Knitted Together

Posted 16/04/2014 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

Lauren Fuzi of the Shoreditch Sisters Women’s Institute describes the incredible journey of the Solidarity Quilt.IMG_7143

Back in October 2013 the Shoreditch Sisters branch of the Women’s Institute was contacted by Women for Refugee Women. They asked if we would like to run a craft workshop for a group of refugee women. At that time I was the newly appointed ‘Feminist Outreach Officer’ for our WI (a completely made up position, but one that I was very proud to have taken on!). Part of my role was to  build relationships with other local women’s groups, so I was glad to be able to take this opportunity forward. This was how the ‘Knitted Together’ project was born, which has now culminated in the creation of a beautiful patchwork blanket sewn with messages of hope and solidarity. It is not only the product of our shared work, but also a deeply symbolic and meaningful piece of art.

We started off by meeting every other Saturday to teach each other how to knit. We did not have a clear purpose beyond that for the workshops when we first started, but we realised from the start that we wanted t to use craft as a way of building a strong community of women. As the group evolved so did our ideas and the Knitted Together concept was born.

We decided to knit small squares, 10cm by 10cm each, and join them to make a giant quilt. The quilt would be a symbol of our solidarity with the women in Yarl’s Wood. I, like other members of the Shoreditch Sisters, was very struck by what we learned about women who are locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. These women are not criminals, but often very vulnerable individuals who have fled persecution in their own countries and come to the UK to seek refuge. It seems deeply unjust that the government is locking up these survivors of rape and other torture, often for many weeks or months, when they could easily process their claims while the women are living in the community.

We knitted the squares during the group sessions but also asked other Women’s Institutes and members of the public to contribute. London West End WI and Sudbury WI both contributed a large number of squares, as did a few members of the public. We then took the blanket to the Women of the World (WOW) Festival on International Women’s Day (8 March 2014) and laid it out on the floor of the Royal Festival Hall, where we invited members of the public to write messages of support on pieces of fabric for the women in Yarl’s Wood which were then sewn on.

The Saturday group has been my favourite part of the process. It has been wonderful to see how the traditional female craft of knitting has brought women together from so many different backgrounds, cultures, religions and languages; there is something special about female craft which seems to transcend these barriers. Although hugely inspiring, coordinating the group has also very challenging! So often in craft (and life) we are taught to follow patterns and rules. We always go back over our mistakes to correct them and strive for the end product to be as close to perfect as possible. In creating the Knitted Together blanket I have had to learn to let go of these ideas, and to trust in the process of co-creation. Enforcing strict rules on the size, colour, shape and style would have been impossible, and I’m extremely grateful for that! There are over 400 knitted squares on the blanket, and its beauty and strength lies in the absolute uniqueness of each one.

The blanket is now in Yarl’s Wood detention centre where it will stay over Easter. I went with a small group to deliver it during a Sunday church service given by the Yarl’s Wood chaplain who had kindly agreed to enable us to bring in the quilt.

It’s hard to write with any clarity about my experience at Yarl’s Wood as it feels so surreal and confusing. At times it felt like a regular Sunday morning in any church hall in the UK. The familiar sights were there: the pastor at the pulpit, a choir dressed in blue, bibles, and people with hands clasped in prayer. Then I’d see the guards at the side of the room, the locked doors, the overwhelming feeling of desperation as the congregation pleaded to God. There was no tea and biscuits or socialising at the end and people were not going home after the service for Sunday lunch. From the very limited time we had at Yarl’s Wood it seems that people were very interested in the blanket and especially in the Women’s Institute. One woman cried as I spoke about the blanket and about all the people who had contributed to it. It felt so important to show the women in Yarl’s Wood, through the powerful symbol of the blanket, that they have not been forgotten.

We hope to continue using the blanket as a campaigning tool, raising awareness of women’s experiences in Yarl’s Wood and encouraging members of the public to take action against the detention of women asylum seekers. If you are interested in this and would like the quilt to visit your own local Women’s Institute or community group, please contact me on shoreditchsisterscampaigns@gmail.com

You can also read about the quilt in the Telegraph and Bedfordshire on Sunday.

