens and women of colour, has felt more personal. It has made me think about the insidiousness of these statements. ‘Go back,’ or ‘Go home,’ suggests that the speaker believes that you don’t belong here, you are not valued here, you are no longer part of the community of human beings that make this society, you are the ‘other’ that needs to be pushed out. The ‘go home’ slogan dehumanises and disempowers.

In particular, Trump’s words were targeted at Ilhan Omar, who went to America as a 12-year-old refugee. I relate to Ilhan Omar, because I came to the UK when I was 11 years old. I grew up in London and I remember hearing bullies on the streets who chanted ‘go home’ to me. I can only imagine how the feeling of powerlessness and not belonging is magnified when it is not a bully at a bus stop who is shouting those words, but the president of ‘the free world’. Yet at least Ilhan and I now have the protection of our citizenship, and no matter the shouts of ‘go home’ on the streets, in newspapers or by Trump we still have legal status in our respective countries of refuge. We know that we can stay.

However, for those who don’t have such status the ‘go home’ slogan is even more frightening. It was ironic to see Theresa May pointing the finger at Donald Trump and telling him he was wrong when in the UK in 2013, she was the Home Secretary when ‘go home’ buses roamed the streets of London threatening those who are ‘illegal immigrants to go home or face arrest’.

In fact May was the architect of UK-grown ‘go home’ policies, known as the ‘hostile environment’. The ‘hostile environment’ is a set of policies and practices that make it near impossible for those who have been refused asylum to remain in the UK, even though it has been proven again and again that the Home Office is very likely to refuse women who claim asylum and such decisions are often overturned on appeal. These women’s lives are crippled by such draconian policies of destitution, detention (or the threat of detention), the threat of deportation, not being able to work, not having any support, not having a home and not being entitled to healthcare which can lead to mental health issues as well as further gender-based violence in the UK.  The hostile environment has made it acceptable to treat those who are most vulnerable in our society inhumanly.

At the latest Trump rally people were freely chanting, ‘send her back’, in a way that was scarily reminiscent of the worst horrors of 20th century history. This is why we need to be even more firm in our stance and push back against the wave of hate that feels as if it is coming our way. We have to stand for Ilhan, we have to stand for the rights of those who are excluded and marginalised from our society, and shout louder “Refugees Welcome”.


Rainbow Sisters: Marching with Pride

by Sarah Cope, Rainbow Sisters facilitator

For the second year running, Rainbow Sisters, the lesbian and bisexual women asylum seekers’ group at Women for Refugee Women, marched at London Pride. This year we were allotted 25 wristbands, and so our group, which has grown a lot in the past 12 months, took up a good amount of space on the parade.

In the weeks running up the event, we tie dyed t-shirts, (thank you to volunteer Elaine for the excellent idea!). We then hand lettered them (‘RAINBOW SISTERS’) and made placards, bearing such messages as ‘SHUT DOWN YARL’S WOOD’ and ‘WE WILL NOT BE DISCREET’, the latter a reference to what LGBT+ asylum seekers at risk of being deported have been advised to do in the past by the UK Home Office.

Rainbow Sisters paraded through central London, down a corridor of cheers and appreciation. For women who had been taught to hide their sexuality, to be suddenly publicly celebrated in this way was overwhelming.

Olivia N from Uganda said:

“It was my first Pride – I was so excited to see people like me! I couldn’t keep the joy inside myself! I was with my partner and we were happy to express our love for each other publicly.”

Tua from Cameroon expressed it like this:

“For me, it was an inspiration. I feel so open and free. Coming to Pride gives me the encouragement not to hide who I am.”

Lilly from Kenya said:

“I feel that we have a lot of support from the public. The way they were cheering and waving at us, we felt love, like it was from the whole of London!”

The next day, the women donned their Rainbow Sisters t-shirts again, and attended UK Black Pride, which this year was held in Haggerston Park in Hackney. The group took to the Wellbeing and Wellness stage to talk about their plight as lesbian and bisexual women asylum seekers in the UK.

Their message was “We need your support as allies. Asylum seeking and immigration are LGBT+ issues.”

The group then performed their ‘Rainbow Sisters’ song with gusto. Later, they whooped with appreciation when some time was given on the main stage to speak about the plight of PN, an Ugandan lesbian, who was deported in 2013 under the now unlawful ‘Detained Fast Track’ system. Despite being ordered by the courts to return PN, the Home Office are challenging the decision.

Olivia from Uganda said of Black Pride:

“I’ve been amazed by how welcoming everyone is. We look after each other.”

Reflecting on how, last year, on hearing Black Pride founder ‘Lady Phyll’ Opoku-Gyimah speak at Women for Refugee Women about her own sexuality, she herself was able to ‘come out’, Olivia said:

“Hearing her talk about herself made me think about what it meant for me. It felt like she was speaking directly to me. I just sat there, so attentive! I don’t have any regrets.”

