Nanou, our Volunteer Women’s Rights Group Facilitator, speaks out this International Women’s Day 2021 about growing inner and collective power through peer support.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Nanou. I’ve been living in the UK for nine years. I made many connections here and it’s my home now. People here are open minded. But, still I don’t have my freedom. I have been in the asylum system for many years- waiting to hear the answer from the Home Office.
I feel like I am in limbo, an ‘’open prison’’.
I have been a volunteer with Migrants Organise for 18 months facilitating the “Migrant Women’s Rights Group”. It is a peer support group involving 80 migrant and refugee women.
The majority of the women are seeking asylum, including survivors of trafficking and gender-based violence. We come together to connect, share problems and build our power.
Normally we have activities like yoga, meditation, exercise, baking, poetry or someone will come in and talk to us: like we’ve had doctors come in about health.
Some didn’t know they were allowed to register at a GP surgery. Not knowing our rights is a big problem. Sometimes we just come together and talk and share our feelings, and this is a big help.
Volunteering has really helped me both mentally and emotionally, because I work with these amazing, strong women. Together we share similar stories, struggles, pain, and experiences. This group gives me courage.
How has the group adapted to the last 12 months?
COVID-19 has impacted the women in many ways. Our mental health is suffering.
Firstly it was hard connecting with each other. Getting on zoom was an issue because the women needed phone top-up and internet connection and devices to use during the session. So we had to overcome that.
Loneliness and destitution is having a huge impact on the women, especially those who are in the asylum accommodation. It is a big challenge. The facilities in the housing is really tough- like five women and their young children sharing a house with one bathroom, kitchen and toilet. There is no space to isolate or for their children to play or to even do their online class. They are stuck in a small bedroom.
Sometimes when we meet on zoom we see the women helping their children with their school work- sitting on the bed because they don’t have a desk or anywhere else to go. I can see it is hard.
No child or woman deserves this. They are single mothers- life is hard enough as it is: they deserve better. We don’t have a choice on these matters. We are supposed to be grateful, but it is not about being grateful, it’s about dignity.
The women have also noticed that the immigration system has become super slow. Women who are newer to the country do not yet understand the system and it’s harder to understand it.
How do you feel when you come together?
This group has made me really strong. Together we come together and say ‘’We are still here’’. They say I help them. But, they help me.
Lockdown might end in the next few months, but our situation will still be the same: we don’t have the right to work, we have problems seeing the doctor, issues with our housing.
But if you can find someone with a similar story to you- you feel like you have a chance. I feel I still have hope because of them. Like, one day things might change.
For years I have been waiting for the Home Office to give me an answer. But still, I don’t get an answer. I don’t know when my freedom will come.
What would you change if you were Prime Minister?
I would start with dignity.
There is a saying in my country that says: don’t give me a fish, teach me to fish.
The women want a better life and want a right to work.The women in the group should have the right to provide for their children, to earn money legally and not be punished for their situation. I have a Degree and Masters, I want to be working: I want to be independent. Their children should automatically become British Citizens even if their parents do not have their (refugee) Status yet.
What advice can you give to someone who is thinking of setting up a women’s group?
You need to be open minded
You need to give women the opportunity to say what they need to and give space for that. Don’t treat them like children.
Make them feel comfortable. Think about what makes them feel safe.
Give encouragement- I realise that now around 70% of the group are attending college. I’ve been encouraging them to do this- to develop their skills. One day they will be able to live their life again so it’s important that they continue preparing for this. I am so happy they are going to college.
I ask them about their dreams. We have to aim for them!
Finally, It’s international women’s day, what is your hope on international Women’s Day?
My hope is to have my freedom. For me, this is having my status. My dream is to have my status.
Throughout lockdown Migrants Organise members have been rallying together, meeting weekly on zoom to share problems, and build their collective and inner power.
The Migrant Organise Women’s Rights Group currently meet weekly on zoom. The group is supported by our Community Programme staff who provide ongoing holistic support to migrants and refugees.