LATEST ISSUE OF VIEW – VOICES OF MIGRANT WOMEN

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VIEW An independent social affairs magazine

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VOICES OF MIGRANT WOMEN

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When I first arrived here I would say that I now live in Ireland. Some people would say ‘yes’, whilst others would say, ‘No love, you’re in the UK’ Personal stories on living in Northern Ireland – pages four to 25

Issue 55, 2020

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Inspired by the stories of migrant women elling the stories of women who have immigrated from their homelands, some facing not only poverty but also uncertainty over their right to be called citizens – whether due to Brexit or claims for asylum – has been a challenge. We started gathering stories of migrant women for this edition of VIEW magazine before the Covid-19 pandemic and during this crisis have conducted interviews virtually rather than face-to-face. Some women who emigrated to these shores have secure jobs and their families are well settled within the community. But others have faced destitution during this pandemic, struggling to find necessities such as food, never mind the broadband needed for home schooling. Hate crime, housing, and the difficulties of dealing with bureaucracy, are some of the challenges migrant women have experienced but I have also been

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VIEW co-founder Una Murphy inspired by their poetry, determination and even their love for the Northern Irish weather. Many women don’t want to put themselves in the limelight but it is their experiences which can inform social policy and sharing their stories can shine a light

on important social justice issues. When I first talked to Kate Campbell and Chris McCartney from the ‘Voice of Migrant Women’ group we discussed how journalists like to have photographs to illustrate a story and how some women might not want to have their identity shown. I hope we have found the right mix of words and images in this edition of VIEW magazine. We were pleased that Monika CiokGiertuga, Project Coordinator, Ethnic Minorities Support with the YMCA, agreed to be the guest editor of this edition of VIEW. She collaborated with our journalists, led by editor Brian Pelan, sharing her insight to help us tell the stories of migrant women in Northern Ireland. Sponsorship from the VSB Foundation, Community Foundation NI as well as an advert from Advice NI has funded our journalism for this edition of VIEW magazine.

Go to our website WWW.VIEWDIGITAL.ORG to read more stories and how to sign up to receive regular issues of VIEW magazine

Become a VIEWdigital champion Contact Una Murphy at unamurphy@viewdigital.org if you enjoy our work and want to know more about becoming a VIEWdigital champion

Contact VIEW editor Brian Pelan at brianpelan@viewdigital.org Contact VIEW deputy editor Kathryn Johnston at kathrynjohnston@viewdigital.org Contact VIEW publisher Una Murphy at unamurphy@viewdigital.org Contact VIEW journalist Megan McDermott at meganmcdermott@viewdigital.org

Making a complaint to VIEWdigital – www.viewdigital.org/2018/08/08/making-a-complaint-to-viewdigital/


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Editorial

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VIEW, an independent social affairs magazine

By guest editor Monika Ciok-Giertuga, a bilingual advocacy worker with the YMCA

y work with women from ethnic minorities began in 2012 when I started working at the YMCA in north Down as a Polish-speaking bilingual advocacy worker. It was eight years after my native Poland joined the EU and six years after my arrival in Northern Ireland. At that time Northern Ireland was experiencing a significant influx of migrants from eastern Europe. Polish builders, cleaners and care assistants, Latvian and Lithuanian farm and factory workers usually had very little English and were struggling to access healthcare, education and welfare systems. The housing conditions which many of them were living in were appalling – multioccupancy buildings in a state of permanent disrepair, families sharing a bathroom and kitchen with strangers, damp and dirty bedrooms with stained carpets and mattresses and greedy landlords who were making a small fortune. Women, especially, were working very long – and quite frequently anti-social hours – for a minimum wage, or in some cases below minimum wage, and doing jobs that nobody else wanted to do. They were shopping, cooking, cleaning, and helping out with homeworks, endless chores – day in day out - somehow managing to stay in their employment despite desperate working conditions and prejudice among their co-workers. Somehow managing to bake a cake on a Sunday. Somehow managing to stay on top of things. Somehow managing to save some money and send it back to their families in Poland. Somehow managing not to cry in front of their children. Or most of the time, at least. During my time at the YMCA I met dozens of women from ethnic minorities. Some of them are doing remarkably well, some of them are struggling and are in need of support, but all of them are strong and resilient, trying to do their best for their families. Seven years have passed since I started my job. Brexit has happened,

