This year’s theme for refugee week is healing – a celebration of community, mutual care, and the human ability to start again. This theme runs counter to the current “Hostile Environment” in the United Kingdom, otherwise known as a set of policies introduced by the Home Office which make life more challenging for migrants and refugees . This has seen anti-immigrant rhetoric normalised, immigration raids frequent in our communities, and most recently, the Home Office , a policy to ship people seeking asylum to Rwanda. In light of this, we spoke with Gona Saed of the Kurdish and Middle Eastern Women’s Organisation (KMEWO) to learn more about what a frontline organisations in London are doing to support refugees, and learn what the wider community can do to support refugees and call for stronger policies and legislation to protect the rights and livelihoods of people seeking asylum in the UK.
INTERVIEW WITH GONA SAED OF THE KURDISH AND MIDDLE EASTERN WOMEN’S ORGANISATION (KMEWO)
TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR ROLE AT KMEWO AND WHAT KMEWO DOES?
After over five years as KMEWO’s Sustainability and Development manager, I was recently promoted to Deputy Director. My role is focused around strategic thinking and the future development of the organisation, essentially making sure our programmes are sustainable. As an organisation, we want to move away from short term funding and towards longer term funding which enables us to provide a holistic circle of services to the women we support.
WHAT IS KMEWO DOING FOR REFUGEE WEEK?
For Refugee Week, KMEWO hosted an event at Islington Refugee Forum where we aimed to ensure the voices of refugee women were heard by the wider Islington community. The Forum is a wider collaboration between Islington Refugee Forum and Islington Council. Our event was attended by almost a hundred people, most of them refugee women. We had our local MP Jeremy Corbyn, as well as Emily Thornberry MP speaking – their speeches focused ontaking a stand against forced deportation of asylum seekers and refugees to Rwanda or to their home countries.
We also participated in another event at our centre in Islington , telling stories in Arabic and Kurdissh, the language of our service users, which was then broadcast from a screen to the participants. We focused on making sure that people enjoyed coming out after two years of lockdown, meeting face to face with people, having good food and good music together.
However, while there was a strong theme of celebration at our events this year, you can’t just look away from what was happening in the community with the Rwanda deportations.
THIS YEAR’S THEME FOR REFUGEE WEEK IS “HEALING”. WHAT IS UNIQUE OR IMPORTANT ABOUT KMEWO’S APPROACH TO WORKING WITH WOMEN THAT CONTRIBUTES TO HEALING?
KMEWO facilitates different methods and ways of helping women to heal and recover that we call our circle of healing. Especially after two years of COVID-19 and lockdown we have started a group that does holistic group sessions supporting women who are recovering from trauma. They take place every Tuesday morning for two hours in one of the lovely parks between Islington and Haringey where a qualified therapist goes with the women and she talks to them as well about wellbeing, healing and self care. Recovery and healing is this whole journey that a woman will start where she will gain access over a period of time. She would already have most of the answers from the very beginning. But it’s up to her when to take it up.
COULD YOU TALK MORE ABOUT THIS “CIRCLE OF HEALING” – IT SOUNDS LIKE A PATHWAY THAT YOU PUT WOMEN ON RATHER THAN SINGULAR SERVICES, LIKE A JOURNEY?
Our services have shaped themselves around women’s evolving needs. Most of our women, if not all, take up at least two clusters of the services over a period of time. You can see the theory of change in action : moving women from a survivor to thriver – women who are victims become survivors. And then with skills built in over the process of achieving well being and entering recovery, they become survivors. And that’s why we are seeing many service users becoming volunteers, and we now have three women as paid staff members, all starting out as service users!
We call this our circle of services, with
the women who access support surrounded by this holistic support, all ofwhich are all accessible to her, but only to be accessed when she is ready.
The first level of the circle we call surviving. For example, when we have a woman who would come to us in a crisis, our first step is to inform the police, find a refuge for them and help them with translation and interpreting with the police. At this stage, no women would be thinking about education, upskilling, or wellbeing, they just want to become safe.
Since we don’t close cases immediately, the circle continues. Women who we support to come out of isolation are encouraged to start feeling social support, so we refer women at this stage to a range of services, from English and IT classes, to employability. The pandemic also surfaced a strong need for for digital inclusion projects – we give out digital tablets, mobile phones and data to women who are in refugees or living in temporary accommodation.
CAN YOU GIVE AN EXAMPLE OF A BARRIER THAT REFUGEE WOMEN FACE AND HOW CAMPAIGNS HAVE HELPED OVERCOME THESE BARRIERS?
Women who have no recourse public funds* make up on average 35% of our service uses which is a huge proportion. And the reason is, because there are so many women in so many different situations who have no recourse to public funds. And of course, women who are overstayers, who fear for their safety issues that are connected to the mainstream, like public funds.
NRPF was a huge issue during the pandemic, as for many women, staying at home risked their safety and lives. NRPF also puts numerous y barriers for women accessing the most essential services. It is practically impossible to find solicitors to take your case and apply for your own immigration status, when you have no recourse to public funds. This is problematic because you need to secure your immigration status before you gain access to public funds. These were all huge issues for migrant and refugee women during the pandemic. We saw many women refusing to go to a refuge and actually choosing to stay in the risky environments, leading to many cases where women become trapped between leaving home as they were not eligible for temporary accommodation. This is why we raised a lot of emergency funding to pay for accommodation for a week or a few days for women who do not have access to any services (during the pandemic).
For our service users who have no access to public funds, campaigns raising awareness were important. As a result, there has been a lot progress at the policy level, a key example being the LAWRS-led #StepUpMigrantWomen campaign created a lot of impact. It was about women without documents, if they were under threat or risk. These women were especially vulnerable since they wouldn’t be able to seek support from the police from fear they would report them to the home office. KMEWO was a big part of the campaign and KMEWO provided case studies to support the campaign. Local authorities now provide the funding and in Islington, there is even a department within the council dedicated to supporting people with NRPF. Now, it is important to sustain the momentum the campaign built by applying pressure to policymakers.
WHAT TYPE OF SUPPORT COULD COMMUNICATIONS AND CAMPAIGNING PLAY IN SUPPORTING WOMEN. HOW CAN PEOPLE GET INVOLVED AND SUPPORT REFUGEE WOMEN?
On a practical level, the most helpful support would be providing resources and capacity to frontline organisations like ours, as well as raising the voices of women through policy and advocacy. Digital inclusion is a big issue: everyone should have access and we have seen massive structural changes to how services have gone online, meaning that it is essential for women to have access to digital devices. We would like to see bigger organisations launch campaigns around this, and offer smaller organisations like KMEWO consultancy support. Help with fundraising and connections to larger organizations to use some grassroots experience and they can contribute so much and don’t have the resources.
KMEWO has supported Kurdish, Middle East and North African (KMENA) women for over 23 years and is an accredited “led by and for” black and minoritised women that strives for equality, safety, justice and empowerment. KMEWO provides specialist Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) services and crisis intervention to some of the most vulnerable minoritised women who are survivors of Domestic Violence (DV) and Harmful Practices (HP), including Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Forced Marriage and “Honour” Based Violence (HBV).