Women for Refugee Women News Remembering Refugee Women When Rallying Behind Timesup

Remembering refugee women when rallying behind #TimesUp

by Marchu Girma, Grassroots Director

Last term, 30-35 refugee women in our network attended a 12-week workshop on intersectional feminism run by Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu. There were dynamic, vigorous and inspiring discussions among women about what feminism means to them. A great range of different views were exchanged, reflecting the diversity of the women who are from various countries, backgrounds and have different life experiences.

When sexual exploitation of Hollywood stars became a huge story in the media inspiring thousands of women to take courage and say #MeToo on social media, it also inspired refugee women in our feminism discussions to say #MeToo. Common experiences of sexual abuse, harassment, trafficking and being preyed upon were candidly discussed.

Most of all, many of the women were stunned to discover their experiences of not being believed by authorities were shared amongst all women, including Hollywood stars. Many refugee women who disclose to the Home Office their experiences of gender-based violence, including rape and sexual harassment in their home countries, are not believed. Their stories are dismissed and they are asked to provide proof of abuse, where the threshold for belief is overwhelmingly high. Many women have asked me over the years, ‘How can we provide proof of being raped by soldiers or abused by family members?’

Their proof is their bodies and their stories.

The Home Office’s refusal to believe refugee women when they tell their stories has detrimental effects on women’s mental and physical wellbeing. It also leaves women destitute with no support, relying on handouts from friends and charities, or in some cases, homeless out on the cold streets. Such situations expose women to further exploitation, sexual harassment and rape.

Whilst sharing stories in the class, Precious*, a refugee woman from DRC, told the group:

"I was staying in a spare room of a lovely couple who had been married for over 30 years. Every night the husband came to knock on my door. I was so scared; I jammed the table against the door. After a few days of this happening I left the house, even though I had nowhere to go."

The #MeToo campaign inspired Precious to report the incident. She felt empowered for taking action and for speaking her truth. Many refugee women are ready to share their stories and speak their truth. We now need to give them platforms to speak out and to say, ‘We see you, we hear you, we believe you.’

That is why I will be speaking at the Women’s March Time's Up rally outside Downing Street with a refugee woman on 21st January.

We are also organising the #AllWomenCount parliamentary lobby on 8th March, led by refugee women. Come and join us!


*We have changed Precious' name to protect her identity


Women for Refugee Women News Our Year in Photos

Our year in photos

At Women for Refugee Women, we've had a busy year empowering refugee and asylum-seeking women and making sure that their voices are heard in the media and by policy makers.

Here's a whirlwind tour of just some of what we've been up to:

January

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos
The women in our drama group showed just how much they have developed their confidence and creativity, performing their own poetry to over 80,000 people at the Women's March on London in Trafalger Square.

March

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos
We launched new research on alternatives to detention, 'The Way Ahead', outlining how the UK's Home Office could move towards a fairer asylum system that doesn't lock women up. We highlighted further evidence that detention is traumatic, expensive and inefficient. (Photo: Briony Campbell)

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos
We organised the National Refugee Women's Conference which was attended by over 100 refugee women and over 100 supporters, including Noma Dumezweni, Richard Fuller MP and Kate Green MP. (Photo: Briony Campbell)

April

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos

Our Grassroots Director, Marchu Girma, visited Hamburg to attend the Democracy Camp 2017. She wrote this great blog about her experience and her visit to Migrantpolitan, a small art space and café run by refugees, where she met with Syrian refugees.

May

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos

Refugee and asylum-seeking women in our network attended the 'Surround Yarl's Wood' demonstration.

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos

Esther said, "I protested today to fight for the freedom of women who are detained, to fight for their rights, to fight for hope. I don’t want detention to exist because I have experience of it. Detention must stop. When the women inside Yarl’s Wood hear the protesters outside they feel happy because they hear someone fighting for them."

June

We spoke at five events during refugee week, as well as hosting our own...

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos
At our Women's Great Get Together, we remembered Jo Cox's message that 'we have more in common than that which divides us' and had a tea party for refugee women and other local women to come together, sing, dance and strike up new conversations. Our local Women's Institute, the Borough Belles, ran a craft activity for everyone. (Photo: Aliya Mirza)

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos

The women in our drama group participated in the Hear Her Singing project with artist Charwei Tsai. The project involved an exchange of song between the women in our network and those detained in Yarl's Wood. The results were shared in video installations around the Southbank Centre, which kicked off with The Big Sing, a community singing event led by our drama group. (Photo: Tsering Tashi Gyalthang)

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos
Eight women went on a retreat to Micklepage House in West Sussex, to relax, re-energise and work on new poetry and art projects. They produced these stunning screen-prints with the help of Social Fabric.