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Shine a Light: Set Her Free

Posted 18/02/2014 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

_POW9070On 13 February hundreds of campaigners gathered outside the Home Office in London to protest against the detention of women who seek asylum in the UK. Women for Refugee Women had called this gathering to ‘Shine a Light’ on the detention of refugee women, and protesters brought torches, sparklers and glowsticks to light up the evening.

Among the inspiring speakers were Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty; Caroline Criado-Perez, feminist campaigner; Kate Smurthwaite, comedian and activist, and Meltem Avcil, whose petition against the detention of refugee women now has over 25,000 signatures._POW9385

One of the most moving moments of the evening was when Ghada Shakir Humood (pictured right), a member of the London Refugee Women’s Forum, telephoned a friend of hers in Yarl’s Wood and everyone in the crowd could hear the voice of a woman currently detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre:

‘I am an internationally recognised human rights activist.  But the Home Office has  treated me like a criminal. I went on hunger strike when they brought me into Yarls Wood Detention Centre, I lost my ability to move and speak and even the will to live.

‘I have claimed asylum under article 14 of the international declaration of human rights, which states that everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. I fear for my life in my country. I left everything behind, my career and my family, to save my life and live in peace.

‘I requested protection from this country but they put me in detention and they wanted to send me back to my country by force. This is injustice. They did not respect that I am a woman and I have depression and come from a severe war zone. This is inhumane.

‘This experience shocked me and made me lose hope. Now I don’t have any desire to live and I am dying slowly from inside. They have broken everything inside me.

‘I am not a criminal, why have they locked me up for two months? Many organizations have sent them many support letters to explain my case but they have ignored them all. They ignore my previous humanitarian work, they ignore my academic background, they ignore all my evidence.

‘I can’t say anything more. I only can say that I am completely destroyed in the UK.’

 After the testimony, the crowd shouted Set Her Free and lit sparklers in support of the women in Yarl’s Wood detention centre._POW9161

For coverage of the protest, see Allison Pearson in the Telegraph, Ros Wynne-Jones in the Daily Mirror and Sarah Cox in Bedfordshire on Sunday.

One Billion Rising and refugee women

Posted 09/01/2014 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

On Wednesday 8 January Rahela Sidiqi joined actress Thandie Newton, lawyer Helena Kennedy, campaigner Eve Ensler and Stella Creasy MP at the Royal Festival Hall in London to discuss justice for women. This event had been organised by One Billion Rising UK and opened to a packed and expectant audience which included Bianca Jagger, human rights activist; Skin, lead vocalist of Skunk Anansie, and Nimco Ali from Daughters of Eve.

Rahela Sidiqi is a trustee of Women for Refugee Women and the chair of the London Refugee Women’s Forum. She was an activist for women’s rights for more than 15 years in Afghanistan before she was forced to seek asylum in the UK.

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Rahela Sidiqi, third from left, with Helena Kennedy, Eve Ensler, Stella Creasy, Thandie Newton, Marissa Begonia

Rahela spoke about her experiences in Afghanistan, where she stood up for women’s rights even when she was being threatened by the Taliban and warlords. She then spoke about coming to the UK to seek asylum and the injustices that are experienced by women who have to cross borders to seek safety. ‘Half of women who come here for asylum have been raped,’ she told the audience.

Rahela talked about visiting Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedford, where she met women who have sought asylum in this country and yet have been locked up in detention. As Rahela said, ‘If someone is a criminal they are given a sentence and they know how long they will be in prison. But if someone is put in detention after they seek asylum, they don’t know how long they will be locked up. It is not right to put women through this. They suffer in this situation.’

Stella Creasy spoke after Rahela, and also after the audience had heard from Marissa Begonia, the co-ordinator of Justice for Domestic Workers, and Sophie Barton-Hawkins, an ex-offender. Stella said about their stories: ‘This is not the Britain I want to live in. I want to live in a better Britain than this.’

On 29 January Women for Refugee Women will publish new research on the experiences of women in detention in the UK. Stella Creasy will host the Parliamentary reception for this launch, and she said: ‘We need to hear these women’s stories. Let’s give a voice to this report.’

