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Working with local schools

This Refugee Week, CARAS activities have focused on awareness-raising in our local community, with visits to two nearby schools.

On Friday, team member Jenny headed to Links Primary School in Tooting to run 2 workshops with Year 2 & Year 3 children about what it means to be a refugee.  120 children took part in the workshops which encouraged them to think about how they would feel if they suddenly had to leave their home, before creating images of the important items they would want to take with them.  The children then shared what they learnt and made during a whole school assembly to mark the end of Refugee Week 2015.

And, on Saturday, Zara from our management committee represented CARAS at the Balham Nursery summer fair, supporting the nursery’s efforts to fundraise for us. Zara manned a treasure-hunt activity, as well as displaying information and photos about our projects - helping to raise the profile of CARAS with local parents and children alike.

And the winner is…

In the run up to the general election in May, the CARAS coffee morning team ran a voting workshop for beneficiaries. Although the lives of these women and their families will be hugely affected by the outcome of the coming election, most of them will not be able to vote on May 7th, despite being permanent residents. The event encouraged the women who attended to talk about which policies they would vote for and to discuss the importance of women’s suffrage.

After a discussion of key policies,  everyone took part in a mock election to allow the women a chance to vote for the party which they felt would best address their concerns. Current voting laws disenfranchise large numbers of UK residents who are foreign nationals, but nevertheless the session aimed to strengthen political engagement and increase awareness of the ideological differences between the major parties amongst women who are excluded from the political process.

As the results came in, we discovered that nobody had voted for the Liberal Democrats or UKIP, while the Conservatives only secured 10% of the vote. The Labour Party came in second, winning 35% of votes, and the Green Party won a majority in our coffee morning election with 55% of the vote!

Spring brings with it lots of new and exciting things

As the days lengthen and sun shines down on our new premises on Blakenham Road, we are celebrating lots of exciting developments in our projects.

Our work with unaccompanied young people continues to expand, with new referrals joining our ESOL class or coming to the Weekend Project each week.  To help support this expansion, Shelton, a new youth outreach worker joined the team in March thanks to funding from Sir Walter St John Educational Charity.

Elsewhere, our women’s coffee morning is also growing significantly as we start to build relationships with new local communities.  Over the past few weeks we have also been trialling integrating our cooking club with coffee morning, so that women from both projects can share a delicious meal with one another, members of our staff team and some of our wonderful volunteers - an excellent opportunity for relationship building.

And, our Visiting Project, which provides intensive support to families and individuals during the most difficult periods, has taken off over the last few months with 10 visiting relationships currently active.

We look forward to sharing more information on how our work is developing in our Spring newsletter, which will be published later this month.

Leave to Remain film screening and Q&A

Last Monday, KKF held its own private screening of recently released film Leave to Remain, courtesy of Together Films.  Telling the story of a group of separated children living together semi-independently and negotiating their way through the challenges of the asylum system, the film provides an impressively nuanced look at the different ways young people come to be in the UK alone and their struggle to have their stories heard and accepted, as well as a sharp critique of current Home Office practices.  Age-assessment, initial screening interviews and the approach to mental health problems amongst this group all come under fire from director, Bruce Goodison. The film was followed by a Q&A with actor Masieh, who plays a young, newly-arrived Afghan boy, Abdul.  Masieh spoke extremely eloquently about how eye-opening making the film had been, not least because some of the young actors were going through the asylum process during rehearsals and filming.  He also told us that he would like to be able to show the film to his own family in Afghanistan and to people in power - those who might be able to change things for the better.

The messages in Leave to Remain are particularly pertinent to KKF as we have seen the number of unaccompanied young people we work with increase dramatically over the past year.  Later this month, we hope to start piloting a new Weekend Drop-in project, primarily designed for unaccompanied young people.

An update from the Chickpea Sisters’ kitchen

It’s been a busy few weeks for the Klevis Kola Foundation’s in-house catering group. The Chickpea Sisters have been rushing around the city delivering food to a wonderfully diverse range of new clients. Our first event was with Right to Remain, a national human rights organisation who campaign for justice within the immigration and asylum system. Guests at their Annual General Meeting were presented with a Congolese, Eritrean and Algerian feast and devoured it within minutes.

The following week, we were lucky enough to cater for two events in a row! Our first was an 18th birthday party where we prepared an Arabian feast for twenty adults hiding away upstairs. The next day we got up bright and early to set up for our very own KKF/CARAS’ launch party where we served a mixture of finger foods for lunch. On Sunday we popped down to Tooting Foodival next to Broadway Market, where local food businesses were giving out free samples. We brought some Somali biscuits and Iraqi Basbousa, both of which were very much appreciated by the locals. On top of all of this, Fayrus has been attending weekly training sessions with Wandsworth Council on the benefits of healthy eating, gaining knowledge that she plans to share with the rest of the group: “It’s really useful to know how to eat healthily, I’m sure it will benefit the business as people in London love health food.”