Sarah from Kenya said:

“I’ve enjoyed it so much. It was a good experience to come to Black Pride, to see how people celebrate us. They know we can add value to the community.”

Barbara from Uganda spoke for everyone when she concluded:

“I enjoy the fact that we are all one family, and I love the atmosphere in our family!”

Roll on next year!

 


'Me At The Same Time' a poem for Refugee Week

Me At The Same Time

by E.E.

 

I am romantic and practical at the same time.

I wonder why the Home Office is discriminative,

I hear the sound of birds signing free,

I see a park with a pond and a waterfall,

I want to have status and be free.

I am romantic and practical at the same time.

 

I pretend I am strong and happy,

I feel sad and detained,

I touch jasmine and violet,

I worry about my future and my family,

I cry, oh I cry, about feeling disbelieved and discriminated.

I am romantic and practical at the same time.

 

I understand I will win. The truth always wins.

I say the light will always overcome the dark,

I dream of freedom and meeting my family,

I try to fight and fight and keep fighting for my rights and freedom,

I hope we all have equality and be free.

I am romantic and practical at the same time.


Women for Refugee Women Home Office Failing Refugee Women

The Home Office is failing trafficked Chinese women by locking them up in Yarl’s Wood

by Gemma Lousley, Policy and Research Coordinator

Over the past year there has been a significant reduction in the number of people held in immigration detention. At the end of September 2017, there were 3,125 people locked up in detention centres across the UK; by September 2018, this had fallen by more than 1,000, to 2,049. Within this overall decline, however, one particularly vulnerable group of women are actually being detained in much greater numbers than they were previously. Home Office figures show that the number of women from China in detention doubled between 2017 and 2018.

Since summer last year, Women for Refugee Women has been receiving an increasing number of phone calls from these women, many of whom have been locked up in Yarl’s Wood for months on end. Many of the women who have contacted us speak very little English, and so are very isolated in detention. Often they have no legal representation; they are also very distressed and confused, and terrified about what is going to happen to them. Particularly shockingly, a significant proportion of the women we have spoken to are survivors of some form of trafficking – typically, they have been brought to the UK and forced into prostitution, or to work in a restaurant for no money; and yet, in spite of this, the Home Office has locked them up in detention, in direct contravention of its own policies.

One woman we met, Anna, was trafficked to the UK and locked up in detention as soon as she got here. When she was released, her traffickers were waiting for her outside the detention centre, and she was forced into prostitution. After six months she escaped; over the next few years she worked in restaurants, but was never paid. In one restaurant, she was repeatedly raped by the chef there, who threatened to report her to immigration if she told anyone what he was doing. Anna was then arrested during an immigration raid at the restaurant in 2018, and taken to Yarl’s Wood; when we met her, she didn’t have any legal representation, so we referred her to a solicitor who specialises in trafficking cases. She was eventually released, after spending two months in detention.

Some of the women we have been in contact with have felt unable to disclose what they have experienced, because they are frightened about possible repercussions from their traffickers. And yet even when women do not disclose their trafficking themselves, there is often evidence from the circumstances of their arrest – they may be picked up at brothels, for instance, or, like Anna, at a restaurant – which should immediately alert the Home Office to the fact that they may be victims of trafficking.

We have also seen a number of cases where women have told the Home Office about what they have been subjected to – but the Home Office has completely failed to follow its own policies. One woman we met recently, for instance, disclosed that she had been trafficked to a doctor in Yarl’s Wood. This information was passed onto the Home Office – but, when we met her, several months later, nothing further had been done about this information, and she had been locked up by this point for almost six months.

What we are seeing, then, is not about failure to follow the proper procedures in a few individual cases, or about a small number of vulnerable women ‘slipping through the cracks’. In 2011, a report by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration highlighted that, within the Home Office, there is “a culture that detention is ‘the norm’”; the complete disregard shown by the Home Office for women’s vulnerability in these cases demonstrates that this ‘culture of detention’ remains firmly in place.

So how can we get this culture to change? There needs to be a shift away from the use of detention as a routine part of the asylum and immigration process. Women for Refugee Women and other organisations have demonstrated that detention is unnecessary (most of the asylum- seeking women who are locked up are simply released back into the community) and expensive as well as traumatic.

Women for Refugee Women advocates for an end to immigration detention, and for immediate steps to ensure real reduction in the numbers of women detained and length of detention. There’s huge momentum now around a 28-day time limit on all immigration detention; during the Second Reading of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, MPs from across the political parties set out their support for this. A 28-day time limit on all immigration detention would significantly curtail the Home Office’s powers of detention, and this could result in a clear reduction in the number of people going into detention in the first place. This has certainly been the result of the 72-hour time limit on the detention of women who are pregnant. Since its introduction, in July 2016, the number of pregnant women being detained in the UK every year has fallen by about half.