Rahela Sidiqi also asked the panel and the audience if they would support a One Billion Rising action in solidarity with women who are detained in Yarl’s Wood on 13 February. The answer was a resounding yes – let’s rise!

For more information about Women for Refugee Women’s forthcoming research, please contact Sophie Radice on sophie@refugeewomen.co.uk. For more information on the action at Yarl’s Wood, follow @4refugeewomen and @obruk_1, or check back on this blog.

A message of hope for Christmas

Posted 17/12/2013 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

Isabelle Kershaw, a volunteer with Women for Refugee Women, writes here about making Christmas cards for women in detention

Recently we all sat down – volunteers, staff and refugee women – to make Christmas cards for women who are lockeWFW pic (1)d up in Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. Women who seek asylum can be locked up in detention in the UK and it can be a very isolating and distressing experience. We wanted these cards to show our ongoing support for these women as we  campaign against detention. Many of the women in the refugee women’s group, Women Asylum Seekers Together London, have had experience of detention at Yarl’s Wood so for them, making these cards had a special kind of significance.

London is clothed with festivity and with the air getting chillier, things are starting to fizz with that holiday excitement. For the women at Yarl’s Wood, the Christmas period will be a very different experience. As one of the WAST women, who was held there last year, said ‘Christmas is just not Christmas.’ A Christmas away from friends and family is hard enough. A Christmas at Yarl’s Wood can be quite desperate. It is a place where vulnerable women are treated like criminals, having committed no crime, and are uncertain as to when they will be released. Another of the WAST women said that she would not wish detention on her worst enemy.

Over the previous week I had scrabbled together bits of coloured card, festive wrapping paper, sequins, buttons and a mountain of glitter. Not quite sure what would emerge from the sparkling deluge, we were armed with two fantastically capable volunteers who led the way and devised a lovely concept.

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Each of the women was given a small card to design, which would then be fitted together onto one big card to create a mosaic of their support.

We had a great day, the women were very creative in their designs and out of the glitter arose something powerful and poignant. Some of the women designed their cards to be bright and diverting and other cards were powerful in their simplicity. One of the cards read ‘Love’ and above it ‘never lose hope.’ These words of support really ring out amid the colourful designs.

We took the cards to Yarl’s Wood and hope that this small gesture of love and support reminded the women there that they are not forgotten or alone. There are women outside the detention centre, some of whom have experience of detention, who want to stand up for them and work for the release of all those who have sought asylum in the UK.

Watch our short film about making the Christmas cards here.

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Irina Must Stay

Posted 08/12/2013 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

Faith Taylor (pictured below) writes about visiting Irina Putilova in detention in the UK. Irina sought asylum in this country because she is at risk of persecution as a political and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) activist  in Russia. Instead of finding refuge, she has been locked up in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.

ImageYesterday, 7 December 2013, I went to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre to visit my friend Irina (Ira), who is being detained there pending deportation. On Friday 6 December Ira had her first asylum interview. She was given no chance to present evidence and instead was served with papers stating that she had been placed on a ‘fast track’ process. She was told she could be deported at any moment, and she was put on a bus to the Removal Centre.
In Russia, Ira has been systematically attacked, harassed, and threatened by the state and by far-right groups, because of her involvement in Voina, an internationally renowned art group, and because of her political identity.  In 2012 she received direct death threats from the Centre E Russian police department. It is highly likely that the same unit broke her friend Filipp Kostenko’s legs two months prior to the threats directed at Ira, since he had also received very similar threats. Ira’s parents’ house was raided repeatedly. She was followed and subjected to repeated illegal arrests and police beatings. After living itinerantly with friends and acquaintances, fearing for her life, Ira fled Russia illegally. If she were to be returned there, she would definitely be arrested and imprisoned.
My visit to Ira was surreal at best, terrifying at worst. After the multiple security checks, pat-downs, confiscation of all of our belongings (I came with a friend), we were finally released into the visitors’ room. Every door in Yarl’s Wood can only be opened via a guard directing a gatekeeper over walkie-talkie – a lengthy process, so in all it took around 40 minutes from our arrival to the point when we actually saw Ira. Despite being a generally cheerful and resilient person, Ira was visibly exhausted and looking very underfed. It soon came to light that she hadn’t been able to eat anything; she has not eaten animal products for several years and the only thing she had been given over two days was one piece of toast and an apple. We are now to believe, however, that she has been given something more substantial.
In the visitors’ room, our meeting was patrolled by guards, who monitored our physical behaviour most of all. Ira at one point put her legs on my lap – she was swiftly instructed to remove them. This was despite several other (heterosexual) couples in the room being in much closer embraces. When Ira curled up in her chair with her feet on it, we were immediately approached by a guard who told her the visit would end if she did not remove them.
All this to say that Yarl’s Wood is a prison: a high security, disciplinary prison, with the aim of placating its ‘residents’ just enough so that they leave the country quietly. If Irina returns to Russia she faces unimaginable persecution, including certain imprisonment upon arrival. She cannot be deported and the fast-tracking of her case is in serious contravention of the Home Office’s own policies on cases suitable for fast-track. There are so many complexities concerning Ira’s political identity, her LGBTQ status, the serious repression that she has faced hitherto at the hands of the Russian state.
Ira is committed to working for her community. In Hackney she has set up an open-access free language school, she has created spaces, workshops, events, and concerts for the discussion and affirmation of LGBTQ issues. No one seeking asylum should be treated like a criminal. Irina should be released immediately, taken off fast-track, and given the chance to present the wealth of compelling evidence she has regarding her case. To not grant her even this simple right is an aberration for a country claiming to value and protect LGBTQ persons and freedom of speech.

