Apologies for the lateness of this post about International Women’s Day (better late than never).
A month ago yesterday was 8th March, also known as International Women’s Day. The day is historically an opportunity to celebrate women’s equality, rights and show solidarity with women struggling to improve their position globally.
In some of the London shops, we decided to support the Phoenix Project, who work with refugee and asylum-seeker women in the city, many of whom have fled war-torn countries or the threat of violence for loving someone of the same sex. Their lives can become dominated by the dehumanising process of claiming asylum, isolation or being stuck in a limbo lasting years without a decision being made.
Here are some questions we asked the group to shed some light on their work:
Why did you decide to start Phoenix Project?
We had volunteered with the Red Cross Women’s support group (set up for asylum seekers and refugees who were victims of gender based violence) and saw, through that, how crucially important the weekly social contact and interaction was for the participants.
The great majority of these women were isolated, lonely and chronically depressed; many were ill. Unable to work, living way below the poverty line, unable to make any significant decisions – waiting to hear whether they would be returned to the country from which they had fled, their lives are incredibly bleak.
Having the chance to socialise, regularly to meet other women and form friendships, to spend significant time together, share learning, and creating, and laughter, was life enhancing. Participants could however only attend the Red Cross group for a year. We therefore decided to start a follow-on women’s group for these and other women in similar positions.
What are the challenges of working in London?
The Phoenix women live scattered all round the periphery of this vast city (Ilford to Heathrow, Croydon to Waltham Cross) and on the few occasions when they can afford to travel can only take buses … some spend 5 hours getting to and from a meeting.
It is incredibly difficult to maintain face to face contact with each other, to sustain friendships and the essential support that social contact provides. With virtually no money even maintaining phone contact is difficult.
What has been your biggest success so far?
Seeing people who were isolated, withdrawn, depressed, become alive, begin to express themselves and make connections with each other. Knowing that the Phoenix Project has made a difference.
What are your plans for the future?
To extend our reach – to provide groups for more asylum seeking women, and to extend our activities – to run dance and singing sessions, to do day trips, even time away. Our sessions are run in such a way that everyone gets the opportunity to contribute to setting up and planning; over time the participants will develop the skills, knowledge and confidence to organise and run their own groups for other women.
You can also help by spreading awareness of the difficulties faced by those who have sought sanctuary here; the circumstances in which they live and the difficulties they face will increase in the next round of cuts as their access to much needed services becomes more and more restricted.
Asylum seekers are often scapegoated in the press as being a drain on the economy, but the reality is that these people are refused the right to work and are forced to live on 70% of the benefits their British-born equivalent would receive. The best way of improving conditions for asylum seekers is making yourself aware of the issues they face and supporting campaigns for their better treatment. An easy way to start is by signing up for email updates from Refugee Action, and following these groups on Twitter:
What seems evident is that often the daily struggles of these women (and men) go largely unnoticed as life gets tougher for lots of people in the UK, which is why it is all the more important that groups like the Phoenix Project exist.
We hope to continue supporting PP in the future by running an event in June for Refugee Week. If you know of any similar sized groups working with refugees in the UK, please share them below.