July

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos

We collaborated with The Breakfast Club in Hoxton to provide textiles workshops for refugee and asylum-seeking women. We ran another of these course in November.

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos
As our summer term drew to a close, we had a lot of fun at our end of term party for 130 refugee and asylum-seeking women. Our drama group also visited the National Theatre and tested out the costumes (pictured)!

August

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos

August gave us a moment to regroup and prepare for a very busy Autumn. But we didn't want the women we work with to feel isolated during this period, especially those with kids on their summer holidays, so we organised a trip for mums and their children to visit the Horniman Museum. We especially loved the Robot Zoo!

September

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos
Our Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) group returned after the summer. Each week we give a warm welcome to around 100 refugee and asylum-seeking women who come together for English lessons, yoga, a warm lunch and advice. (Photo: Shyamantha Asokan)

October

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos
Women in our drama group contributed their hopes and dreams to the Wall of Dreams project, with poets Morten Søndergaard, Kayo Chingonyi and Jasmine Cooray. Their dreams were projected across the Royal Festival Hall every evening for two weeks.

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos
Ten women completed our 'Telling your story with a purpose' training course with Ginger Public Speaking, in which they learnt how to share their experiences in a meaningful and empowering way.

November

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos

We published 'We are still here', research that found that the Home Office is still detaining vulnerable survivors of sexual violence in breach of their own policy. The story was picked up by the BBC, Sky News, The Guardian, The Independent and others. Some of the women who contributed to this research also spoke out in Parliament at an event organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees.

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos
We also hosted another National Refugee Women's Conference with Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) Manchester. 250 refugee women and supporters attended to share experiences of destitution and detention, and to plan action against them. Regional women's groups shared moving performences, including WAST Manchester, our drama group, Hope Projects from Birmingham and CARAG from Coventry. (Photo: Elainea Emmott)

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos

We organised a special screening of Suffragette with the Welcome Cinema. Marchu Girma, Monica and Priscille spoke on a panel with the film's director, Sarah Gavron, about refugee women's struggles to have their voices heard today. (Photo: Maria Brosnan)

December

Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos

Our year rounded off on a high at our Christmas Party for 130 women. We gave out awards for outstanding contributions over the year, danced, shared food and each woman went home with a huge bag of gorgeous beauty products donated by our wonderful supporters!


 

We want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has supported us this year and enabled all of this to happen.

If you would like to help us keep this up next year, you can donate at www.tinyurl.com/givetoWRW 


Women for Refugee Women News Welcome to London

Welcome to London: a walking tour of the city for refugee women

By Rosa Dennis, volunteer teacher for our Intermediate English class

I decided to volunteer for Women for Refugee Women as I wanted to do something proactive and meaningful to help welcome people who come to the UK in search of safety. In the summer of 2017 I trained as an English teacher, and after coming across Women for Refugee Women I wanted to put the skills I had learnt in my course into practise.

I gained more from the Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) group, who meet every Monday, than I ever could have imagined. The warmth and care of these women who had come to the UK looking for a safe place is overwhelming. I’m inspired by the women's determination to improve their English skills and to learn more about the history and culture of the UK.  Even after all the horrendous stories I hear about the asylum process, they are still fighting to rebuild their lives and will never give up.

Women for Refugee Women Welcome to London

During my first lesson with the women, we looked at the vocabulary used in traditional tours of London. We discussed words such as ‘footsteps’ and ‘upmarket’ as we looked at some of the older areas of the city. Some of the women commented that they had never been to central London and didn’t know the historic buildings. I chirped in that my dad was a tour guide and found that the women were keen to explore and learn about London in this way. So I made it my mission to organise a tour for them before the end of term!

I spoke to my dad and we devised a route. Starting at Tower Hill, crossing Tower Bridge to see the panoramic view of London’s skyscrapers, followed by a cup of tea at City Hall and then continuing along the south bank of the river Thames to the Millennium Bridge and St. Paul's Cathedral. We thought this would show London at its best, the juxtaposition of old and new.

Women for Refugee Women Welcome to London

My dad loves talking to people, but even-more-so when they listen to him! The ladies were hooked by his stories of London’s past, including the Catholics and Protestants that were executed at the tower, the gunpowder plot that we studied in class and England’s barbaric colonial history.

It was a cold crisp day but six women braved the elements to learn more about London and to have a wonderful experience. The feedback I got was positive and hopefully we can do another one in the summer when it is not so cold!

Thank you to Hugh Dennis and everyone at Women for Refugee Women for all the wonderful work they are doing. This experience has opened my eyes to the struggles people face every day, and to the warmth and resilience of humanity.

