All of this Belongs to Us: refugee women at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Posted 13/05/2015 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

V AND A

By Laura Mosedale, ESL teacher at Women for Refugee Women

I teach English to refugee women, at the Women Asylum Seekers Together London group which is supported by Women for Refugee Women. Last month, over thirty of us – asylum seekers, English teachers, and other volunteers and staff from WRW – had a marvellous visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where we saw our students’ writings and our group handiwork exhibited alongside the museum’s treasures.

The trip was facilitated by Liza Fior of muf (modern urban fabric), an artist and architect collaborative. Liza had been invited, along with three other artists, to create an installation for the exhibition ‘All of This Belongs to You.’ Liza first brought us to the museum last November. As she explained it, the exhibit is about exploring the many uses of public space in Britain and she thought the V& A could be used for one of our English classes. We also thought it would also be a chance to get students out of the classroom to a museum none had seen before.

During the November visit, we met in a Medieval and Renaissance gallery near the main entrance.   Liza arranged for a guide to tell us about the Virgin of the Misericordia, a 15th century Venetian bas relief featuring Mary, sheltering local guild members with her voluminous cloak. The WAST teachers then took small groups of students to various exhibits. My group was particularly taken with a temporary exhibit of wedding dresses. I had been uneasy about visiting this display, knowing that many of the women do not have positive associations with men or marriage. But once we got there, I couldn’t get them to leave. We talked about silk, lace, pearls and colours, compared and contrasted Asian, African and European styles. Apparently, when it comes to weddings, it’s about the dress and the dream, not about the dude.

Meanwhile, Liza was taking notes in preparation for her installation. She and her staff returned to my class again and again. She brought in lettered beads and string so students could make bracelets spelling out messages with words relating to protection and safety—words with resonance not just for museums but for asylum seekers. She brought in a teacher to lead a poetry-writing workshop, and even made an audiotape of one class period.

I did wonder at times where all this was going, what the installation was going to be, and what it would mean for the women.

We got some answers on April 20, when we returned to the Medieval and Renaissance gallery. Placed on the floor around the room were fabric-covered padded wedges to sit on, some already occupied. A long glass-covered cabinet in front of the Misericordia displayed photos from our previous visit and copies of poems my students had written during the workshop. Propped up next to the Misericordia was the Solidarity Quilt.

This quilt was created by the women of WAST, together with the Women’s Institute’s Shoreditch Sisters and other supporters of the Set Her Free campaign, in solidarity with the women who are detained in Yarls Wood. The quilt project began back in 2013, when the Women’s Institute began knitting with the refugee women. It is now stitched over with messages of support for women in detention.  In the quilt’s life it has visited Yarl’s Wood detention centre, the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre, and the Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, where Angelina Jolie wrote a message which is now in the centre of the quilt. It was exciting for all of us to see the quilt in a world class museum of art and design.

Once again, Liza and her staff had arranged for activities and tours with help from Corinna Gardner, Rasheeda Nalumoso and other V&A staff. The women could stay in the gallery, sketching objects in the room from the comfort of the wedges or making bracelets with lettered beads, and/or take tours. It was a busy few hours, a bit chaotic as some students got lost on their way and came late, but culminated, as in November, in a substantial lunch for all, provided by muf.

Here was some of the feedback I got in our class the following week: ‘I learned more about British history and saw beautiful objects.’ ‘I enjoyed the Islamic gallery and learning about the legend of the seven sleepers.’ ‘I would like to see more because the time was too short.’ ‘Henry VIII was not a good husband.’ ‘The lunch was very good!’

Most of the WAST women hope to make the UK their new home. While some are closer to achieving that objective than others, I felt that these visits took all of them a few steps closer to feeling that they belong here.

All of This Belongs to You will run at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 19 July 2015.

JadeQuilt

Detention and women: what the manifestos say

Posted 22/04/2015 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

By Gemma Lousley, Policy & Research Co-ordinator at Women for Refugee Women

The Set Her Free campaign to end the detention of women who seek asylum has gathered real momentum since we launched at Parliament in January 2014. In recent weeks – with the Channel 4 News undercover investigation into Yarl’s Wood, and the publication of the Parliamentary detention inquiry report – more and more people have come to understand why it is that women who seek asylum should not be locked up.