Faith is a musician and activist based in Hackney.

Faith’s twitter: @thefaitht. Campaign twitter: @irinamuststay.

Please join the Facebook campaign group  and sign the petition.

We are delighted to say that Irina was released from detention on 9 December! Thank you all for your solidarity in standing up for Irina.

Protection not deportation: asylum for women at risk of Female Genital Mutilation

Posted 12/11/2013 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

 The movement is growing to protect girls from female genital mutilation in the UK, but those who seek asylum here from FGM are often disbelieved and deported. Here Sarian Karim tells us why she has set up a petition demanding that The Home Office protect women and girls fleeing FGM in their home countries.

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Sometimes I have to try hard to bring back happy memories of home. It’s not that there were none, it’s just that being carefree and happy as a little girl in Sierra Leone didn’t last long. When I was eleven, I suffered Female Genital Mutilation. To this day it was the worst experience I have had to live through.  Soon after, war broke out in my country. The day I was cut I lost any feeling of safety and it never came back.  

I fled civil war in Sierra Leone as soon as I was old enough to do so alone. When I arrived in the UK in 1999, I was naïve enough to think that the hard times were behind me. Instead, it took eight years before I was granted protection. The UK Border Agency (the part of the Home Office that decides asylum claims) refused to believe my story; they thought I was from the Gambia. By the time I was finally given asylum I had a new family here. Leaving would have been unbearable.

I know the anger, the frustration and the fear that comes with having your claim for asylum rejected: the ‘how can they not believe me’ and the ‘haven’t I been through enough’ and the ‘what happens next?’. Also, as someone who recognizes the pain and long-term emotional and physical health problems that are caused by FGM, I would do everything in my power to protect my daughters from it. This is why I feel so passionately about the UK Border Agency’s responsibility to protect girls and young women at risk of FGM in their home countries  and support campaign organisations such as FORWARD.

I have also been campaigning to end FGM with the Tackling FGM Special Initiative and Leyla Hussein over the past year. Before joining the campaign, I thought I was the only one who though that FGM is torture. Until I joined, I’d not heard of anyone from my community speaking out against it. I don’t feel alone anymore. I am surrounded by strong women who are ready to face an age-old custom and put up with threats, hate mail and a political system that resists change. Yet many of these women are still afraid to visit their relatives back home with their daughters. That is because the threat of FGM is very real.

When I watched the Newsnight programme about two women from the Gambia who had been refused asylum in the UK despite their daughters being at risk of FGM if they returned to their home country I knew I had to speak out for them. I know this country recognizes the horror that is FGM. If it didn’t, the Department for International Development would not have invested 35 million to ending it overseas. But it makes no sense to recognize FGM as “an abhorrent form of child abuse” and at the same time risk women and girls being cut if they are returned to their home country and refused asylum.