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During my time at YMCA I met dozens of women from ethnic minorities. Some of them are doing remarkably well, some of them are struggling and are in need of support. All of them are strong and resilient, trying to do their best for their families

preceded by hostile Home Office policies, and a wave of hate crimes targeted at migrants. Syrian refugees have started being resettled in Northern Ireland. And most recently – an unthinkable crisis caused by a virus has hit the world, destroyed the economy and has changed the way we live. Together, with my team of bilingual advocacy workers, we have helped many women from eastern Europe, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Syria and many other countries. The issues we are dealing with are still the same – language barriers, housing conditions, employment rights, access to social security benefits and healthcare, domestic violence and poverty. If it wasn’t for the bilingual support, these women wouldn’t be able to access the help they need. But still, the funding situation is dire. For many organisations in Northern Ireland working with ethnic minorities every year the end of March marks the end of a current funding period and a necessity to submit a new funding application without any guarantees that they will be able to continue their work in April. This makes long-term planning extremely difficult, and puts clients’ welfare at risk. It is a serious personal challenge for those providing support. There are many fantastic projects focusing on migrant and refugee women in Northern Ireland. I have had the privilege of getting to know people involved in these initiatives and working with some of them, such as Childcare project, STEP, and SAWA. They are doing tremendous work in what I can only describe as an increasingly challenging and hostile environment. It is time to recognise their contribution. Their work makes our communities a better and safer place to live in. It is also time to recognise and celebrate the contribution of migrant and refugee women – as workers, volunteers, activists, friends, neighbours, mothers, wives and fellow human beings.


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Family affair: Erdisa from Albania with her two children

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We came to Belfast at Christmas and we were crying. We didn’t know what to do Una Murphy talks to Erdisa from Albania who is seeking refugee status for her and her children or Erdisa, life in Belfast is all about her children and maintaining a sense of normality at home. She has received a letter from the British government warning them to prepare for deportation back to Albania. Her family is among a group of women and children from different countries waiting at Donegall Pass Community Centre for a Saturday bus trip to Ballymena for a day out organised by a women and children’s group called Bomoko and hosted by the Ballymena Inter-Ethnic Forum and a local church. Mimi, the Bomoko coordinator, is busy making preparations for the trip and she asked Erdisa to speak to me. I joined Erdisa and her children in finding a quiet room at the community centre. There she told me about her experience of life in Northern Ireland over the last five years. “We came to Belfast at Christmas and we were crying. We didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I was a very simple housewife in Albania looking after the children. I had studied to be a hairdresser and a make-up artist but I was from a traditional family in Albania. I looked after

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the children and did not work. “I studied English at Belfast Met and was the best student in the class and got an award. I have spoken at an event at the Black Box in Belfast telling my story and have also been invited to speak to a group in Newry. “I’ve the opportunity to do another course as a make-up artist but I’m worried and distressed after spending five years as an asylum seeker. I don’t have the right to work or to drive, very limited rights. “The threat of deportation has been hanging over me three times and my GP has written a letter to the Home Office on my behalf. I have been told that I should be ready and to prepare for deportation. I have another hearing on March 20 and I am hoping to get good news and to be allowed to work. “At times I feel terrible and a group like Bomoki helps me to escape the stress of being an asylum seeker and living on a low income from the government of £5 per person a day. The rent is paid for the house I live in, beside the Royal Victoria Hospital in west Belfast.” Eridisa said that the Falls Women Centre provided an opportunity for her to

get out and meet other women when she first arrived in Belfast.“I found it very lonely at first when I arrived and we didn’t leave our house for a month. I didn’t take my children on the bus because I thought we might get lost. When we first arrived it was a very hard time and it still is due to the circumstances. We live day by day and are under the stress of wondering if they will remove us. They keep saying our country is safe. Just because the government (of Albania) says it is safe, doesn’t mean that it is safe. “I need to get refugee status. My son would love to go university and he can’t go if we don’t get it. My kids have settled well into their school which has been very supportive.You hear of other people getting refugee status. I want to get it for me and my children,” Eridisa said. • As VIEW went to press Erdisa Kola said: “I haven't heard yet anything from emigration. I'm still waiting for my court date." We'll be keeping in touch with Erdisa and her bid to seek refugee status in Northern Ireland.