Women for Refugee Women Welcome to London


Women for Refugee Women News Storytelling With A Purpose

Storytelling with a purpose: a course to empower and inspire refugee women

Ten courageous and talented refugee and asylum-seeking women in our network took part in Telling your story with a purpose, a public speaking and storytelling course delivered by Ginger. Course facilitators, Rona and Jojo, share their reflections on the programme.

Words from Rona Steinberg

One of the many things I love about being a public speaking coach and trainer for Ginger is that I get to meet the most remarkable people. This has never been truer than over the past couple of months, as Jojo Thomas and I delivered a series of workshops to a group of women refugees from the incredible charity, Women for Refugee Women.

I first met the organisation’s Director, Natasha Walter, a few years ago at a TedX Covent Garden event where I was one of the coaches. I was impressed then by Natasha’s commitment to helping women refugees who, having faced unimaginable challenges in their home country, arrive here only to encounter still more difficulties and hardship. When I met Marchu Girma, the organisation’s grassroots coordinator, earlier this year at a charity lunch, it seemed inevitable that we should work together.

Before long Jojo and I were sitting down to design a programme that would enable our participants to share their stories, not just with passion and fluency, but, crucially, with a sense of purpose and mission. This particular group had been chosen to join the programme because of how far they had already come in their own journeys, and also because it was felt they had the kind of leadership qualities required to influence and persuade.

It was great working with Jojo on designing something we thought would be well received, but it was only when we arrived at the organisation’s headquarters for our first session that we realised what an incredible experience we were going to have. For the truth is that, despite all the terrible hardships that these courageous, feisty, funny, brilliant women have gone through (and are still going through), each one of them has retained their sense of fun, determination to make the most of their time with us, and, most importantly their hopes for their futures.

As the weeks progressed and their stories started to unfold, we were continually humbled by the women’s courage and forbearance – they spoke of being abandoned as young children, experiencing violence, trafficking, running for their lives, leaving their young children behind as they attempted to create a future here for their families, sleeping on park benches and on cold floors of railway stations. Here in the UK they have experienced racism, rejection, exploitation, heartbreak and loneliness.

Their tears flowed as did ours and yet … and yet; not once did I feel that they saw themselves as victims. One minute they’d be speaking of terrible atrocities, and the next they’d be laughing, breaking in to beautiful song, or throwing themselves in to the next exercise. We soon learnt that it was pointless to ask (as is usual in public training sessions), whether they were nervous – they didn’t seem to understand the concept, so eager were they for the chance to learn how to communicate their stories more skilfully.

They saw this programme as an opportunity and they were determined to make the most of it. One day I remarked on one of our participant’s beautiful notetaking and she turned to me and said, “I want to be the best public speaker I can be.” I will never forget those words, spoken so solemnly and with such heart and determination.

I learned so much in that room; about the human spirit, about how when everything seems hopeless you can still find hope; about faith and the power of prayer when there really seems there’s nothing and no one left to help you. I learnt about resilience, about the power of women to rise up and determine their own fate against the most terrible of odds. I also heard how grateful they all are to Women for Refugee Women, which has befriended them, and seeks to empower and support them. It has just been the most beautiful, moving and heart-warming experience. At the end of the programme, as we hugged and said our goodbyes, they asked if we would return to be with them again. And of course, we will.

Words from Jojo Thomas

Rona and I prepared very carefully for our series of workshops with Women for Refugee Women. We felt instinctively that it was essential to provide as much clarity and value as we could in a very short space of time, and we thought long and hard about presenting a series of exercises and ideas that felt logical and powerful. We also braced ourselves for a lot of emotion, anticipating that many of the stories that would be revealed over the course of the programme would be harrowing, shocking, and deeply personal.

The one thing we didn’t prepare ourselves for was just how much fun we were going to have. In every possible way, this series of workshops was easy and energising. Women for Refugee Women, represented by the fabulous Marchu and Monica - who both participated with gusto and courage – made us so welcome, providing a safe and comfortable space in which we could play and explore.

As Rona has already said, one of the first things we usually encounter with budding speakers is nerves. There’s often a reticence in people to stand up and show their true selves. Not so here! These amazing women don’t have the time or energy to be nervous; they are too busy battling to carve lives of meaning and purpose and joy out of great struggle.

It was a humbling and inspiring lesson to me to see them show up, week after week, with neither self-pity nor self-consciousness. Their ferocity, sass, wit, humour, intelligence, and sheer grace made Rona and I smile, laugh, cry and, on many occasions, look to each other with a silent “wow”.