Alongside this, there also needs to be a shift towards the use of community-based alternatives, focused on resolving people’s cases in the community. For years, the Home Office ignored calls for the development of such alternatives to detention, insisting that, if people didn’t want to be detained, they could simply leave the UK; but then in July last year they announced a pilot community-based programme, for women who would otherwise have been detained Yarl’s Wood. While this pilot won’t significantly reduce the number of women locked up in the shorter term, it does appear to mark a recognition by the Home Office that detention isn’t an inevitable part of the immigration system. The development of this programme could, then, be a critical first step towards dismantling the ‘culture of detention’ within the Home Office, and towards abolishing the use of detention in the UK altogether.


Women for Refugee Women Campaign For A Fairer Asylum System

Set Her Free: 5 years of campaigning against immigration detention

When the Set Her Free campaign launched at Parliament in January 2014, the energy was palpable. Feminists and human rights activists crowded the room – there was Leyla Hussein, Shami Chakrabarti, Helena Kennedy, Laura Bates, Caroline Criado-Perez, Philippe Sands – and some of our inspirational supporters including singer Skin and actress Romola Garai, alongside Parliamentarians Stella Creasy and Richard Fuller. But centre stage were the asylum seeking women who had been through detention, including Lydia Besong, Meltem Avcil and dozens of others. Their stories and voices commanded the room in Westminster where we gathered and pledged to end the detention of women seeking asylum in the UK.

Over the last five years we at Women for Refugee Women have tried to honour that commitment. We have worked with the media, with politicians, with activists, with other organisations, with doctors, with lawyers, with artists and actors, but above all we have worked with women who know about detention because they lived it. Nothing on this timeline could have happened without their courage and their voices. If we can’t name them all individually for their own protection, they know that we honour them all individually.

As we move into the fifth year of the campaign our commitment to them is undimmed. The arguments have been made. The evidence has been marshalled. The momentum is there.  It is time to close down Yarl’s Wood and Set Her Free.

2014

January

Women for Refugee Women launches the Set Her Free campaign with an event at Parliament and a ground breaking report,  Detained: women asylum seekers locked up in the UK, which puts forward the evidence that the majority of women locked up in Yarl’s Wood have survived human rights abuses including rape and torture, and that detention is both unnecessary and traumatic.

It is covered extensively including in the Daily MirrorBBC World Tonight and Sky News, and is mentioned frequently in Parliament, including by Helena Kennedy in the House of Lords.

February

Zadie Smith, novelist, visits Yarl’s Wood with us and releases this statement in support of the campaign: “We need urgently to address the outrage of Yarl’s Wood. Its continued existence is an offence to liberty, a shame to any civilised nation, and a personal tragedy for the women caught in its illogical grip.’

On 13 February hundreds of campaigners gather outside the Home Office. The crowd is addressed by many inspirational women, and covered throughout the media, including in the Daily Telegraph, where Allison Pearson wrote: ‘This evening, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, can look out of her Westminster office and see a group from Women for Refugee Women shining torches. They are calling for refugee women  to be released from detention and allowed to live with dignity in the community while their cases are heard.’

March

For International Women’s Day 2014 we fill the Royal Festival Hall with the stories of detained women, as Cush Jumbo, Bryony Hannah and Juliet Stevenson perform our testimony play A Day in Detention arranged by Nell Leyshon and Jessica Swale. After the performance we are joined by women who have been in Yarl’s Wood who stun the audience with their courage.

On 31 March, following the tragic death of Christine Case in Yarl’s Wood, Parliamentarians stand up to denounce the government’s detention policy and Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper states that: ‘Research by Women for Refugee Women raises concerns about physical and mental health support in detention.’

April

Women for Refugee Women joins up with the Women’s Institute Shoreditch Sisters, who have knitted a huge quilt with refugee women in solidarity with women in detention, stitched all over with messages of support from the public. In April 2014 we take it to Yarl’s Wood to show the women there that they are not forgotten.

June

On 10-12 June, William Hague and Angelina Jolie host a massive summit in London to tackle sexual violence in conflict. We go too, with our quilt, to raise awareness of what happens to women seeking asylum from sexual violence. On the first day of the summit, Angelina Jolie visits our stand and states her support for refugee women. She writes a message to be stitched on to the solidarity quilt saying: ‘We love and support you. We admire your strength.’ Her support is covered by CNN, ITN the Guardian and the Telegraph. WRW also hosts a sold-out event at the summit with Juliet Stevenson and Shami Chakrabarti speaking alongside refugee women.

July

On 7 July 2014, Sarah Teather MP announces a Parliamentary inquiry into detention. Women for Refugee Women bring two women to give oral evidence to the first session. Maimuna Jawo speaks eloquently of her experiences of being locked up after coming to this country to seek asylum, alongside ‘Alice’, a woman who had been persecuted because of her sexuality in her home country and came close to despair when detained in the UK.