We have been heartened by some responses from political parties to the need for reform of immigration detention, and the publication of the party manifestos makes some of the current pledges and policies clear.
The Conservative manifesto doesn’t mention immigration detention. In February the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced a review into the welfare of ‘vulnerable persons’ in immigration detention, although Women for Refugee Women and many others have concerns about the limited scope of the review. A number of Conservative members of Parliament were on the panel of the Parliamentary detention inquiry, however, and have been vocal on the need for reform.
Labour’s manifesto follows up on the commitment they made at the end of last year, that they will “end detention for pregnant women and those who have been the victims of sexual abuse or trafficking”. This is repeated in their separate Manifesto for Women, which adds that they will “order an independent investigation into the allegations of abuse of women at Yarl’s Wood”.

Labour also reiterates a more recent pledge, made just before the beginning of General Election campaigning, to “end the indefinite detention of people in the asylum and immigration system”. Similarly, the Liberal Democrat manifesto promises to “end indefinite detention for immigration purposes”.

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The Green Party manifesto explains they will “ensure that no prospective immigrant is held in detention”, adding that “as a matter of urgency, the administrative detention of children and pregnant women should cease immediately”.

While it isn’t entirely clear who falls under the category of ‘prospective immigrant’, those who have had claims for asylum refused appear to be encompassed within this: in the section on ‘Equalities’, the manifesto promises to “end the detention of LGBTIQ (and other) asylum seekers and the culture of disbelief that often denies them refugee status”.

Finally, the SNP manifesto sets out that they “will ask the UK government to conduct an early review of the current immigration detention system and regime, in order to deliver a fairer and more effective system”.

It’s promising to see these commitments, but there is no room for complacency. After the election we will be keeping up the pressure to ensure the real change that is needed actually happens. On 6 June, we and many other concerned organisations and individuals will be gathering outside Yarl’s Wood, asking the newly-formed government to put an end to the traumatic and unnecessary detention of women seeking sanctuary in the UK. There will be songs, speeches, and hope. Do join us.
You can find out more about the protest at Yarl’s Wood on 6 June here. Do get in touch with us on admin@refugeewomen.co.uk if you want to find out about transport to the protest or if you would like to come to the pre-protest banner making and song rehearsal day in London!

 

Under a clear blue sky

Posted 24/03/2015 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

by Marchu Girma, Grassroots Co-ordinator of Women for Refugee Women

Everyone who lives in London likes to take time away from this busy city, to have fun and enjoy the sun and fresh air. But for many refugee women in London there are invisible bonds that keep us bound to the city. The most difficult is the financial restraint: most of those who seek asylum live on support of less than £35 a week while their claim is considered and if you are a Londoner, you know this does not get you far. Many refugee women also live without immigration status for years, and this means they can’t leave the country. Perhaps the most invisible reason why refugee women can’t leave the city is that while your asylum claim is being considered you have to continually ‘go to sign’. This means you have to present yourself at the UK Visa & Immigration offices to show that you have not absconded; this may be every week, every two weeks or once a month.20150311_131131_3

This spring Women for Refugee Women had an amazing opportunity given to us by the Landmark Trust. We were one of the 50forFree award winners, where we were given a holiday home for a few days in a remote part of Norfolk. We were excited to take some members of the London Refugee Women’s Forum. Members of the London Refugee Women’s Forum have worked tirelessly to advocate for the rights of refugee women in the UK by speaking about their experiences to politicians, the media and at innumerable public events.   In many cases the members of the Forum haven’t been on a holiday for years.

Our holiday home was a beautiful Tudor house surrounded by green fields and only one neighbouring house. We were lucky, the English weather didn’t disappoint us, and we had clear blue skies and sunshine, although the wind was biting at times.

There were six of us who went. We started off our lives in different countries: Cameroon, Kenya, Sudan, Gambia and Ethiopia, but we all shared the experiences of being a refugee woman in London, so there was so much to talk about at the dinner table. From the funny to the harrowing, all the experiences of being a refugee women were discussed openly and frankly and with a lot of laughter. Some of the topics included FGM, detention, Yarl’s Wood and racial abuse, others were about comparing foods and cultural differences.

Our days were filled with outings to nearby cities and towns. We spent a day in Norwich city, visiting the cathedral and walking in ancient cobbled stone streets. We spent another day at Southwold, a small sea-side town, and walked up and down on the stunning beach. The woman from Gambia said “If it wasn’t so cold this would remind me of home”.