I’ll never forget an exercise we did right at the beginning of the course, where we asked the women to think about the ‘why’ of storytelling. What was their purpose, their big dream for their stories? These are the words they shared with us:

  • Empowerment
  • Courage
  • Impact
  • Awareness
  • Change
  • Care
  • Acceptance
  • Hope
  • Don’t give up!
  • Not alone!
  • Improve
  • Persevere
  • Care
  • Truth

Of all the moving moments we shared during our sessions together, this is probably the one I will remember the most; The way in which they just got it, on a profound, heartfelt level. Helping to give these women a voice was a privilege and a pleasure from start to finish. I can’t wait to see what they will go on to do in the future, and I can’t wait to come back and work with them again.


 

We'd love to be able to run this course again for more women who have come to the UK to seek safety, to support them to feel empowered to speak out effectively. If you can help, please donate at: www.tinyurl.com/givetoWRW


Women for Refugee Women News The Missing Picture

The missing picture, African refugee women in Greek camps

by Marchu Girma

I recently visited Lesvos to provide training for refugee women with Women Refugee Route. Although most of the women who attended the training were Syrian and Afghan,  I was surprised to see how many African women and children are living in the notorious camp at Moria. I couldn’t help wondering why it is that we so rarely see their faces in the media and so seldom hear their voices.

For instance, I met Genet at One Happy Family, a community centre for refugees. She was trafficked from Ethiopia as an orphaned teenager after her parents, uncles and brothers were killed by government forces clearing land to sell to businesses. She worked for nine years in Beirut as a domestic servant where she was physically and emotionally abused. Genet told me she chose to start her journey to Europe because ‘After nine long years, I could not go on anymore, I needed to get out of the situation, it nearly drove me to madness.’

Women for Refugee Women The Missing Picture

Genet started her journey to the unknown by giving herself to traffickers who promised to help her cross borders to safety. ‘There were four of us who started the journey together.  We travelled through Lebanon, to the Syrian border. At one point we hiked a tall mountain, it took us six days. We had no cover from the elements; we were soaked in rain, and freezing cold. One of the Ethiopian women could not stop shivering and her teeth kept chattering. The man [trafficker] kept telling her to shut up. We were afraid for her so we tried to get her to stop, but she couldn’t control the chattering, and making the noise. At the end when we stopped off somewhere, the man took her with him. We never saw her again, we didn’t know what happened to her.’

Genet told me that she walked most of the way to Turkey. She faced starvation, sexual violence and brutal conditions throughout her journey. ‘When you start this journey, you have to know that you may lose your life and your honour on the journey- but you do it anyway because you can’t stay where you are. You have to have decided you are ok with death.’

African women seem to be easy prey for traffickers, because of the lack of protection afforded to them throughout this journey. Many Syrian and Afghan women make these journeys in family groups, accompanied by male family members and other protectors, while single African women like Genet do not have male relatives to protect them. Genet told me that at times ‘we covered our hair, put sun glasses and whitened our skin with powder so that we don’t stand out.’

Once Genet reached Turkey, she managed to get on a boat to cross the Aegean Sea and arrive at Lesvos where she has been living in Moria refugee camp for the past three months.  She told me that the camp is a hopeless place and that she felt stuck, ‘There is no way forward and no way backwards.’

The two day refugee women’s training that I was working on was attended by 25-30 women. All of them, Afghan, Syrian and African, told us that they were fearful of living in the camps because there was no safety.  Refugee Rights Europe (RRE) published a report earlier this year which found that women refugees in Greece were exposed to dangers including gender-based violence, abuse by authorities, and sexual harassment. They found incidences of rape, forced prostitution, forced marriage, and trafficking, with younger refugees particularly affected.

Like the other women I met, Genet felt that she isn’t getting the help she needs in Moria camp to deal with her asylum application or to help her cope with with everyday living. But I was struck that Genet feels that the situation is even harsher for African refugee women. Other observers agree.  Marcy Hersh, senior advocacy officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission said in her recent interview for News Deeply: ‘There is a hierarchy in the review of asylum cases [in Greece], where Syrians are a priority, then Afghans and then everyone else…Everyone we interviewed at the camp explained that they have to wait in line for food. I spoke to a few Africans, including this woman from Congo, and she told me that because she is African, she’s just immediately kicked to the back of the line when they look at her skin color.’

Women for Refugee Women The Missing Picture

While the world’s media often seems to be more sympathetic to Syrians who are fleeing civil war, women like Genet who are fleeing violence at the hands of traffickers and individuals are often forgotten. She told me, ‘I cannot go back to my country because I don’t feel safe, I cannot go back to an Arab country because I don’t feel safe. The only option I have is to go forward. All I want more than anything is peace, and to be able to live in a peaceful country.’

