Working with Asylum Seeker and Refugee Women

5 August 2016

Andree Morgan Andrews, a Welsh Romany Gypsy, talks about her job helping refugee women and how her heritage and experience helps her work with these vulnerable women.

I first became involved in Refugee issues in 1993 when as Arts Manager and Administrator I worked in the prestigious Cardiff Arts Centre, The Point. The Point was owned by Maggie Russell Allinson who was also Head of Talent for BBC Wales and together with popular Welsh actress, Lynn Hunter, and the late writer Terry Strachen we put on a production called ‘Letter from Zarajevo’ a tale of two lovers from different religious and cultural backgrounds who were trying to stay together in war torn Zarajevo.

In 1996 I joined Cardiff & District Multicultural Arts Development Ltd (CADMAD) as their One Tribe Project Officer, One Tribe was a multicultural arts projects that sought to recognise the contributions that ethnic minorities had made to the Welsh and UK cultures through the Arts. I facilitated workshops and performances in multicultural arts from across the Globe including Dohl drumming, Indian Dance, Henna painting, Chinese Opera, Arabic Rai music to name a few! I worked with communities who had integrated into the wider Welsh society for generations such as the Somali and Yemen communities and those who had recently arrived such as East European Roma, Afghanis and Iraqis even Vietnamese – One Tribe not only gave people the opportunity to showcase their talents and their cultures but it also enabled them to participate in activities that were fun, informative and educative. It brought communities together socially and helped alleviate some of the boredom that they felt which in turn help to alleviate some of the things that can lead to depression – loneliness and isolation for example. One Tribe also showed people from Welsh communities the contributions these ethnic minority communities had made to the wider society for generations – it raised awareness of others cultures and helped with community cohesion and integration.

“Music and dance had been banned in Afghanistan”

The workshops were often held in places that communities were familiar with including the accommodation that had been set aside specifically for Asylum Seekers and Refugees. It was here that I became friendly with many of the families who had recently arrived from the Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. As a community artist I not only facilitated the workshops but sometimes led them myself particularly the carnival arts workshops and one of my most memorable days was when I took a group of young people to Liverpool’s Carnival. Music and dance had been banned in Afghanistan and I was unable to explain the concept of carnival to these young people – they just did not get it! The look of wonder on their faces when we arrived at the community centre in Toxteth was priceless, dozens of people running round like headless chickens with different colourful costumes on was a sight to see. As soon as the youngsters got into their costumes they got into the spirit of things and it was truly amazing to see this group of young Afghanis dance through the streets of Liverpool with thousands of people watching them and hundreds taking part!

It was during my time with CADMAD that I also got involved with Refugee Week for the first time, helping to facilitate workshops and acts for the week long celebration that culminated in a huge event in Cardiff Bay but it was not until 2015 that I actually began working with the Welsh Refugee Council as the Refugee Week Co-ordinator. This truly has been a dream job and one that I feel very privileged to undertake – I have met the most amazing people who have overcome insurmountable hardships and tragedy to obtain their freedom. Whilst working as Refugee Week Wales (RWW) Co-ordinator I became friendly with a young Syrian mother who had given birth to her son in this country. She escaped Syria and fled to the camps in Jordan, whilst pregnant and having to leave behind her husband of 2 years she sold all her jewellery and belongings to pay traffickers to get her to Europe. Crammed into a cargo ship in the hold with 700 hundred other people she managed to get to Italy, but this was where the captain and crew decided to abandon the ship and left the ship full of its human cargo listing dangerously in the Mediterranean. So that the ‘passengers’ would not need to use the toilets the captain arranged for them to be fed a few olives, dates and small sips of water when the Italian Coast guard finally rescued the passengers many of them were very ill and seriously dehydrated. A month after arriving in Cardiff my friend gave birth to her son but, like so many others, she had nothing and was sharing one room with 3 other women. As soon as I met her I felt an affinity, maybe she reminded me of my daughter, maybe I just felt sorry for her but she tore at my heart strings and I did everything I could to help her which mainly was just giving her a travel system, other baby equipment and clothes for her baby. I also helped reunite her with her husband, and finally 6 months after I met her she was happily reunited with him.

“All have different reasons for seeking sanctuary in the UK and all have a story to tell”

In January 2016 I took on a new role with the Welsh Refugee Council as coordinator of a project for women to help them stay fit and healthy. 80 women from all over the world are registered they include women from Nigeria, Gambia, Sri Lanka, Albania, Kuwait, Ukraine, Russia, Algeria, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria and all have different reasons for seeking sanctuary in the UK and all have a story to tell. Although the majority of the women do come from the Middle East and this means that I have to take special precautions to ensure that they are not exposed to any male during the sessions. In some of their own countries participating in dance exercise classes or listening to music would result in severe punishment including stoning!

 I don’t pry but when any of the women feel the need to sit and chat I am there to listen, and if they need help or advice I try my best to assist. Often vilified in the media these women have many other obstacles to overcome. Asylum in this country is not guaranteed and many if not all have entered the country illegally either by making that treacherous crossing across the Mediterranean to Greece or crammed into the backs of lorries, a few have managed to get here by plane. They leave behind everything – family, friends, homes, belongings even children’s toys, few speak any English. Several have been subjected to rape or sexual assault on their journey to freedom and those women are often the ones who find it more difficult to talk to others or participate in any activities initially, but in the 6 months that the project has been running most of them have opened up and now regard me if not as a friend as someone they can trust. What I do love best is that quite a few of them like to show off their culinary skills so I am often treated to the delights of world cuisine – they have so little and yet what little they have they are happy to share and I have developed a penchant for Middle Eastern cuisine. I am invited to their homes on a regular basis and where politely possible I do try to refuse but only because they treat me as an honoured guest and I do not like to impose on their hospitality. Sometimes they cry and need comforting – but a hug costs nothing, however it can sometimes be quite emotional so that some of the tears that are shed are often my own!

Over time I have managed to benefit from the generosity of others and secured clothes, shoes, toys, prams and children’s bikes – my home often looks like a hoarder’s paradise but I am happy to take donations and pass them on and I can assure everyone that the amount of gratitude that is shown is overwhelming.

“Some of the Syrians have come to my home to experience traditional Sunday lunch”

Some of the Syrians have come to my home to experience traditional Sunday lunch and see some of the beautiful countryside that surrounds my home – far removed from what their country looks like now. I am accumulating gym equipment to turn one of my barns into a gym. I have an idea to host Gymnasium Weekends here next year but that would be subject to me getting hold of some funding so that they could stay in one of the numerous tourist holiday parks in the area and have a bit of a holiday. In the meantime, I have to settle with taking them to one of Wales’ fabulous beaches for a day in August playing volleyball on the beach!

The women are very curious about my culture particularly the Arabic ladies but I have explained that, like them, my ancestors led a nomadic existence. The Domari are a Middle Eastern Gypsy community so not only do they seem to find it easier to understand my culture but they also seem more accepting of it. In a lot of ways our cultural traditions are similar and they are intrigued by the comparisons, in particular that it is only comparatively recently that our women have stopped covering their hair!

I am often reminded of the fact that when I deliver Awareness Raising training I recollect the first time Gypsies came to Great Britain in the 16th century when they were called ‘Princes of Egypt’ – and of our story of our journey to Persia, so maybe Gypsies do have more in common with these Middle Eastern Asylum Seekers than we can imagine?

@ Andree Morgan Andrews July 2016