We also met women who were inspired by the ‘Set Her Free’ campaign who lived nearby. One lady brought a welcoming gift of tea and cakes, while another was an excellent tour guide of Norwich city. We also had shiatsu massage provided to us by people who wanted to make our stay as relaxing as possible.

It was wonderful to see the pleasure the women took in having this opportunity. One woman said as soon as she arrived, “I am going to make the most out of this holiday” and I think she did. One of the women kept pointing out that when she usually goes to bed, she sleeps listening to the sound of cars and sirens, but in the country side she was amazed how quiet it was.

When we were making our journey back, all the women made me promise that we will do it again. So if there is anyone out there who has a holiday home for a group of refugee women to stay, please do contact us, so we can do the same for other women who are part of the group and who need it just as much. It’s an unforgettable and beautiful experience to stand in the English countryside and feel some of the anxieties and fears of seeking asylum drop away from you.

 If you would like to offer a holiday home to Women for Refugee Women, please contact admin@refugeewomen.co.uk

Channel 4 undercover investigation into Yarl’s Wood detention centre

Posted 02/03/2015 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

S453anV3A4EpJ3Bdy3G9zJy43LgUGrbY5P-2Y0C-WN8Tonight Channel 4 News will broadcast an undercover investigation into Yarl’s Wood detention centre revealing the abuse and harassment of women who are detained there

by Gemma Lousley, Policy and Reseach Co-ordinator at Women for Refugee Women

The report shows guards referring to female detainees as ‘black bitch’ and ‘evil’, making threats of violence, and showing a callous disregard for their mental health – “let them slash their wrists”, one says. One guard says he deliberately walks in on women in their rooms while they are naked. The report also highlights the appalling treatment of a woman who suffered a miscarriage and was made to wait three hours for medical attention.

This investigation corroborates the findings of Women for Refugee Women. In January last year, we published Detained, which highlighted the distressing impact of detention for women seeking asylum, most of whom have survived rape, sexual violence or other torture. The report received significant media attention.

Then, in June 2014, Serco, the private company that runs Yarl’s Wood, admitted to the Home Affairs Committee that 10 members of staff had been dismissed in relation to allegations of ‘improper sexual contact’ with female detainees. These dismissals, they explained, related to eight separate cases out of a total of 31 that had been investigated over the past seven years.

In spite of this, however, in November 2014, the government decided to renew Serco’s contract to run Yarl’s Wood for another eight years.At the beginning of this year, we published I Am Human, a report which documented in detail the abuses suffered by women held in Yarl’s Wood. We found that male guards routinely watch women in intimate situations, including while naked, partly dressed, in the shower or on the toilet. We also found that the majority of women we spoke to had been searched by a male guard, or with a male guard watching, both of which are clear breaches of Home Office Policy.

The report highlighted, too, an ongoing culture of inappropriate sexual conduct at Yarl’s Wood. A significant proportion of the women told us that staff had been racist to them; women also told us that guards had physically assaulted them. Unsurprisingly, but nevertheless shockingly, half of the women we interviewed had been on suicide watch while in detention and 40% said they had self-harmed.

When we published I Am Human, Serco dismissed the women’s accounts of their experiences in Yarl’s Wood as “uncorroborated”. And as recently as last Tuesday 24 February, the government continued to argue that Yarl’s Wood is a “safe and secure place”, insisting in a House of Lords debate that “the standards provided by Serco … are of a very high level.”

In response to the Channel 4 News report, however, the Home Office has said that “these are clearly very serious and disturbing allegations which merit immediate scrutiny,” and Serco have now announced that they have asked a former barrister to “carry out an independent review into our work”.

In the face of such overwhelming evidence, it’s difficult to see what reviews of Yarl’s Wood and the treatment of women there are meant to achieve. Now, surely, is the time for action. We have advocated for improvements in conditions at Yarl’s Wood, and recommended that no male staff should be employed in roles where they come into contact with female detainees. Ultimately, however, such measures can only ever mitigate the harms that women in detention are subjected to. Detention, in itself, is traumatic: the government, quite simply, needs to end the detention of women who come to the UK to seek protection.

You can get involved with the Set Her Free campaign by writing to Theresa May and asking her to end the detention of women seeking asylum. Women for Refugee Women has produced Set Her Free postcards: if you would like to use these to write to her, please email us at admin@refugeewomen.co.uk and we’ll send you some.