November

In November, Women for Refugee Women gives evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on why women who have survived sexual violence should not be detained, and to the Bedford Council Healthcare Committee on healthcare in Yarl’s Wood.

December

At a packed event in the Queen Elizabeth Hall London, Doreen Lawrence presents Meltem Avcil with the Young Campaigner award in the Liberty Human Rights awards

Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary, announces that a Labour government would end the detention of survivors of torture and sexual violence, and pregnant women. She also announces that Labour would hold an independent inquiry into the allegations of sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

 

2015

January

Our new report, I Am Human, is published and shows that women are routinely watched in intimate situations such as in bed or in the shower by men in Yarl’s Wood. It also shows that women are frequently searched by men and that this behaviour by male staff makes women feel ashamed, scared and angry. The report is covered throughout the media, including the Guardian, the Independent, Channel 4 News and the World at One and is launched at a huge conference for the campaign in London, where more than 100 women who have sought asylum come together with over 100 supporters, including politicians, activists, journalists and artists.

February

In response to Women for Refugee Women exposure of the treatment of vulnerable women and the work of other organisations in exposing conditions in detention, Home Secretary Theresa May announces a review of the detention of vulnerable people, to be carried out by Stephen Shaw, former prisons ombudsman.

March

We work with Channel 4 News on their searing investigation into conditions in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. They expose the racist and dehumanising attitudes of staff at the centre and we support a woman who has been in detention to speak about the trauma she suffered, including her suicide attempt.

The report of the Parliamentary Detention inquiry is published, including evidence from Women for Refugee Women and the following recommendations: ‘Women who are victims of rape and sexual violence should not be detained. Serco and the Home Office must ensure that women are treated with respect and dignity. Gender specific rules should be introduced in IRCs. Pregnant women should never be detained for immigration purposes.’

April

The Solidarity Quilt made by Women for Refugee Women and the Women’s Institute Shoreditch Sisters continues its journey. It goes to the Women of the World festival in March and in April to the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the All of This Belongs to You exhibition.

June

On 6 June Women for Refugee Women organises a demonstration at Yarl’s Wood detention centre itself to demand liberty for women locked up in the centre. It is an amazing day, full of energy, hope and solidarity with those who are detained; the first mass demonstration at the detention centre. Hundreds of people come from all over the country; buses are organised from Manchester, Newcastle, Bristol, Birmingham, Leicester and London. Among the speakers are Maimuna Jawo, Lydia Besong and Nimko Ali.

August

A report by the UK prison inspector, HMIP, calls Yarl’s Wood ‘a national concern’, highlighting issues such as the detention of pregnant women, standards of healthcare provision, and an increase in rates of self-harm.

September

On 10 September, members of Parliament hold a debate on the use of immigration detention and support the demand to Set Her Free. Women who have been detained watch from the gallery as MP after MP call the government to account for the injustice and cruelty of immigration detention.

December

Meltem Avcil is named Cosmopolitan magazine’s Ultimate Campaigner 2015 award, at their annual Ultimate Women awards, for her work on our Set Her Free campaign.

 

2016

January

Stephen Shaw publishes his review of the welfare of vulnerable people in detention. In preparing it he has met with us and a number of women in our network and he recommends an end to the detention of survivors of sexual and gender based violence and an end to the detention of pregnant women, as well as a move away from detention overall.

Kate Osamor MP secures a Westminster Hall debate on healthcare at Yarl’s Wood. Women for Refugee Women attends with three former detainees, who hear positive contributions from MPs across three political parties.

March

On International Women’s Day, 99 inspiring women join us to stand in solidarity with refugee women, by writing a message of support. We asked 99 women to reflect the 99 pregnant women who were detained in Yarl’s Wood in 2014. We mark International Women’s Day with a gathering outside the Home Office, featuring female singers, dancers, musicians, poets, comedians, and speakers and deliver postcards from the 99 women to the Home Office.

Later in March Caroline Spelman MP hosts an event with us, Bhatt Murphy Solicitors and Medical Justice to call for the end to the detention of pregnant women. We are joined by speakers Stephen Shaw (author of the Home Office commissioned review into the welfare of vulnerable detainees), Louise Silverton (Royal College of Midwives), Stephanie Harrison QC (Garden Court Chambers), and women who were detained while pregnant who speak eloquently of the harm they have suffered.

April

Peers in the House of Lords vote in favour of the amendment supported by Women for Refugee Women, tabled by Baroness Ruth Lister, that would end the detention of pregnant women. In the end the government blocks this amendment but introduces a 72-hour time limit on detaining pregnant women instead: a small but significant step forward.