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Together: Adriana Morvaniova, right, with her mother Dana

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My mum and I moved for a better life. Because of the economy and corruption, we felt there were no opportunities in Slovakia Adriana tells Una Murphy about helping people from other countries to settle and live in Northern Ireland driana Morvaniova from Slovakia grappled with the EU Settlement Scheme application for six months before she managed to get it sorted out. It was down to her hair colour. On her passport photograph her hair is blonde but she changed to her natural brunette colour. So the computer said “no”. She was asked to send her passport off but she was loath to do that, as it might get lost and the document was her only proof that she was allowed to stay in the UK. Eventually after an “unhelpful” email exchange back and forth, she got an appointment in Belfast and she gained settled status. Adriana and her mother Dana could not speak English when they arrived in Northern Ireland 15 years ago. They both are now fluent and work in the same company. “I worked my way up from the production line to the position I am in now,” she said. There are around 38,000 EU citizens like Adriana and Dana working in Northern Ireland. EU, EEA or Swiss citizens, must apply to the EU Settlement Scheme through an online application to continue living in the UK after June 30, 2021. Adriana’s job includes helping people from other countries settle into life in Northern Ireland as chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Council at Sensata Technologies. Workers from India, Turkey, Africa, China and eastern Europe are part of a

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Free advice and support offered Advice NI and the Stronger Together give free advice and support with the EU Settlement Scheme in Northern Ireland.

66644 and an adviser will call you back

Contact Advice NI:

Contact Stronger Together

• Phone: free EU Settlement Scheme helpline 0800 138 6545

• Phone: 028 8775 0211

• Text service: text EUSS to group within the company helping others to find out about the local community. “I know the ropes” she told VIEW. “When a new person joins the company we welcome newbies and help them to understand about accommodation, getting a GP, buying a car and getting car insurance.” She was recently accepted on to the Boardroom Apprentice scheme in Northern Ireland. Founded by Eileen Mullan, the scheme allows those without boardroom experience to gain experience and enhance their knowledge and understanding. She is also studying for a degree through the Open University. “My mum and I moved here for a better life. Because of the economy and corruption, we felt there were no opportunities in Slovakia. But it was hard,

• email: euss@adviceni.net

• email: info@strongertogetherni.org my mum couldn’t get a job at first and we lived with a big group of people in a small flat. “At the very beginning I got my first job in a restaurant and bar and a lady in Antrim, who I am still friends with, invited me to her home to meet her friends. Even though I wasn’t able to say much, it was the social aspect that helped me as I was able to learn about the local culture. “I recently went home to attend a high school reunion and I believe from talking to my friends that I have better opportunities and quality of life in Northern Ireland. “I think if you want to have opportunities you need to learn the language and integrate with the local community. “The opportunities are there if you put yourself out there.”


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Determined: Nandipha Jola has made a new life for her and her daughter in Northern Ireland

