Community Organising during Covid-19 lockdown in Yorkshire

By Sarli Nana, Migrant Organiser in Yorkshire and Humber

Organisations and community organisers across Yorkshire and the Humber Region sprung into action at the outbreak of COVID-19. They quickly adapted their work to the new reality and since then have been doing a great job supporting communities. In addition to all the Zoom meetings and activities they deliver lots of other services. Here is a snapshot of what our partners and members are doing across the region.

HANA – Humber All Nations Alliance 

We started organising with HANA last year with action planning. It  is an infrastructure charity for BAME communities in the Humber Sub Region with a membership of 65 member-groups from migrant and refugee communities with over 20 nationalities from South-East Asia, Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, providing infrastructure support since 2002. They are based in Hull, in East Yorkshire.

HANA members have been delivering food parcels to members across Hull. They have also provided internet access to members via credit top up to enable them stay in touch with loved ones and be able to get information.

Working with other partners to make it possible for those who are not able to get access to GP surgeries because of lack of translators. HANA is working together with Humber Community Advice Service, BME Environmental Network, Polish Community Hull and Hon Lok Chinese Senior Association on this initiative. They meet fortnightly. The access issues are quite serious. This is what a patient X recounted about their experience in the research undertaken by the partners:

“I initially rang at 11am however the line was engaged with just a recurring beep. I tried a few more times until 12pm with the same outcome. I rang again later in the afternoon at around 3pm and managed to get through to one of the lines. Initially there was a recorded message of around 3 minutes about Covid-19 after which I was put into an automatic queue. At this point I was No.4 in the queue. I was on hold for around 8 minutes whilst the queue counted down. I was then put through to the receptionist. At no point was there an option to hear the messages in any other language. I did comment on this to the receptionist who said they were aware it may be a problem to some of their patients.”

HANA is working with the partners mentioned above to resolve these issues and there is great improvement.

Isolation is a big challenge for many migrants and refugees in the lockdown, that is why HANA created  a meeting platform for partners and members to discuss issues concerning them during the period.

SYMAGG South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group 

The South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG) unites refugee, asylum and migrant organisations with campaign groups, trade unions, charities, political parties and supporting individuals. SYMAGG campaigns for the rights of all migrants and against racism based in Sheffield. They meet once a month.

Migrants Organise is working with SYMAAG and other local partners on the Justice for Simba Solidarity Campaign against NHS charges. We launched the campaign in November 2019.

People seeking asylum, who are dispersed to different parts of the UK, do not have a choice about their destination or accommodation. They have no right to work or welfare support and during the lock-down were left at the mercy of profit-making Mears Group. Many are vulnerable, have no friends or family and were forced into the substandard accommodation. (Mears Group’s contract is for 1.15 billion). 

270 people are forced to live in poor, unsanitary conditions in Urban House hostel, Wakefield. Urban House is the initial holding centre for asylum seekers for the Yorkshire & Humber Region.

People have been placed there by the UK Home Office and the Mears Group manages the property as part of their £1.15 billion contracts for asylum housing.

Residents are forced to share rooms with strangers, forced to share dirty toilets and showers, even during the COVID-19 lock-down. Many people have illnesses making them at risk of catching the virus.

Pregnant women are still in Urban House, there is no special food and little fresh fruit for them.  15 children: 4 toddlers, 4 children under ten, and young teenagers live there. Toddlers are given spicy food – no special food for children. No toast or cereals for breakfast.

Before Covid 19, residents bravely protested about overcrowding, poor food and unsanitary conditions. Not much changed, except Mears banned camera phones so that people couldn’t easily document the appalling conditions. Now residents are being forced to share rooms making social distancing impossible. There is no PPE. 

‘How do we wash our hands with no soap in the bathrooms?’ asked one woman.

As a result of the above issues,  SYMAAG, along with Wakefield charities, Kurdish Red Moon, Sheffield Student Action for Refugees, trade unionists, volunteers from churches, mosques and political parties (including a Baroness!) have been organising regular donations of food, sanitary products, clean clothes and children’s toys to Urban House residents. Volunteers sort and pack the donations every Thursday in Sheffield. SYMAAG alongside partners also  launched a fundraiser which raised £2,300 in less than a week. 

Sisters United Halifax

Sisters United founded by Veecca Uka-Smith and Florence Kahuro, winners of the Women on the Move Awards is a grassroots community group that provides mutual support and solidarity for women in Halifax. Migrants Organise worked with Sisters United to develop a Residence Charter for Asylum Seekers in NAAS accommodation and many other campaigns against Hostile Environment

When the crisis started, sisters started speaking to each other about what was needed to do to support each other. First the core volunteers started contacting group members and sharing information about the virus. Women who are seeking asylum and must sign at the Home Office and women who have recently had their case refused were particularly fearful about what would happen. Sisters United quickly got information about this to and shared it on the WhatsApp group. 

The volunteers started calling all the sisters to check they understood what is going on and the rules around Lockdown. Many sisters do not have a TV or a phone, so we needed to make sure they stayed at home. We have found it difficult with the language, but we have managed. Nothing is impossible!

During Lockdown they have been calling the members every week.  At the beginning we were sometimes speaking 3 or 4 times a week. 

Accessing school dinner vouchers has been a big challenge! Some sisters didn’t receive the vouchers and Sisters United had to contact the schools many times and advocate for our members  

As some parents are shy to speak for their rights and feel safer not telling anyone. Many sisters are single parents and being alone during this time is horrible.  They are so worried about what is going to happen to their children if something happens to them? Sisters United supported many of them. They also supported them with the phone credit to avoid isolation.  

Some challenges and needs

Members of the group are from different nationalities therefore there is a language issue, but they manage in various ways to communicate!

Some parents feel shy speaking out. The group is supporting them to do this. The group are in need of iPads and broadband for families to support their children’s learning while they are not at school.  

Members of the group are asylum seekers and need more money to do their essential shopping as £35-£37 a week is not enough. Children are staying indoors all day so they need more food and more activities for them. Some of the sisters are living in shared houses and need more cleaning products to ensure they stay safe. The group is helping people to access parcels from local churches or other community organisations.

Some of the sisters need clothes. The group is looking for more funds to support members.

Thanks to Veeca Uka-Smith and Jolanda Skura for their texts for this Blog.

This is just  a snapshot of people organising during lockdown to support their communities. There are many other organisations and networks we work with all doing an amazing job. Our partners are doing a fantastic job without which many vulnerable people would have been left isolated  without food and essentials.  

Sarli Nana at the Black Lives Matter event in Huddersfield