August

Women for Refugee Women’s short animated film ‘Set Her Free: Margaret’s Story’ premieres at London Feminist Film Festival 2016. This film, directed by Priya Sundram, tells the story of one woman detained in Yarl’s Wood. Watch it online here.

September

Women for Refugee Women and Care International UK organise Listen to the Women, an inspiring public event showcasing the stories and voices of refugee women alongside actors Tanya Moodie and Juliet Stevenson and politicians Heidi Allen and Yvette Cooper.

 

2017

January

Women for Refugee Women members perform their Set Her Free poem and call for an end to the detention of women in Trafalgar Square, to a crowd of 100,000 people, at the Women’s March on London.

March

We launch our report, The Way Ahead, which explores women’s experiences of the asylum system, and how to build an asylum process without detention. We launch the report at our second national refugee women’s conference opened by Noma Dumezweni, and Labour MP Kate Osamor.

November

We launch our new report: We are still here: The continued detention of women seeking asylum in Yarl’s Wood, which finds that vulnerable asylum-seeking women, including those who have experienced rape, are still being locked up in immigration detention. The Home Office introduced a new policy in September 2016 to prevent this, however the report shows that the policy is not working and vulnerable women are still experiencing harm from detention.The report is covered by BBC NewsSky NewsThe GuardianThe Independent and more.

We hold a third refugee women’s conference, with Women Asylum Seekers Together Manchester, at which over 200 women come together to discuss their experiences of detention and destitution, and develop actions to create change.

 

2018

February

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott visits Yarl’s Wood detention centre and meets with us and women in our network who have been detained after the visit. She says: ‘These women were clearly desperate. Indefinite detention, with no release date, is just wrong.”

March

We organise the All Women Count mass lobby of Parliament, where over 200 women went to Parliament on International Women’s Day to call for safety, dignity and liberty for all women, together with over 40 other organisations from grassroots groups all around the country to large organisations like UNHCR, Amnesty International UK and Liberty. The event features an all refugee and migrant women line-up of speakers. MPs and Peers attend the lobby and pledge their support. Stella Creasy MP and Jess Phillips MP mention the lobby in the International Women’s Day debate and Baroness Healy speak about it in the House of Lords.

At this time women are on hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood; we speak on BBC Woman’s Hour alongside one of the women involved in the hunger strike. We also bring evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into detention, alongside two women with experience of detention.

May

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott pledges that if Labour were in power it would shut down Yarl’s Wood and put the resources saved into supporting women fleeing gender based violence and trafficking.

July

Stephen Shaw releases his follow up report on the treatment of vulnerable people in detention. He has met with us and women from our network in preparing it, and states in it that vulnerable people are still being locked up for ‘deeply troubling’ amounts of time.  On its launch the Home Secretary Sajid Javid pledges to set up a pilot alternative to detention for women who would be locked up in Yarl’s Wood.

December

We work with the Guardian in order to expose the detention of vulnerable trafficked Chinese women in Yarl’s Wood. The exclusive story tells how there has been a rise in the detention of Chinese women, many of whom are clearly trafficked into exploitation.

 

2019

Women who have been in detention are continuing to speak out and organise in order to ensure their voices are heard.

Parliamentarians and other organisations are working on an amendment to the Immigration Bill which would put a 28-day time limit on immigration detention.

Let’s work together to build on the energy: it’s time to close down Yarl’s Wood and Set Her Free.


Women for Refugee Women Drama Group

2018: a year of solidarity

2018 marked 100 years since some women won the vote. The significance of this year resonated with the refugee women in our network, who took every opportunity to ensure their voices could be heard.

Refugee women come to the UK seeking safety, but too often they face new dangers. This year we have supported many refugee women and empowered them to speak out against detention and exploitation.

This is our year in photos:

Early 2018

 

Women for Refugee Women Timesup Rally
Women for Refugee Women The Breakfast Club
Women for Refugee Women Celebrating Votes for Women
Women for Refugee Women Drama Group Arcola Theatre
Women for Refugee Women All Women Count Lobby
Women for Refugee Women Safety Dignity Liberty

Women for Refugee Women began the year by reopening our doors to over 100 refugee and asylum-seeking women who join us every week for yoga, English lessons, advice and a warm lunch.

Our first event of the year was in January 2018, the #TimesUp rally organised by Women's March London, where our grassroots director, Marchu Girma, and a refugee woman from our network spoke to over 7000 people about why refugee women's experiences of sexual violence must be included in the #MeToo movement.

In March 2018  we organised the #AllWomenCount lobby of Parliament on International Women's Day, when we brought together over 200 refugee and migrant women to demand their rights to safety, dignity and liberty. Over 40 partner organisations worked with us on the event, and all our speakers were refugee and migrant women or MPs.