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I chose to remain here and not return to South Africa Writer Nandipha Jola talks to Brian Pelan about how she rediscovered her love for writing and finding her own voice alking barefoot on snow and then falling ill due to the icy temperature is a vivid memory for South African-born Nandipha Jola when she first arrived in Northern Ireland in 2001. “A week after I arrived here I was admitted to hospital. I just couldn't acclimatise. I was shaking all the time. I think I became unwell because I went for a walk when there was snow on the ground. I just wanted to feel the snow on my feet. I thought it was a lovely romantic thing to walk barefoot on ice. I was so wrong. I don’t do that now,” said Nandipha. She was born in Port Elizabeth in 1978. Her former husband, who was a engineer, was offered work here by a recruitment firm. “I didn’t have much time to do any research,” said Nandipha. “I was just excited at the prospect of getting out of South Africa after the ending of apartheid. “We lived in Antrim. I had a five-year plan to live and work here and have enough money to go back and buy a home in South Africa.The plan did not work as we separated. When we divorced I had a six-month-old baby daughter. “I did go back and forth to South Africa to visit my family but every time I went it just felt different. “When I got divorced the terms of my work visa changed. I was initially listed as a spouse and then I wasn’t. I no longer had the same rights on my visa. I had to look for my own visa. That was a struggle.” Nandipha recounted how during this period she had an epiphany of sorts. “When I lived in South Africa, I used to write poems about my experiences of Apartheid. I also enjoyed listening to stories on the radio. When I moved to Northern Ireland, I had put all that on hold. I started going back to it and took up writing again. “I got a few poems published – and from 2010 that’s what I’ve been doing. I also started to do cultural awareness workshops, part of that was to do with people constantly asking me very naïve questions, such as, ‘So you are from South Africa, how far are you from Nigeria?’ That got me to think that perhaps some people didn’t realise that Africa is a continent. Or

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Where Am I From? – by Anesu Mtowa And he asked me, `No, where are you really from?' I smile. I smile the smile of a thousand children. Who have all stood in this same spot, And have all been asked, `Where are you really from?' I answer,

I am from the children of the Soweto uprising, The Selma to Montgomery march, The Rwandan Genocide.

I am from a million places. Spin a globe, and you’ll find me there. Like the last leaf on a tree, I will flow to wherever I’m taken. And will seed.

I am from the children fed by the Black Panthers, and the children set free by Harriet Tubman, and the children whose grandparents were saved by Obama.

I am from mother nature’s womb. I was cradled in her arms until she planted me here, let me grow. And then sent you to ask, Where are you really from?' I am from the textbooks, that have been pushed behind the bookshelf. I am from the pages that were ripped out, and burned. I am from the truth that will never be told. I am from the voices that have been silenced by history, I am from the voices that refused to be silent. Rosa Parks, Nina Simone, Martin Luther King jr, Dr Nelson Mandela. people would ask me, ‘Did I have to walk to school and fetch water and how far was I from lions?’ “When I first arrived here I would say that I now live in Ireland. Some people would say ‘yes’, while others would say, ‘No love, you’re in the UK’. It was very confusing as I knew little about the ‘differences’ between Catholics and Protestants. The break-up of my marriage meant that I was a single mum bringing up a child in a foreign country. I had no family support. I couldn’t leave my child with my

I am from my mother’s tears, the sweat on her brow. I am from her blood. I am from the soil she left behind. I am from the same cloth as scientists, presidents, entrepreneurs, inventors. I am the future generations, that can achieve anything. But will still have their hair touched without permission. Will still be called the N-Word, or a foreigner, or will be told to go back home even though that’s where they are. So you ask me, ‘Where are you really from?’ Would you like me to repeat my answer? mother. I had little social life. In a way I choose that life by not returning home to South Africa.” Nandipha, who now lives in Portadown, told me how proud she is of her 17-year-old daughter Anesu Mtowa, whose poem ‘Where Am I From?’ is published above. She also told me of a basket she carries with her. It is filled with various artefacts which she uses to tell her stories. Nandipha has definitely added colour and vibrancy to Northern Ireland.


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Struggle and hope: Nour Kenno from Syria