I heard many stories like Genet’s in the camps. These women are easy prey for all the forms of violence that take place on the dangerous trafficking routes and in refugee camps. Although they are invisible to the Western world they are very much exposed to predators and traffickers.  We must do more to understand all refugees as individuals, to hear their stories and not let their visibility to us be determined by their country of origin. Genet’s story, and the stories of other African women, must be told in order to understand the complete picture of Europe’s refugee camps. The least we can do is to ensure that women like her are heard.


Marchu Girma is Grassroots Co-ordinator of Women for Refugee Women and was working in Greece with Women Refugee Route.


Women for Refugee Women News Surrounding Yarl's Wood Detention Centre

Surrounding Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre

By Hannah Bondi

Women for Refugee Women organised a coach on the 13th May to take refugee women from our network to join a protest organised by Movement For Justice By Any Means Necessary at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre in Bedfordshire.

After a two-hour journey, we arrived at the industrial estate which Yarl’s Wood is hidden behind, and joined other protesters from all over the UK. The atmosphere was one of hope and solidarity with the women who are still held in detention. The protest came just a few days after one of the longest-held detainees was released. Mabel Gawanas, speaking after almost 3 years in detention, reminded the crowds how important it is for detention to end, stating that women are “slowly dying” in Yarl’s Wood.

We marched along the fence of Yarl’s Wood to chants of “Shut it down”, “Fight back” and “No human is illegal”. We stopped once we had come to the back of the building where detainees could see us through their bedroom windows, waving and carrying their own signs, some of which read “SAVE US”. Protestors began kicking the high metal fence that separated us from the women inside, making as much noise as possible so the women could hear us. Drums and music were played throughout, with people dancing and singing. Smoke bombs were lit, adding colour to the otherwise monotonous and stale environment that is Yarl’s Wood. Even children were protesting detention, one shouting softly to “Shut it down”.

Many of the women we had come with had been held in detention themselves. When asked why she came to protest Esther stated, “I protested today to fight for the freedom of women who are detained, to fight for their rights, to fight for hope. I was detained once and it was not easy. I became mentally disturbed. I don’t want detention to exist because I have experience of it. Detention must stop”. One woman who was also held in detention and said that, “I was detained and, even now, I don’t know where I will be tomorrow. I have two children, one of them with cerebral palsy. I am refused asylum again and again. I try and try, but I am still turned down all the time. Maybe one day I will be back in detention but I do not want to go back to that prison. There is no freedom for so many women in detention”.

When we asked Rehemah why she came to protest she made the sobering statement of, “We want to send the message that whatever brought a detainee to this country was not a crime, it was asylum”. By looking at Yarl’s Wood, surrounded by high fences, with windows that only opened enough for a hand to wave out of, it was clear that the line between detention centre and prison is a fine one. Many women in detention feel like they are being treated as a criminal, their only crime being seeking safety.

We heard speeches from women who had been detained in Yarl’s Wood themselves. They spoke of the abuse they underwent and how badly detention affected their mental health. People were urged to wave to the women inside, some having brought ladders to stand on so that they could be seen better. One woman climbed her ladder to place yellow flowers in the grating. At one point the crowd was asked to be quiet so that the women held inside could speak to us. The crowd silenced and a voice rang out through a megaphone asking:

“We can hear you and we can see you, what do you want to say?” With a unified shout that defied fear, the women inside cried, "Freedom".


 

Hannah Bondi is a Communications Intern with Women for Refugee Women and full-time student at King's College London. She is also interning with the European Network of Migrant Women.


Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos

'Humans welcome': Meeting Syrian refugee women in Hamburg

By Marchu Girma, Grassroots Coordinator

I recently had the opportunity to visit Hamburg on a training programme, ‘Democracy Camp 2017’. Migrant and refugee activists from across Europe came together to learn from American migrant movement builders.

Together, we explored how we can change the negative narrative of migration, and how we can organise and build a movement across Europe, to challenge the rising tide of far right movements.

It wasn’t a coincidence that Hamburg was chosen to host the training; the city of Hamburg has re-settled the second largest number of Syrian refugees in Germany.

The training was opened by Katharina Fegebank, Vice-Mayor of Hamburg and a member of the German Green Party, who spoke so differently from any politician I have ever known. Her message was simple: Hamburg is open to refugees.

“We want them in a few years’ time to feel like, yes that was a tough time, but now Hamburg is my home. We have always benefited from people coming from all over the world to Hamburg and we want this to continue.”

At the height of the refugee crisis, Hamburg was receiving 500-600 refugees per day.  The citizens of Hamburg pulled together, volunteering to build shelters and provide language classes.