 You can also sign the Set Her Free petition, started by Meltem Avcil, who was detained in Yarl’s Wood at the age of 13. The petition already has more than 50,000 signatures.

 By Gemma Lousley, Policy and Research Co-ordinator at Women for Refugee Women

 

Our response to Yvette Cooper’s announcement on Yarl’s Wood detention centre

Posted 14/12/2014 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

Women for Refugee Women welcomes today’s announcement by the Shadow Home Secretary that Labour would end the detention of women who have survived torture and sexual violence, and would hold an independent investigation into Serco’s management of Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

Last year, nearly 2000 women who had sought asylum in the UK were detained in Yarl’s Wood. Evidence suggests that the majority of these had survived rape, sexual violence and other torture.

Today in the Observer Yvette Cooper announces that ‘the continued problems of holding pregnant women, trafficking victims and people who may have been tortured needs to be investigated and ended immediately.’

Natasha Walter from Women for Refugee Women says: ‘‘We are pleased that the shadow Home Secretary is responding to growing concern around the detention of women who seek asylum. We would be delighted to see an end to the detention of those who have survived rape and other torture. In the current system, too many women are being locked up when they come here to seek safety.  We hope that representatives of other political parties will also now step up to say how they would end this suffering.’

Yvette Cooper also announced that a Labour government would launch an independent review of Serco’s management of Yarls Wood. Natasha Walter from WRW says: ‘We would welcome an independent review of Serco’s management of Yarl’s Wood. It is extraordinary that the contract to manage this detention centre has been re-awarded to this company when there are still so many unanswered questions about the behaviour of its staff and its treatment of vulnerable women in Yarl’s Wood.’

Women for Refugee Women launched Set Her Free, the campaign against the detention of women who seek asylum, in January 2014. The charity published research showing that the majority of women who seek asylum and are detained are survivors of sexual violence or torture and that detention has a very negative impact on their mental health. The campaign has been supported by many organisations and individuals, including the writer Zadie Smith, the actress Romola Garai and the Women’s Institute.

Zadie Smith said: ‘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.’ Romola Garai talks about her recent visit to Yarl’s Wood in a short film here.

The petition against the detention of women seeking asylum was started by Meltem Avcil, who was detained herself when she was 13 years old. It is at http://www.change.org/refugeewomen and has over 50,000 signatures.

For further details email admin@refugeewomen.co.uk or call 07710 348048.

Romola Garai visits Yarl’s Wood and supports the WhoMadeYourPants day

Posted 02/12/2014 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

Sophie Radice,writes about taking the actress Romola Garai into Yarl’s Wood detention centre and support of the WhoMadeYourPants day.

Romola Garai    The facade of Yarl’s Wood gives it the appearance of a motel stuck in a remote business park, right next to a red bull factory and a bungee jumping outfit. If you take a look around the back of it, though, you’ll see high security fences, security cameras and barbed wire. To get through to the visiting room, you have to leave all your possessions and be searched in a private room. The women detainees are also searched from the other side before they come in – and they are allocated phones that have no camera so that they will not record their daily life in detention. I am no longer allowed to take a pen and paper into the visitors room because when I was last there a guard approached me and said that he had looked up my name on the internet and seen that I worked as a journalist.

I work for Women for Refugee Women, a charity which supports women who come to this country to seek safety. I go into Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire regularly to see women who have escaped from terrible circumstances and come to this country to seek sanctuary. Instead, they find themselves held in detention without knowing when they will be released – or indeed whether they will be deported back to the danger they are desperately fleeing from.

Many of the women I visit want to tell me of their experience back home, and most of them are fleeing experiences so horrific that at times it is hard to give the calm support that they so desperately need. Like Margaret from the Eastern Congo, who was kept in a ‘rape house’ for three months by government soldiers, and who still had the marks from the chains that had held her legs open. She went to Croydon Immigration Centre from Heathrow to claim asylum – and was almost immediately detained in Yarl’s Wood, because the UK Border Agency did not believe her account. As we sat there on the fake leather chairs with the TV blaring she sat, softly repeating, “But I am not a criminal. I have done nothing wrong. No-one in my family had ever been in prison.” She was terrified of the male guards who surrounded her at the centre – so distressed that she had been put on suicide watch, where a male guard had watched her night and day, something which she said brought back the same feelings as the sexual violence she had suffered.