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Rain, coldness, cloudy sky and the rustling of leaves; this silence is able to heal me from the war noises I lived in Syrian refugee Nour Kenno tells Megan McDermott about her new life in Northern Ireland after fleeing from her war-torn country or Nour Kenno, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee living in Bangor, the Northern Irish weather is a blessing not a curse. “I like it. I paint sometimes and I do creative writing in Arabic and this weather inspires me. Rain, coldness, cloudy sky and the rustling of leaves; this silence is able to heal me from the war noises I lived in.” I asked her about the circumstances of her leaving Syria and how she came to Northern Ireland. She says you can’t ask a refugee that if you don’t have plenty of time, “because these questions will be followed by hours of crying”. Nour was aged 15 when tanks surrounded her neighbourhood in Aleppo, one of the worst affected cities of the Syrian conflict. She described the scene: “people running, children crying, a heavy smoke covering the sky. And only one sentence from different voices, ‘take your children and run away’.” Nour and her family spent the next six years “fleeing from one place to another and moving between countries. “We thought that we would be safe away from the war. We didn’t imagine that we would flee again and again, escaping from injustice and mistreatment in the neighbouring countries.” Her final four years were spent in Lebanon where she studied political and administrative sciences until in 2018 she and her family were moved to Northern Ireland under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) which aimed to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees in the UK by this year. “For us the only hope was somewhere safe and peaceful, with people who respect each other. It didn't matter where we were going. The most important thing was getting away from Lebanon.” Nour’s story is filled with despair and anger at the plight of refugees as well as

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feeling guilty for those who were left behind. “I’m one of the ‘selfish’ people who fled the war and left behind many children in severe conditions,” she said. “Every day, Syrian refugees around the world are dying of hunger, illness, rape, and cold, and even because of the hot sun in the refugee camps. A bullet or a bomb is not the only cause of death in war time. “Some of them die because of the feeling of isolation in a strange country. Many parents die because of grief, sadness and longing. Getting out of Syria doesn't mean survival. “We all hoped to travel around the world as tourists, but none of us wished to be a refugee in any country.” On arrival in Belfast, Nour, her parents and her two brothers were met at the airport by workers from the Red Cross, Barnardo’s and Extern along with Arabic interpreters. She said: “Despite the cold weather, we felt warm.” Her family spent five days at a welcome centre where they were given

information on health services, education, employment, housing, and benefits, before being moved to a temporary house which was suitable for her brother’s health condition. While she had no say in where she would be resettled, Nour said: “I thank God every day for being here.” She said the support she and her family got from her key worker in particular will never be forgotten. “She was the person who helped me to achieve my goals and guided me, who believed in me and didn’t leave me to take any first step alone.” However, Nour makes it clear that the life she has built here doesn’t erase the homesickness and worry she feels for her relatives still living in Syria. “People think I survived and I’m happy here because everything is okay with me and my family. But all the time I keep thinking about my relatives and loved ones there.” In Bangor, Nour works as a community interpreter with Diversity NI and runs Arabic classes at the North Down YMCA, and is also studying health sciences at the Open University. While she struggled to cope with the different systems and regulations of a foreign country, she said that “big ambition deserves great effort”. “In addition to my hope to become a paediatrician, I hope to be able to open an Arabic school to help Arab people not to forget their first language and also to teach everyone who would like to learn Arabic. “People here sometimes salute us with the Islamic greeting Assalamu Alaikum (peace be upon you). That reflects their respect and acceptance of different cultures. My parents always said that good neighbours are the ones who make you feel safe.”


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Gintare Rodrigues Silvestre provides advice to fellow members of migrant communities in Dungannon

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Migrant women struggle far more than their male counterparts to secure private rented accommodation because they are more likely to be single parents Gintare Rodrigues Silvestre tells Megan McDermott about her role as a housing champion and providing vital advice to families intare Rodrigues Silvestre, was working in a nursing home for three years when she undertook a course with Housing Rights to become a Housing Champion. The Lithuanian native provides advice to fellow members of migrant communities in Dungannon where she says social housing is in short supply and a lot of private rented accommodation is high in price and low in quality. “It’s easier to access those communities: you know where to find them, how to talk with them, they trust you more. I remember the very first time I came to the Housing Rights course, we had a lot of booklets and different names – social housing, private rental, eligibilities – and I thought there’s no way I can learn, I will end up just making a fool of myself. But as you go through the course, plus practical experiences, you end up understanding. That was amazing for me.” Four years later Gintare is well placed to explain some of the most pressing housing issues faced by fellow migrant families, and migrant women in particular. “Sometimes subconsciously they feel less entitled to good quality housing. They’re happy they found somewhere to stay at all and sometimes feel they shouldn’t complain. “For example, there was this single lady. She had her landlord coming in whenever he wanted or he would give the keys to people to fix something. She would come back from work and maybe everyday there were people inside her house. So she was very