We were encouraged to visit the Kampnagel, an arts and performance space, where Hamburg's support for refugees is announced at the entrance with a florescent ‘Refugees Welcome’ sign.

Women for Refugee Women Humans Welcome

Out the back of the Kampnagel is the Migrantpolitan, a small wooden shed. The Migrantpolitan is a small art space and café run by refugees with donations from the public. This space is like a community centre for many of the young Syrian refugees, who hang out there and take part in lots of creative projects.

I went to visit the Migrantpolitan on a Friday evening. Art work, paintings, craft and cultural fabric covers the walls, and there is a really homely feeling about the place. I found some young Syrian refugees sitting in worn out donated sofas, drinking Mate (a herbal tea) and chatting away.

I was welcomed to their group and given tea. We talked about the usual things young people like to talk about - music and fashion. Our conversation led to swapping stories of being a refugee and some of the challenges that face us.

Many of them shared with me the frustration they felt at leaving their dreams behind. They would have never imagined being in the situation that they face now, being refugees in a foreign country. They told me the refugee camps do not feel safe, especially for young women like them, and they come regularly to the Migrantpolitan to escape.

Women for Refugee Women Humans Welcome

This little shed provides a safe space for them, where they can be themselves and not a ‘refugee’.  On the far corner of the wall there is a ‘refugees welcome’ poster, but at the Migrantpolitan they have scrubbed out the word ‘refugees ’and replaced it with ‘humans’. As one of them explained to me: ‘We are not refugees, we are human beings - so it should just say humans welcome’.

I went back to the Migrantpolitan again on my last evening in Hamburg, this time with some of my new friends from the Democracy Camp course.

Unexpectedly, we ended up running an African dance workshop for them, and they taught us some Syrian dances. We connected on a human level, beyond our label of being a refugee or a migrant.


Women for Refugee Women Our Dreams Are Everyones Dreams

Our dreams are everyone's dreams

By Natalie Stanton

Few conferences wrap up with a spontaneous dance party led by Yasmin Kadi, a successful singer/songwriter from Sierra Leone, dressed in fluorescent carnival gear. But Women for Refugee Women’s event on 1 March wasn’t your average conference. A forum both to reflect on the vulnerabilities of refugee women and celebrate their immense strength, the National Refugee Women’s conference provided refugee women with a unique platform to have their voices heard, and the day echoed with songs and poetry.

Women for Refugee Women Our Dreams Are Everyones Dreams

Yasmin Kadi/photo by Briony Campbell

The National Refugee Women’s Conference 2017 marks a turning point in Women for Refugee Women’s work. Since the charity launched the Set Her Free campaign against the detention of women seeking asylum in January 2014, there have been a number positive policy developments around detention. For the first time, the UK government has explicitly stated that survivors of sexual and gender-based violence should not be detained. It has limited the duration that pregnant women can be detained to a maximum of 72 hours. And the Home Office has announced that women who are placed on constant supervision should never be watched by male guards. Each of these changes is a step in the right direction. However, one theme resonated from the conference loud and clear: more needs to be done.

“Shut down Yarl’s Wood, shut down Yarl’s Wood,” chanted the refugee women from Women Asylum Seekers Together Manchester, raising clenched fists into the air. The positive energy was contagious, and the cry soon rippled through the audience. It became clear that closing down this controversial detention facility, and others that serve the same purpose, was to be one of the key themes of the day. “There are ways to make people feel safe,” explained actress Noma Dumezweni (above) as she addressed the conference. “Detention isn’t one of them”.

Women for Refugee Women’s new report The Way Ahead: An asylum system without detention sets out a blueprint for how this could work. Overhauling the current “angry, punitive, racist and dehumanising” system, would create a space for “dignified, fair, protective and humane” policies characterised by a supportive case management system, says the charity’s policy and research coordinator Gemma Lousley.

Importantly, a number of members of parliament - from across party lines - agree that fundamental changes need to be made. Labour’s Kate Osamor took to the stage to denounce the UK’s current asylum policies, explaining how she has been working to raise awareness of the issues faced by women in detention since her election in 2015. Meanwhile, Conservative MP Richard Fuller made it clear that there should be no place for detention in the UK’s refugee system. He said, “we must fight and look forward to what we really want - a complete end to detention”. It may not be the most popular political issue at the moment, but MPs exist to “talk about people with the quietest voices, not the loudest”.