In March 2018 we supported women who were on hunger strike in Yarl's Wood detention centre. They sent us a statement, which was published in full in the New Statesman, that said, "We are on a hunger strike because we are suffering unfair imprisonment and racist abuse in this archaic institution in Britain." One woman spoke on Woman's Hour with our policy and research coordinator, Gemma Lousley, about why the Home Office must stop detaining vulnerable women. And we supported two women who were previously detained to give evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, alongside Gemma.

Spring

 

Women for Refugee Women Olivier Awards
Women for Refugee Women Graces Story
Women for Refugee Women Drama Group
Women for Refugee Women Caroline Walker Artist
Women for Refugee Women Jess De Wahls Artist
Women for Refugee Women Processions Living Artwork
Women for Refugee Women IT Course Birkbeck University

In April 2018, Marchu Girma joined actress Sheila Atim and female activists on the red carpet at the Olivier Awards, to draw attention to refugee women's experiences of sexual harassment and abuse here in the UK. And one of the refugee women in our network, 'Grace' shared her story of being sexually exploited in the UK in a BBC article that was read over 1 million times.

In June 2018 our drama group, who meet every Friday at the Southbank Centre, gave a public performance poetry about their experiences of sexual violence while seeking safety in the UK, called 'my body is/my body is not'.

We worked with artist Caroline Walker who produced a series of paintings, 'Home', showing  refugee women in our network in their homes. Caroline's paintings were exhibited at the Kettle's Yard gallery in Cambridge in April 2018 and the project was covered in a detailed photo essay in the Financial Times Magazine.

In June 2018 we collaborated with embroidery artist Jess de Wahls to produce a banner for PROCESSIONS, a celebration of the centenary year of women's suffrage. With Jess' support, group of women in our network stitched a beautiful banner demanding safety, dignity and liberty and marched with it at the Processions event.

in July our Grassroots Co-ordinator Monica Aidoo spoke at the meeting organised by the Novo Foundation and Oak Foundation on movement building among women’s organisations, an inspiring day which was opened by Emma Watson and Marai Larasi of Imkaan.

We also ran the first of two IT courses in collaboration with Birkbeck University. The courses equipped refugee women with basic computer skills that are essential for building a life in the UK.

Summer

 

Women for Refugee Women BringTheNoise Rally
Women for Refugee Women Rainbow Sisters
Women for Refugee Women Workshop Charity Sector
Women for Refugee Women Hachette Poetry

20 refugee women joined the Bring the Noise demonstration in July 2018 at the time of Donald Trump's visit to the UK and Marchu and two refugee women in our network spoke at the rally.

This year we also started a new group for lesbian and bisexual refugee women: Rainbow Sisters. A highlight for the group was marching in the Pride Parade in London and speaking at UK Black Pride. You can read their blog about the experience here.

Throughout the year our grassroots director, Marchu Girma, spoke at various events about the need to empower refugee women to lead campaigns. In July, four women in our network led a workshop at a conference organised by Trust for London for charity sector professionals on how to make space for people with personal experience of injustice in their work.

In late summer, we partnered with the publisher Hachette to put on an event at which our drama group performed their own poetry. Hachette supported us  to run a book club throughout our autumn term for refugee women to develop their love for reading.

Autumn

 

Women for Refugee Women Her Stories Art Auction
Women for Refugee Women Drama Group Lebanon
Women for Refugee Women Tulip Siddiq MP
Women for Refugee Women Guardian Expose Home Office
Women for Refugee Women Christmas Party

A highlight of our autumn was the wonderful support that we received from Her Stories, a collective of creative women who raised over £20,000 for our work with refugee women, through an auction of women's art and a series of other events.

The closing months of the year were also an important time in our #SetHerFree campaign against the detention of asylum-seeking women. On 19 November, Yarl's Wood had been open for 17 years facilitating the detention of thousands of vulnerable women who have sought safety in the UK, at great cost to their well-being and safety. Alongside women who had been detained there, we called for the closure of Yarl's Wood in media pieces in the New Statesman and BBC Look East-West. We also worked closely with Tulip Siddiq MP on her new Parliamentary Bill to end indefinite detention, that received cross-party support.

And in December 2018 we worked with The Guardian to expose the increasing number of highly-vulnerable trafficked Chinese women that the Government is locking up in Yarl's Wood. We worked closely with a number of Chinese women who were detained and supported them to find legal representation so that some have been released.

We continue to support refugee women at the grassroots. In November 2018 Ginger Public Speaking ran a course with us for 10 refugee women to develop their ability to tell their own stories. We are now running a writing group for a small group of committed refugee women writers, and a new Transitions group to support refugee women with the right to work into employment or education.

And we rounded off a busy year with our Christmas party for 200 refugee women in our network. It was a day of celebration and joy, with performances from women who had developed their skills with us this year. We shared food from around the world and gave every woman a gift from our supporters.