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worried. We explained that no way can he come in whenever he wants or give the keys to whoever he wants without you knowing. She was really surprised about that. Maybe it was hard as well for her to find a tenancy and maybe she had that sense of ‘that’s his house and I should be grateful’.” Gintare explains that migrant women struggle far more than their male counterparts to secure private rented accommodation because they are more likely to be single parents. “Nobody says that’s why you’re turned down but indirectly you can understand that landlords think okay that’s the only source of income coming into the family and if something happened I’m going to be here with this tenant who’s not paying rent. And I would say usually single mums would be even less vocal about something happening in a way that it shouldn’t because they don’t have that support.” “In another case, a lady was trying to get repairs fixed for five years. There was running water but only in the bathroom – and no hot water. We explained what action she could take and she got her repairs but it’s just about having that advice. That just because you’re a migrant doesn’t mean you have lesser entitlement. This sense of ‘lesser entitlement’ also has ramifications for housing benefits. From her experience, Gintare estimates that 20 to 30 percent of landlords are not registered, meaning their tenants can be left with no tenancy

agreement. “If you apply for universal credit and you are the main tenant but you don’t have a tenancy agreement or the letter from your landlord you cannot get that housing element.” Some tenants are left between a rock and a hard place: afraid to make demands of the landlord but unable to get the benefits they need without a tenancy agreement. What is needed, Gintare said, is private rental accommodation inspectors: “Someone would come every three or six months and look at the quality and see is there really a rent agreement.” She also wants to see more bilingual staff in offices such as Jobs and Benefits. “If you don’t help that person in that early stage, those situations spiral.You need to explain to people their rights for housing so they know it for the future and they feel more confident. They contribute better to society whenever they are in a good place themselves.” Gintare said that while she hasn’t yet encountered any such cases, many migrants fear that after Brexit “they’re not going to be chosen for private rented accommodation if there is also a native person applying.” There is fear that landlords lacking clarity around the proposed migration points system will opt for a “safer option”. Unlike in England, landlords here cannot legally ask tenants about their migration status ‘but in real life it’s just human to human interaction and whatever landlords want they are asking and people don’t know their rights’.


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Sipho Sibanda: ‘People need to be recognised as refugees as early as possible’

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If you are in the country for 15 years and maybe for 12 of those years you’re destitute – you’re eating out of bins,couch surfing or sleeping on the street – how will you turn around and go into employment? Zimbabwean refugee Sipho Sibanda tells Megan McDermott why she helped to form a campaign group after witnessing the effects of destitution on migrants in Northern Ireland imbabwean refugee Sipho Sibanda does not hold back when it comes to describing the destitution experienced by many asylum seekers in Northern Ireland. “If you are in the country for 15 years and maybe for 12 of those years you’re destitute – you’re eating out of bins, couch surfing or sleeping on the street – how will you turn around and go into employment? You’re literally a shell,” she said. Sipho, who came here to seek asylum five years ago, was so shocked by what she found that she and a group of fellow asylum seekers started to raise concerns about uninhabitable accommodation for those who were seeking refuge. They went on to help form the campaign group Housing4All. During this time she discovered that some of her friends in the group had no homes at all. “Two guys in the group were destitute and we didn’t know.” Asylum seekers, whose cases are still pending, can receive accommodation and financial aid from the state. But once their claim is denied, public funds are removed and access to nearly all homeless accommodation is barred, which leaves many of them in destitution as they struggle in their efforts to remain here. Sipho feels that this is intentional. “If you don’t get your asylum claim cleared at the beginning, which is one or two percent, a lot of people will go through destitution. Many, who have gone through destitution, do become recognised as refugees at some point. This shows you how bad it is. It’s