Amplifying refugee women’s voices

All speakers agreed that refugee women’s voices are slipping under the radar of the dominant narrative. But for many, this is nothing new. Mina Jaf, a refugee from Iraq and founder of Women Refugee Route, recalled how as a child she heard her mother and a friend discussing the rape and domestic violence some women faced regularly inside their refugee camp - the next day watching them pretending to live a happy life among their peers. Meanwhile, Eritrean refugee Saadia, who spent time living in the informal camp in Calais explained how so many other women in that context can’t speak enough English to seek help or tell their stories. “There are people across the sea who don’t have anything,” she said. “That’s why I’m here, to make sure they are heard”.
The first panel of the day provided an insight into the adversities faced by women during their journeys to safety - these range from an absence of menstrual products, to systematic unfavourable treatment by camp management. Speakers included Liz Clegg who set up the Unofficial Women and Children’s Centre in Calais and founding director of the Refugee Rights Data project, Marta Welander, who led a major research study on refugee women in Greek camps last year.

A second panel investigated which actions refugee women are taking to help improve the dire conditions faced by women on their journeys. Zrinka Bralo, chief executive of Migrants Organise, said “the fascists are winning right now because they’re organised”. She launched a compelling call to action: “We need to connect in solidarity and start organising”.

Getting organised

So what would getting organised look like? Clare Ryder, who helped to plan the 100,000-strong Women’s March on London, provided some pointers. “There are tons of ways to protest,” she said. Just gathering outside Yarl’s Wood and making noise can have an enormous positive impact on the morale of those inside. Moreover, tiny seeds can grow its something much bigger - the Women’s March started with just eight people coming together on Facebook and deciding to take action. Feedback from the afternoon’s workshops contributed a wealth of other ideas to the discussion, from encouraging organisations to open their resources to refugee women, to planning a national day of lobbying, and ensuring that actions are scattered around different parts of the UK.
These ideas shine a light on a potential path forward. Women for Refugee Women’s founder and director Natasha Walter explained that a delegation representing the organisation would be delivering a card signed by conference delegates to the Home Office, and requesting a meeting with Home Secretary Amber Rudd. There are also other strategic plans brewing, for instance to ensure that International Women’s Day 2018 has a firm focus on refugees.

However, the most powerful messages of the day were those relating to community, solidarity and keeping up this sense of momentum over space and time. “My dreams are everyone’s dreams, my struggles are yours, my freedom is yours,” sang London Refugee Women’s Forum, who took to the stage ablaze with colour, waving #SetHerFree placards.
At a time of growing political extremism, it would be easy to feel despondent about the future. “But how can we lose hope when we have such inspiration from refugee women?” asks Women for Refugee Women’s grassroots coordinator Marchu Girma. You certainly can’t argue with that.

Women for Refugee Women Our Dreams Are Everyones Dreams

Kate Osamor MP/photo by Briony Campbell

 

Women for Refugee Women News Our Dreams are Everyone's Dreams


Women for Refugee Women Our Year In Photos

Women's March on London

By Hannah Bondi

On 21 January millions of people worldwide joined the Women’s March in support of human rights and equality. This inclusive protest led by women was a reaction to the misogyny and prejudice seen in the US election, and was also a positive call to protect women's rights and build a more tolerant and equal society in the face of current threats. The march attracted around 100,000 people in London alone.

Sandi Toksvig led the rally in Trafalgar Square, where Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, spoke alongside refugee women from our network. Joy Mukendi, Shahd Abusalama, Rahela Sidiqi, Jade Amoli-Jackson and Rehemah Ndagire performed their own poetry, which provided a rousing call to action for the huge crowd.

Natasha called attention to the purpose of Women’s March, saying that we were gathering to tell "those that have taken power today that we will build a better tomorrow, a tomorrow based on love, not hate;  on bridges, not walls.” She remembered the inspiring history of feminism, and the many women who fought for the rights we have today. And then she asked the huge crowd to think about "who we are working with, and who we are working for." She asked if this movement is about those who can already speak out, or  about all women, including those who are crossing borders, and those who are locked up in detention centres.

Considering the roar that answered her from the thousands listening, the women in Trafalgar Square agreed that this movement must show solidarity with  refugee women. Natasha then introduced refugee women from our network, because “These women are not just victims who need our help. These women are the survivors, the heroines, who will help light the way to the future.”

The poems that the women performed speak for themselves:

Jade

Freedom is walking without fear

Freedom is walking without looking behind you with fear

Freedom is key to a happy life

Freedom is flying without a wing

Freedom is walking naked with no one ogling at you

Freedom is being a woman or a man without fear

Freedom is speaking up without persecution

Shahd

Women refugees stand together

In exile where we are seen as the threatening other

All we ask for is a life of dignity, where we can be safe

Women refugees stand together

And in hopeless situations they give each other hope

With support from people of conscience they can better cope

When our voice is united in the fight for justice

We’re stronger!