I always walk out of Yarl’s Wood with a heavy sense of guilt, always feel guilty for being free to go home to my family without fear – but that day I also felt so ashamed that my country can do this to women who have already suffered so much.

When I visited Yarls Wood with the actress Romola Garai (Atonement, The Hour, Amazing Grace) we sat and talked to a woman from Cameroon who had also been raped in her home country, and been rejected by her family because of it. As she spoke about what had happened to her and her pain at her separation from her children, I saw that Romola found it very difficult not to cry along with the woman. The woman, ‘Sara’, kept asking us to imagine how we would feel if we did not know where our children were. She said that she felt that she was being punished further by being locked up, and that it was like being ‘tortured once again,’. She described how she had been picked up when she went to report (something asylum seekers have to do on a regular basis), was handcuffed and taken into a van with other women. She had been told that she was going to a ‘nice place’, and was so frightened when she saw that she was going into prison that she had been sick.

On the train home Romola said that she felt that ‘anyone I know, would have found it difficult to walk away from Yarl’s Wood without feeling extremely upset by what I heard and saw.’ A few days later we made a short film, in which Romola describes her journey to Yarl’s Wood and how it made her feel that detention for asylum seeking women was wrong and inhumane.

Romola is supporting a lovely new initiative this Christmas, led by the dynamic Becky John, founder of ‘WhoMadeYourPants’. Who Made Your Pants is a company which makes comfortable beautiful knickers ethically in the UK. Becky came up with the great idea of one day (2nd December) when customers who buy a pair of knickers full price would have the option to buy another pair half price to send to a woman detained in Yarl’s Wood with a personal message.

We know that sending a present and a message is not going to free these women, but we think this is a lovely and simple way for us to show women in detention (many of whomhave very few personal belongings with them) that we are thinking about them and to give them a gorgeous personal gift. The pants will be taken into Yarl’s Wood by Heather Jones, of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, a local Bedfordshire organisation that tirelessly supports women in Yarl’s Wood with daily visits.

 

Let our voices be heard!

Posted 02/10/2014 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

Ghadah al-Nasseri, co-chair of the London Refugee Women’s Forum, writes for us about the Forum’s performance at the Labour Party conference.

10338700_749071015130808_1007733048952383893_nSunday 21 September was a day full of hopes and melodies. I woke up with a mission to achieve and a message to deliver. I packed my bag and joined the London Refugee Women’s Forum and Women Asylum Seekers Together London members to go to Manchester. We were off to perform our ‘Set Her Free’ poem at an event organised by Movement for Change at the Labour Party Conference fringe in support of our campaign to end the detention of women seeking asylum.

I had been waiting for this day to come after weeks of writing our life story poems together and hours of rehearsing. The past few weeks were a remarkable experience for me working with the Forum and WAST women preparing for the performance day. Throughout the rehearsals, I was touched and moved by the courage of these women to tell their stories, and it empowered me to do the same and share mine as well.

We started our bus journey singing Ethiopian traditional songs. The journey to Manchester took many hours, but we were excitedly waiting for the moment to tell our stories and perform on the stage. As soon as we arrived at the conference, we were asked to go to the stage to start our performance. It was a very tense moment as we didn’t have time to do the last rehearsal and sound check. We held hands and went on the stage together believing in and encouraging each other. We broke the silence of the room by performing our poems and telling our stories.

It was such a great moment. “I remember feeling scared and uncertain, Detention is like walls closing in, Detention is prison without time limit, detention is prison without sentence, detention is you are guilty without crime,” we said, and the audience heard us. After that, we stood there on the stage all together chanting in one voice: “Set Her Free; Set Us Free”. It was a very powerful and unforgettable moment, full of pride and courage. We received very warm and appreciative applause from the audience.

At that moment, we looked at each other and felt proud of our achievement. We realised that we have powerful voices to speak out to tell our stories and make change happen. When we finished the performance and went down from the stage, we hugged each other with tears in our eyes of happiness and success. We did it and we told the world about our memories of hopes, tears, pain, asylum and detention. We did it and we asked the world to listen to us and Set Us Free.

Sunday is a day to be remembered. We spoke out on behalf of the voiceless women in detention and we asked for their rights to be given. We will continue to speak out as one voice to end the injustices. We will never be silent again. Let our voices be heard.


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