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embedded into the system that people becomes destitute.” When she got her refugee status, Sipho took a job as the coordinator of the End Destitution project with Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR). Over the past two years the group has run a pilot scheme to house four destitute migrant women in two private flats provided by the housing association Choice. “Women were extremely vulnerable compared to men. Some were finding themselves in ‘relationships’ that were just not appropriate because they needed a place to live. We decided to accommodate women first,” said Sipho. She described the vicious cycle which destitute asylum seekers experience, as they bounce from one solicitor to another, and unable to properly invest time or energy in their case due to their chaotic and uncertain living situation. She shared a response from one of the women housed by the project: “I lived with friends, those that could take me in. I lived like a child who had to

obey their rules. “I had no choice. If they wanted heating off at certain times that’s how it was. I feel free now, I can come and go as I please. I can think about my case and send and receive letters. I have an address now.” Both Choice and the Communities Foundation paid to house the four women for a year, including utilities and living expenses at a total cost of just under £37,000. “It’s not a lot of money to accommodate people and it shouldn’t be up to all those organisations,” said Sipho. “It should be up to the government. And people should be recognised as refugees as early as possible. Most asylum seekers don’t even want to be in asylum accommodation. I know a lot of asylum seekers who are volunteering and these are people that could be paying tax at the end of the day. “It’s a system that’s made to scare people away from coming to the UK. They think if we squeeze them enough something will come out of it. But it’s just creating extremely broken people. People can’t give back to the community at that stage. If you’re not thick-skinned enough you won’t survive the system.” PPR is currently approaching other housing associations to see if the project can be extended. By their last count in 2015 they found that there were approximately 100 destitute asylum seekers in Northern Ireland at any given time.


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Iulia Picu-Iwaisi works as a trainer with the TIDES project Dialogues About Race and Ethnicity

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If it’s done right, an encounter ‘between cultures’ would be two mums from different parts of the world sharing the frustration and bliss of raising toddlers Iulia Picu-Iwaisi explains to Megan McDermott how questions about ‘identity’ often get in the way of real conversations ow do we embrace new identities in a society where ‘us and them’ is such a deeply rooted mindset? This is the question I put to Iulia Picu-Iwaisi, a trainer with the TIDES project Dialogues About Race and Ethnicity. Working with both traditional communities as well as black and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, it aims to foster good relations while tackling biases and false information. “If you say the word ‘identity’ to a five-year-old here they will know what you mean,” said Iulia. “There are already these patterns here of seeing the world as ‘us and the other’. So the newcomer element comes in over that. Some of the concerns that were already in the two communities transfer to new people coming in, putting more stress on our resources. They were against each other and now they turn towards the next potential enemy.” Iulia is conscious that many communities she does training with are tired of the “peace and diversity agenda”. “When you come in the room you are immediately the tree hugger. So they’re not going to respond well to political correctness, embracing diversity, or having to like everyone. “I have heard loads of things that would be seen as completely xenophobia or bigoted. But I make it very clear that they’re entitled to their concerns. Things like, ‘I’ve heard of someone from that

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country who’s living on benefits and they’re able to claim much more than a local’. And when they give me the actual source of information, so many times it's Facebook. So we figure out where they’re at and we start from there.” Originally from Romania, Iulia has been steeped in peace and diversity work here for the past seven years – first volunteering with the Corrymeela Community before eventually settling in north Belfast with her husband and two young children. She said it’s hard to see herself as a migrant. “Mostly because it is quite volatile. All I have to do is take a flight back to my home country and suddenly my identity label changes. I’d not be playing on the guest/host dynamic anymore.” She feels that opportunities for locals and newcomers to bond over and communally tackle common issues such as mental health or single parent support can be easily lost when the focus is put on them simply getting along as a local and a migrant. “For example, a refugee woman has issues because she’s a refugee but then there are also challenges because she’s a woman, because she’s financially unstable, because maybe her mental health is not great. I’ve never heard anyone from the BME community say: ‘Hi, my name is Sarah and I’m a refugee.’ That’s a big label that other people put on them but for them it’s