Thank you to all of our donors, supporters and volunteers who made this work possible!

If you can, please donate to enable us to reach more refugee women in 2019. You can donate online by clicking here.


Women for Refugee Women News I Am Not A Number

"I am not just a number, but a valued person who can contribute"

Above: Taking a moment to enjoy the countryside on our leadership retreat

by Rebecca*

My name is Rebecca and I joined Women for Refugee Women’s network less than two years ago. In that time, my confidence has really grown. This is my story.

Before joining Women for Refugee Women I was very shy and I had lost all hope of living a normal life. I was very lonely and hopeless. I had been waiting for a decision on my asylum claim for a long time and I felt that everyone in this country had rejected me. I had no friends, no one to turn to for help. Nothing was working out the right way for me and it was very hard for me to fit in with society.

This all changed for me when I met Women for Refugee Women because I have had opportunities and training.

I was introduced by a friend to one of the drop in sessions. I joined the English language class and came back every week. There is a lot I have learnt about the history and culture of the UK. These classes have opened me up further to be able to feel included in society. I have excelled in that class and I even got an award for being the Star Pupil.

After three months of joining the group, I was so was lucky to be invited to attend a leadership training retreat with seven other refugee women. By the end of this training, I felt much more confident. I felt accepted.

After that I was invited to join the drama group. One of the ladies running the leadership course was the drama facilitator and she made me feel that I had lots to contribute. Every Friday we have drama sessions at the Southbank Centre, where we write poetry about our experiences and create performances together. This has improved my mental wellbeing tremendously.

I started to say ‘yes’ to every opportunity and soon joined a sewing and handcrafts course that took place at the Breakfast Club. This was so relaxing and fun! I also joined a five-week course called ‘Telling Your Story with a Purpose’ that was run by Ginger Public Speaking. I was inspired to listen to other women’s stories and it made me feel that I am not alone.

Women for Refugee Women Sharing My StorySharing my story on a panel after the workshop

Because of all these new skills that I was developing, I started to go and visit other refugee women’s groups and universities to co-facilitate drama workshops. As part of a group of four women, I was invited by Trust for London to facilitate a workshop for people working in different charities about how to enable people with lived experience to lead campaigns. We attended a comprehensive facilitation course along with people from two other charities: On Road Media and Revolving Doors. On 10 July 2018, we ran a big workshop called ‘Making Space for Us’. I enjoyed using my experience to help other organisations to think about how they can empower the people they work with.

From all this training I have got new skills and my self-confidence has improved tremendously. I now feel bold enough to share my experience and represent other refugee and asylum-seeking women on different platforms.

Now I feel that I am not just a number but a valued person who can contribute and share my experience with wide audiences to increase understanding about the experiences of refugees. It is important that people can speak from their own experience, because if you have gone through it personally you can portray a better picture of what it is like to seek safety.

I am so grateful for the total support of Women for Refugee Women. I would not have been able to achieve any of this without the travel expenses that they always provide. I know that when I come, I am assured of a warm meal or snacks. It's not just about creating opportunities but also enabling women to take part. We are now a family and we support one another when we meet.

Of course there have been challenges along the way. For me, the biggest challenge has been destitution. It has been a very big problem for me. I’m still waiting for my decision from the Home Office but at the moment I’m waiting from a different perspective. Before I joined Women for Refugee Women I had lost all hope but now I have regained my confidence and I have learnt more information concerning my rights. Now I know where to go and what to do.

My highlight on this journey is when the drama group performed our poetry at an event and afterwards we had to step up and go on the panel for the question and answer session. I really felt powerful and in control, and confident that I could come up with good answers that everyone was ready to listen to.

To other refugee women in my situation I would say, don’t hide away, there are opportunities available and you have so much potential. We refugee women are capable of sharing our stories and leading campaigns for a fairer world, we just need to be given the chance!

*Rebecca is a pseudonym


 

If you would like to support our work to empower refugee women like Rebecca, please donate online.
Thank you.


Women for Refugee Women Rainbow Sisters

Rainbow Sisters at Pride 2018

By Sarah Cope, Rainbow Sisters facilitator

For several months, Rainbow Sisters, the group for lesbian and bisexual women at Women for Refugee Women have been preparing for London Pride. Not only were we to march at the Pride Parade, but we were to attend Black Pride, where we were speaking on the smaller stage.

To prepare, we stitched a banner and created group t-shirts and placards with strong messages against the detention and discrimination of women based on their sexuality. One of our members, Susana, wrote us a song:

“Hurray, we are the Rainbow Sisters, from Women for Refugee Women.

We do unite all lesbian and bisexual women, com’ from countries all over the world.

We accept ourselves and each other, and celebrate who we are.

Our motto is to care and to share, to fight the cause of righteousness,

And justice for a better living.

Arise and shine, Rainbow Sisters!”