With no time to rest, The Chickpea Sisters have two more exciting events to look forward to this month. To find out more, follow us on twitter: @Chickpea Sisters or find us on Facebok: “The-Chickpea-Sisters”

Trips to The Grange: “this place makes me happy”

Two groups, involving 20 young people, have recently returned from KKF’s first visits to The Grange, a beautiful home-from-home in Norfolk, which offers a safe space of learning and respite to people of refugee background.
We started off nervous, not knowing each other well, and unsure of what the weekend would hold.  We have left behind art work for the house, a freshly painted shed, four new guinea pigs, and a nettle-free chicken run; we have taken with us new friendships, happy memories, and lots of stories to share.

Thank you to Ben, Sophie and Oriana for welcoming us to their beautiful home, to Daniel, Jamie, Jess, Maria, Jemeela, Zara and Molly for being such relaxed, supportive and thoughtful volunteers, and to everyone in the group for coming, joining in, and making the trips such a success.

The Chickpea Sister’s Day Out at The Spark

Several weekends ago, Klevis Kola’s in house catering company made their first public debut as The Chickpea Sisters, showcasing their culinary creations to a herd of hungry activists at an event called The Spark in Hackney. The Spark consisted of a week-long succession of workshops, films, talks, music, art, and poetry all geared towards encouraging participants to immerse themselves in issues surrounding social justice. The program was not for the one-track-minded. From ‘strategies for solving the housing crisis’ to ‘tackling every-day-sexism through song’, participants were able to satisfy every inch of their activist urges in an abundance of innovative ways. Unfortunately, The Chickpea Sisters were far too busy preparing a Congolese and Moroccan feast to take part in any of the workshops. They were, however, able to enjoy the sound of social-justice-in-motion from a rather precarious outdoors kitchen. With the aid of two wobbly gas stoves, Ngoné, Faoyzia, Fayrus, Dalya, Mizu, Julienne and Rahma conjured up two delicious meals that were practically inhaled by The Spark’s participants. All in all, the weekend was a huge success and we hope to reconnect with The Spark’s fantastic team for future events.

Refugee Week events celebrating cultural diversity: Croydon Heritage Festival

In our first post of Refugee Week 2014, one of our interns takes a look at events taking place in Croydon, host and home to many of the unaccompanied young people with whom we work…

Geography is often invested with meaningful personal memories, memories that are usually invisible to everyone but the owner of the experiences. I remember how my granddad couldn’t travel through Belsen because of his experiences in the Second World War. Where the casual observer would just see farm-houses and fields along a motorway, he secretly relived the horror of the holocaust.

As the home of Lunar House, the headquarters of the UKBA, Croydon is, for many refugees, emblematic of the trauma of the asylum process, a trauma veiled from the majority of the British public. ‘To you, Croydon is a place’, remarks Buba, ‘with shops, with people, with trams. But for me and almost asylum applicants, it is different.  Just hearing the word ‘Croydon’ takes you straight back to your asylum interview whether you want to think about it or not. It is not a geographic space for me. It is an emotional place.’ (The Poverty Barrier, Freedom from Torture).

Next weekend marks the start of the Croydon Heritage Festival (June 21st – July 4th), a week-long celebration of Croydon’s vibrant and cosmopolitan past, present and future. It is a memorialization of Croydon’s unique identity, uncovering the journey to modern Croydon through a palimpsest of architecture and oral history.

Populated by such a diverse mixture of different racial, cultural and social-economic groups, Croydon is a lattice of different voices and experiences. As a location populated with so many different communities, each stressing wildly different interpretations of Croydon’s history, the Croydon Heritage Festival is placing special emphasis on celebrating cultural diversity and contrast within Croydon. Rather than shying away from controversy, the festival is also hosting events that challenge the identity of Croydon, including lectures on the borough’s links with slave-ownership.

Perpanata, a refugee theatre group based in Croydon, is enabling young refugees and migrants to tell their individual stories throughout the Croydon Heritage Festival. Running since 2008, Perpanata has facilitated young refugees in creating plays about their experiences of UK life. Stressing open-mindedness and valuing inter-cultural dialogue, Perpanata has consistently created moving performances which voice the obstacles many refugees face in UK society. From the raucous and autobiographical Potato & Other Shorts, which comically portrayed one actor’s first experience of a trip to a dentist, to 2012’s Unifinshed Dream, a bold depiction of the limbo of refugee life performed within a city car park.

This year’s event, Somewhere Past, which has been created in collaboration with Attic theatre and Refugee Youth, promises to be an intimate and lively exploration of the hidden lives of young refugees and migrants in Croydon. Performances will take place on Tuesday 17 June at 7pm and Saturday 21 June at 2pm at the Museum of Croydon. Entry is free and there is no need to book.