I have started a petition asking the Government to protect girls and women at risk. I am hoping that the momentum the campaign has gained in the past few weeks will help gather support for the most vulnerable women amongst us. As a mother and a survivor, it is the least I can do.

Abuse behind bars: why I fear for the women in Yarl’s Wood

Posted 29/10/2013 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

By Harriet Wistrich

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Two of my clients recently took the brave step of speaking to a journalist about embarrassing and intimate details of abuse they had experienced in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. They did so in order to expose the scandal of male officers taking advantage of vulnerable women in the infamous detention centre.

I have worked as a lawyer over the last ten years with many detainees who have been incarcerated at Yarl’s Wood, which is the main holding centre for women who are being detained under immigration powers. The Serco management at Yarl’s Wood like to point out the comfortable accommodation and range of facilities offered to the women detained there. However, any person I have met who has ever been detained at Yarl’s Wood describes it as a prison. For many it is worse than prison, because at least if you are sent to prison it is because you have been convicted of a crime, and you are given a date when you will finish your sentence.

Even those who have been incarcerated in terrible conditions in their own countries can experience shock when they are locked up for no reason other than because they are seeking asylum, in a country they had always believed upheld human rights.  And for all those detained the uncertainty as to if and when they may ever be released creates huge anxiety.  However many facilities Yarl’s Wood may boast, however relaxed the regime may be compared to a prison, there is no doubt it is still a prison – a prison with high fences, locked doors, guards with keys and regular roll calls.  To pretend that the relationship between staff and detainee is anything other than that of guard and prisoner is to ignore this fundamental reality.

Recognising this fundamental power difference is critical to understanding why what happened to my clients at Yarl’s Wood – and to a number of other women who have since come forward with similar complaints –  is nothing short of a scandal.  As Nick Hardwick, HM Inspector of Prisons, recently stated, it is “something that can never be less than abusive given the vulnerability of the detained population.” One organisation, Redress, has even written to the police on the back of the media coverage to alert them to the possibility that these allegations may amount to a form of torture.

Superimposed on this prison regime is the added dimension of a culture of disbelief.  Anyone who has been through the asylum process will know how hard it is to persuade the authorities that their harrowing story is true.  Many decision-makers believe that asylum seeker equals “bogus” and that most people who come to this country do so, at best, to better themselves economically.  When you put this in-built prejudice against asylum seekers together with a similar culture of disbelief in relation to women who have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted you begin to understand how hard it is for any woman detained at Yarl’s Wood to complain of sexual assault, let alone to be believed.

One of the women who complained, after a male nurse sexually assaulted her for the third time, found herself up against this culture of disbelief. Her complaints were dismissed by Serco, the UK Border Agency and the police on the basis that she was probably complaining as a ruse to allow her to remain in the country. This was despite the fact that after she made the complaint she was served with removal directions within days. On the contrary, my client did not complain earlier about the sexual assault as she feared it would adversely affect her immigration status.  Yet the failure to complain on previous occasions when she was sexually assaulted was used as another reason to doubt her credibility!

It is not surprising, when you look at the quality of the investigations into my client’s complaint, that sexual abuse continued at Yarl’s Wood.  If Serco, the police and UKBA fail to properly investigate complaints made by detainees, then those who seek to abuse their power will continue to do so with impunity.  As Yvette Cooper, shadow Home Secretary, said recently: “The evidence of abuse at Yarl’s Wood is appalling. The Home Office and Serco have a responsibility to act much faster and much more effectively to stamp out abuse and make sure vulnerable women get the support and help they need.”

Indeed, it is only when the officers concerned, Serco and UKBA are properly held to account, that there can be any confidence that women will be safer at Yarl’s Wood in the future.  But this prospect is unlikely. The government’s proposals to end legal aid for detainees by imposing the outrageously discriminatory “residence test” will make it even harder for justice to be done in the future.  If this reform becomes law then neither of my clients would have received legal aid to assist them in speaking out and challenging the system. This system is already frighteningly stacked against vulnerable women, I fear that it might be getting even worse.

Harriet Wistrich is a solicitor at Birnberg Peirce.


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