Women for Refugee Women's Grassroots Director, Marchu Girma (left) with Abi (right) Photo: Women for Refugee Women

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What’s it like to seek asylum at Christmas? These women have much to teach us about hope

An annual Christmas party at Women For Refugee Women gives asylum seekers a space to escape in the capital. Hattie Garlick went along to meet them

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By Hattie Garlick on

Mid-morning on a Monday in central London. Office workers trudge through the grey sludge of yesterday’s polluted snow, shoulders hunched, eyes lowered, unaware that inside the anonymous office block they pass, 150 women are joyfully dancing, ululating and whooping.

Headscarves, Santa hats, braids and beanies bob to an R&B beat, representing the myriad different cultures and characters in the room. Babies are passed from hip to shaking hip. Small children are grabbed by the hand and caught up in the dance.

“Some of them have the basic housing provided to asylum seekers,” Samantha Hudson tells me. “But many are homeless. The asylum process is so complicated. Sadly, if you don’t have access to good advice, it’s all too easy to fall through the gaps and be left with no support at all.”

Welcome to the annual Christmas party at Women For Refugee Women, a charity that works to empower, and raise the voices of, women who seek asylum in the UK.

The Refugee Council estimates that 78 per cent of those who claim asylum in Britain are men. But of the women who do arrive, almost half are entirely unsupported. They are less likely to speak English. They are more likely to be fleeing gender-based violence, which means their asylum applications are also more likely to stretch on without resolution. Sometimes it takes years, leaving them in limbo, unable to earn money to support themselves or even imagine their futures.

This unassuming office space is where they come to escape. To build confidence through creative courses, skills through English lessons and today, amid tinsel and brightly bedecked Christmas trees, to celebrate another year in the UK. Although, says Vee, “there has been very little good news this year.”

Vee, (not her real name, all the women quoted have been given fake ones to protect their identities), is a middle-aged woman from Nigeria who has been living in the UK since 2005. She is vague about the status of her asylum application but clear on one thing: “Everything changed this year,” she says, “the world became so much more hostile to immigrants.”

Elizabeth nods. An elderly lady, originally from Zambia, she has been in the UK for 16 years. In January, she and Vee both began the year by attending the Women’s March in London, where other asylum-seeking women from WFRW spoke before 100,000 people gathered in Trafalgar Square.

“We were there to protest against the election of Trump,” she says, slowly formulating the English words. “He had been accused of sexually exploiting women. Well, we come from countries where there is forced marriage, where there is female genital mutilation, where there is rape. Knowing what we know, we cannot just watch Trump sit around the table with British law-makers.”

The following month, newly released data showed that the number of religiously and racially motivated hate crimes across the UK had risen by 100 per cent in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.

“Everything kicked off after Brexit,” says Angela, who does not want to reveal the country from which she fled, even with the protection of an assumed name. “As soon as the vote came back, there was a sense that you had to watch your back.”

“But really,” says Vee, “I saw the change in the new policies that were introduced, not in the attitude of the people on the street.”

This was, after all, the year in which banks and building societies were roped into conducting immigration checks, while NHS Digital signed a memorandum of understanding requiring it to hand over patient details to the home office. Campaigners argued that vulnerable people, including pregnant asylum seekers, would be deterred from accessing vital care.

Vee agrees. “It’s so dehumanising,” she says. “I left my country because I was the victim of severe domestic abuse. I am a qualified nurse. All I want to do is work and live somewhere I can be safe. But for that, I’m being criminalised.”

Given Theresa May’s well-documented intention to make Britain a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, it is no surprise that all three women backed Jeremy Corbyn in June’s general election. “Yes, Theresa May won, but she did not get the landslide she expected,” says Elizabeth. “To me, that was one good sign this year. The people spoke up. They said that the poor people matter too.”

I left my country because I was the victim of severe domestic abuse. I am a qualified nurse. All I want to do is work and live somewhere I can be safe. But for that, I’m being criminalised

“And women spoke up too,” says Angela, referring to the Harvey Weinstein story that broke in October, and the allegations of sexual abuse that came flooding out in the weeks that followed. “I give so much credit to those women who stood up and spoke the truth.”

The other two women nod. While the #MeToo campaign was hitting headlines in November, however, WFRW released its own report. Over 1,500 women are detained in Britain’s immigration removal centres every year, awaiting decisions on their asylum claim or following a failed application.

“We Are Still Here” provided shocking evidence that vulnerable women – including those who have been tortured, trafficked and raped – are still among them, a year after the home office recognised the trauma and damage that locking them up can create.

“I do not want to remove anything from the victims of Weinstein,” says Vee carefully, “But it was interesting to see how much more attention their story got that ours.” When a Hollywood actress says “me too”, she implies, her voice carries a lot further than that of an asylum seeker who says the same.

Both she and Elizabeth have spent time in such centres, Vee at the most notorious among them: Yarl’s Wood. “It was hell,” says Vee simply, her eyes suddenly fixed on the table. “I don’t want to remember it. I was there for three weeks and five days in 2015. But I was lucky. Some people I was there with have only just been released.”

Released, however, does not mean freedom. Elizabeth will spend Christmas Day alone. WFRW’s offices are closing today, for the Christmas break. Church is her other haven, “but there is no public transport on Christmas Day, so I cannot afford to get there.”

She does not know what next year will bring. Her discretionary leave to remain will expire. In April, however, the fee that must be paid simply to apply for indefinite leave to remain status was raised from £1,875 to £2,297. She has no idea how she will find the money.

Yet here she is, dancing on two arthritic knees and laughing joyfully. “It is emotionally healing,” she explains. “When you get up and dance with others, you are not so alone in the world.”

Our conversation is halted by the voice over a microphone. “Today is my Christmas Day, because you women are my family,” says a member of WFRW’s network, to cheers and applause, “regardless of our backgrounds or religions.”

Christmas presents are distributed, including beauty products donated by The Pool. Food is served, cooked by asylum-seeking women who have volunteered and represented their many different cultures.

Suddenly, someone points to the window, and the thick white snow that has started to fall again. A woman halts her dancing and a grin spreads over her face. “I have never seen snow falling before!” she says. “It’s beautiful.”

Hope, it appears, is irrepressible. Here, in this unlikely corner of the capital and for one fleeting moment, the real spirit of Christmas has been captured.

@hattiegarlick

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Women for Refugee Women's Grassroots Director, Marchu Girma (left) with Abi (right) Photo: Women for Refugee Women
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