Comment: Yarl’s Wood, placing profit over human dignity

As a result of Tony Blair’s “fast-track” immigration initiative, the British government currently boasts one of the world’s highest detention rates – coming in at a close second to Australia. Launched in 2000 and heavily expanded in 2003, fast-track detention is designed to accelerate the asylum process, intensifying turnover and increasing ‘efficiency.’ Seized on arrival, fast-track claimants are supposedly given a hearing within three working days. In reality, detainees are frequently imprisoned for years without receiving a verdict and those lucky enough to be seen within the time frame are faced with a 99% refusal rate. Since reports of sexual abuse, poor health care, and racial discrimination are now common place, the steady incline in detention (ten new centres in the last ten years) has been met with increasing concern regarding the treatment of detainees.

Following several heavily publicised cases of misconduct, Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre is well known for its abhorrent treatment of detainees. Tucked away in a secluded corner of Bedfordshire, the centre presents itself as a safe haven for women seeking asylum. However, a recent report conducted by Women for Refugee Women demonstrates how the realities of Yarl’s Wood differ drastically from the farcical images of cheerful detainees on the centre’s homepage. Out of the 46 women involved in the report, over 1⁄2 had experienced verbal abuse, 1⁄4 felt they had been victims of racial abuse, and Medical Justice had catalogued 300 cases of physical assault since the centre’s opening. Around 90% of the women involved in the survey were being guarded by male staff and felt intimidated by their presence: “I was having a shower when they opened the door. It was a woman and a male guard. I was naked…on another occasion I had locked the door and the women officer opened the bedroom door and I was naked and everyone could see. The male officer was there. I complained about it but nothing happened.’’

More than anything else, the report’s subjects felt victimised by a “culture of disbelief” within the health care services: “They don’t believe you in there. They don’t help anyone…They’re not interested in helping,…If you ask them for medication or tell them you are sick, they will say you are pretending. They don’t have sympathy for asylum seekers.” Despite numerous examples of malpractice, very little has been done to improve the treatment of detainees at Yarl’s Wood. This lack of action can be explained, in part, by the centre’s managerial structure.

Yarl’s Wood is owned by an international public services company who manage a large portion of transport services, naval bases, detention centres, prisons, electronic tagging systems, hospitals, schools, pensions schemes, and leisure centres across the globe. In the past, the owners of Yarl’s Wood have been condemned for the standard of the services they provide. In September 2013, the company was accused of extensive sexual abuse cover-ups of detainees and earlier that year, an internal memo leaked to an Australian newspaper accused detainees living on Christmas Island of “creating a culture of self-harm,” using it as a “bargaining tool.” A few weeks ago, domestic abuse expert Rashida Manjoo spent sixteen days investigating violence against women in the UK. When attempting to visit Yarl’s Wood she was barred at the gates after staff received instructions “from the highest levels of the Home Office.” Manjoo told the press that she was incredibly worried “because if there was nothing to hide, I should have been given access.”

Questions as to whether detention centers should exist at all aside, the privatisation of Yarl’s Wood has resulted in a managerial system that places profit over human dignity. Combined with their track record, Yarl’s Wood’s lack of democratic accountability to the public and power to withhold important information are deeply concerning for an organisation responsible for some of the UK’s most vulnerable inhabitants. When financial gain becomes the overriding aim of a public service provider, corners are cut and compromises are made which result in a failure to recognise the many other elements needed to fuel a genuinely successful organisation. Most notably the mental and physical well-being of its clientele.

Alexa Sidor

The first Syrian refugees enter the UK

Violence and civil unrest in Syria has led to UK Government offering resettlement places to the most vulnerable Syrian families. Since the last week of March, the first of these families has begun arriving in the country to rebuild their lives in safety.

‘The arrival of the first refugees will transform, if not save people’s lives’, says Maurice Wren, Chief Executive of The Refugee Council. ‘It marks an extremely significant watershed in the UK’s response to the humanitarian catastrophe gripping the country and its surrounding areas.’

Opening UK borders could help many Syrians build their lives again and the government has insisted that the programme is going to be needs rather than numbers tested. However, current government plans to support only several hundred refugees over the next three years could also mean tens of thousands of families continue to face exposure to dangerous living conditions back in Syria.

‘Over 2.5 million refugees have now fled the conflict and as a result, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is now calling on governments around the world to help resettle 130,000 people over the next three years,’ adds Wren.

But what help is available for those who do arrive here? Under the Government’s Vulnerable Person’s Relocation scheme, refugees will be granted five years’ humanitarian protection and will be able to access to public funds once they enter the country.

As well as standard housing and benefits, however, these families will need help accessing a wide range of support so they can integrate fully.  Finding out about entitlements to healthcare and where to access it, filling out school applications, learning English and building links within the local community are just some of the activities which organisations like KKF can assist with.

Klevis Kola has already begun working with our first Syrian referrals and we expect to see this number increasing over the coming months as more refugees arrive under the new scheme.