Rehemah

Women are not born to be abused, they are the heart of the rose

Please don’t shut doors on me, I’m a peaceful woman

I am here to raise, and my mind wants to embrace

Women are not born to be abused, they are the heart of the rose

Life is beautiful and cruel

Please let me learn, let me sing, let me pray, I want to live!

Joy

Anyone can be a refugee anywhere,

Unknowing, I came to the UK seeking protection, somewhere I could be safe

I suffered rape, trauma, torture

I don’t remember names, evidence

I am refused, abused, misjudged

I am disbelieved, detained, deported

I came here to seek asylum

Rahela

For all the pain and hurt    SET HER FREE!

For all the trauma and depression     SET HER FREE!

For all the suffering, sadness and sleepless nights     SET HER FREE!

SET HER FREE!   SET HER FREE! SET US FREE!

 

The crowd joined in the final words of the poem, in a memorable moment of hopeful solidarity. You can see the performance here, at 2 hours 6 minutes in.

If you would like to demonstrate your solidarity with refugee women, do come to our National Refugee Women's Conference on 1 March, where we will be discussing how to plan, build and organise for a better future.


Women for Refugee Women News I Love the Smell of Christmas in England

'I love the smell of Christmas in England - but I miss home'

By Sarah Graham, Communications Executive

For many of us, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year - but the festive period can feel quite strange for refugee women, far away from home, often separated from family and friends. We asked three members of Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) London, who were taking part in a wreath-making class run by Bread & Roses, what Christmas will be like for them this year...

"I'm really excited, I can't wait for Christmas!" says Monica, who comes from Ghana. "This year I'm going to a friend's house - she's got two dogs and a flat near the river, so we're going to go for a really nice walk, and do lots of cooking."

Her friend's Syrian and used to be a chef, Monica explains, so she's expecting a feast of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. "She does a really good couscous and makes her own humous. I'm not sure what she's got planned for Christmas dinner though, so it'll be a nice surprise!"

Women for Refugee Women I Love The Smell of Christmas

Like her, Algerian Malika will be spending Christmas at a friend's house. "She's English, and she's invited another friend from Vietnam, so we'll cook and spend the day together. My friend is going to cook the English Christmas dinner, with meat and vegetables, and I'm making traditional Algerian sweets," she says. "I don't know what her Vietnamese friend will bring, but we're each making something."

As a Muslim, Malika didn't celebrate Christmas in Algeria but says: "I like Christmas in England, especially all the beautiful lights. I'm still Muslim, but I like to celebrate Christmas because it's a good time with friends. My friend says we all have to perform this year too, so I'll be singing an Algerian song - I haven't decided which yet!"

Although Monica's looking forward to catching up with her friend, she says: "Christmas in England is boring compared to back home". She's used to the hustle and bustle of vehicles and public transport continuing to run throughout the 25th.

"Everyone would go to church in the morning, and then after that there's a huge feast. Everyone cooks so much food - lots of rice, meat, vegetables, soup and fufu, a kind of semolina-like paste made from plantain and cassava powder," she says.

Women for Refugee Women I Love The Smell of Christmas

"We'd spend the whole day going round to different people's houses, wishing them merry Christmas and a happy new year, and we'll have something to eat in each house - or take something away. My mum used to do desserts too, which is something you don't normally get in African households. It's all about the food! And plenty of music and dancing too," Monica adds.

For Sarah, from Uganda, the lack of public transport is the biggest inconvenience of spending Christmas in England. She too is used to a busy Christmas day, with lots of people traveling from place to place, visiting friends and relatives. This year, she'll be spending Christmas at a friend's house, with a group of other refugee women.

"Everyone will cook at home and bring a little bit, and then we'll all share together," Sarah explains. Her contribution will be traditional African food: "I'm going to cook green banana - you boil and mash it, and then eat it with chicken or fish," she says.

Women for Refugee Women I Love The Smell of Christmas

Sarah's favourite British Christmas tradition is the idea of Father Christmas bringing presents but adds that, as a refugee, it's difficult to buy gifts for her friends as she'd like to. "It's really hard," Monica agrees. "I like to buy a lot of presents and do everything myself, cook for everyone, but I can't do that as an asylum seeker."

For her, the best thing about spending Christmas in England is the smell: "I love the smell in the air when the weather changes from autumn to winter - it's like this wet, cold smell, and it just smells like Christmas," she says.

And while it may be more low key than she's used to, Monica admits she does quite like the way public transport shuts down for the day. "It's so quiet, it's nice to be able to go out for a walk and enjoy the quiet," she says. "But I do miss Christmas at home."