Olatoyin, another of our members, is a brilliant drummer, and equipped with a small drum she helped us keep our rhythm as we practiced each week under Susana’s exacting tutorage.

The day of the Pride Parade dawned, and with it came temperatures of over 90 degrees! Meeting outside Great Portland Street tube, we commandeered a bus stop shelter for shade and sang Happy Birthday to Tua, one of our most flamboyant members. We enjoyed birthday brownies and curious glances from bus passengers.

Making our way to our area of ‘form up’ (this is the holding place where groups wait for the go-ahead to march) we were shocked to see that Serco, the security firm that runs Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre, where several of the women have been detained, were marching near us. It seemed a bitter irony. We know only too well how Yarl's Wood traumatises women who have already had to flee persecution and violence. As we said to each other on the day, there is no pride in profiting from misery.

Despite this duff note, the rest of the day went beautifully. Many of us felt overwhelmed by the support we were given by the spectators, who totaled around one million along the length of the route.

Women for Refugee Women Rainbow Sisters Pride 2018

Susana said, “I was so happy. Rainbow Sisters have fans! We were getting so many cheers. The highlight for me was when the compere with the microphone read out ‘Shut Down Yarl’s Wood’ and said he agreed. I was touched.”

Jocyline agreed. “I was so happy that people were supporting us as refugee women. We suffer so much with the Home Office, but everyone was cheering us. Even now, two days later, I am so comforted that people supported our message.”

Remmi said, “This was my 4th parade, but it was the best – to be with Rainbow Sisters. The photos showed the love in our group – I’m just so proud of Rainbow Sisters.”

We danced and sang along the route, the women stopping to be embraced across the barriers by well-wishers. Hands reached out and high-fived the women as they continued down the parade.

Women for Refugee Women Rainbow Sisters Pride 2018

By the end of the Parade, we were all overcome with emotion (as well as very hot and tired!). But the next day, we were out again for Black Pride in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

We met several groups who were holding stalls on the day, some of whom had seen us marching the day before. “Rainbow Sisters really stole the show!” said one man who had been marching in a group near ours. He wasn’t wrong!

Ivy said, “At Black Pride, it was so nice to see so many people of colour. Just to be out, queer, and black every so often – we need that more than one day a year though! I just kept thinking, ‘Where do these people hide all year?!’”

Women for Refugee Women Rainbow Sisters Pride 2018

Rainbow Sisters had been allotted five minutes on the Wellbeing and Welfare stage. The women talked about the group, inviting other lesbian and bisexual asylum seeking women to join us in the future. Then we sang our song, which sounded excellent. We were given a really warm round of applause and then handed our leaflets out to the crowd.

Then it was time for a well-earned drink in the shade and, for those with energy left, a dance.

In short, it was a weekend none of us are likely to forget.

As Olatoyin put it: “I feel like we showed the way we are so active, the way we are such strong and prominent women.”


Women for Refugee Women News Joy's Story of Home

Joy's story of 'Home'

For each day of Refugee Week 2018, we will be sharing the stories of one of the five refugee and asylum-seeking women who were painted by the artist Caroline Walker in their accommodation for her latest series of paintings, ‘Home’, which was exhibited at Kettle’s Yard gallery in Cambridge.

Women for Refugee Women Joy's Story of HomeJoy was granted refugee status in the UK after she was trafficked and abused. She lives in a council house in Hackney and enjoys being part of the local community.

“I came to the UK with my employer in 2009, they mistreated me and beat me. When they sent me out of the house I had to go to the police. My employer went back to Nigeria because the police wanted to arrest her. She took my passport and visa - she took everything.

My asylum application took three years. And then when I first got my refugee status I stayed in a hostel for over a year. Now I have a home of my own where I can stay and feel safe.

My home is the best place! The area is safe, it is near the town and is very beautiful. The people in my neighbourhood are very kind and they work together. I’m so happy I got a house here through the council. I have been here for two years now.

In my spare time I like to read a lot. I go and get the free newspapers from the tube station and read them every day. Sometimes I can’t move around too much because I had a head injury that still gives me pain. But I like to come out and socialise, to come and see people. I read the bible and pray every morning and night.

I go to English classes at Women for Refugee Women every Monday. I love it! I have learnt so many things about British culture and about writing. I meet new friends here and we all support each other.

I am so pleased to be involved in this project because I haven’t had any opportunity like this before. When people look at the paintings it will be amazing. They will think that I am a strong woman. Now, I am safe and in a good place.

I love the UK. I feel so appreciative to be here. British people have helped me, if not for them I would be dead, they saved my life. Every day I pray for this country, for God’s protection.”


 

Every week over 100 refugee and asylum-seeking women join our activities in London, if you'd like to support our work with women like Joy please donate here.

 

Women for Refugee Women Joy's Story of Home