just the immigration status. Her challenges might be more related to the fact that she’s a single mother. But the other will always see her as a refugee. So when you start the discussion about good relations, the different challenges that people have in their lives get reduced to only their nationality or their immigration status.” She explained that even with the best of intentions, our attempts to embrace different cultures often involves asking people to ‘perform’ their ethnicity through traditional clothing, dance or cooking in a way that doesn’t reflect the reality of their daily lives and interests. “Even in the dialogues I have with people from BAME communities, they think that’s what they have to do: that they have to have culture days. They can’t just meet with Elaine from across the street and talk about recipes or movies. It’s really tiring.” Beyond such formal cultural displays, Iulia would like to see more one-to-one human interaction. “If it’s done right, an encounter ‘between cultures’ would be two mums from different parts of the world sharing the frustration and bliss of raising toddlers. A hijab-wearing Sudanese refugee casually wearing her long Adidas dress and talking to young girls from Ballybeen about her passion for wrestling shows. These are real life samples that I had the privilege to be part of in my work.”


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Happiness: Paula Montes de Oca Alda on the streets of Belfast

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Even though I don’t live there any more, Belfast will always be my other home, my other family ... Paula Montes de Oca Alda, who was born in Spain, lived and worked in Northern Ireland – from October 2012 to May 2018. Now living in the Canary Islands, Paula looks back at the highs and lows of her life in Belfast his story begins in an airport, or perhaps a couple of months earlier, when I decided to emigrate to Belfast. I feel privileged because it was my decision and I say this because, after almost seven years of life, work and activism in Belfast, I met many immigrant women with very different realities and stories. Sometimes emigration does not become a choice or a personal option. Many times we put all immigrant women into a sack, but if you look a little closer you will see a very clear line between expat and immigrant women. This division is marked by the colour of your skin, nationality, accent, sexual choice – among other things. At the beginning of this line would be a US woman, white and Christian. At the other end we would have a Roma woman who barely speaks English, without a specific homeland; or a Somali refugee woman, black, Muslim – whose stay depends on her husband’s visa. Depending on where you are on the line will somehow shape your experiences of life in Belfast. These dividing lines are not only found in Northern Ireland, they are found also on almost every corner of the planet. I have always said that Belfast is a generous city, which offers a lot of experiences – if you open up to it. This city made me grow and overcome limits and fears. Sometimes it can be hard, sometimes paternalistic, but its kind face makes you fall in love with it. My experience as a southern European woman, with my peculiar accent, was very colourful. Like every immigrant I had a reason for this journey. In my case it was professional – the economic crisis in Spain had made it very

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Support: Paula taking part in an International Women’s Day event in Belfast difficult to find a good job. But being honest, the idea of living an adventure in another country was also part of my decision. Finding a job was one of the hardest parts. I felt that it didn't matter how many Masters or postgraduates I had. This is a common experience among women in the southern countries (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal). Of course, there are women immigrants who get good jobs, but they do it with a lot of effort and tenacity. I will give you a couple of examples that I personally experienced. There was a course at a job centre, funded by the EU, which I had every right to attend, but when I asked to apply, I felt I was hindered in many ways. After dealing with several obstacles, I eventually found the right person who allowed me to apply. Another memory that comes to mind is that several local organisations told me, that sadly, it would be easier for me to find a job in England or the Republic of Ireland, as Northern Ireland preferred to hire local

people because of their recent history. But as I mentioned earlier my decision to emigrate to Northern Ireland was also related to my desire for adventure, to get to know other lands and their people. And this is the part that tips the scales in Belfast’s favour. This city has wonderful people.Their generosity and the network of support they have created fascinated me. Spaces full of freedom, support, respect and love. The Friendship Club was my first place of connection, where I met my first friends, some of whom are part of my ‘family’. The geography of the city is full of these ‘lungs’ that make you feel that you have arrived home. Some of these places include the pubs, The Sunflower and Kellys, and community centres that had a lot of activities that made you feel part of the neighbourhood. But the place that really captivated me was Giros, a vegan café run by volunteers. The feeling of walking through those doors was like the traveller arriving in Sangrila. Everyone was welcome, no matter where you came from. Anyone could propose activities such as cooking, and playing music. I feel very proud to have been part of this community that organised dinners and events to raise funds for worthy causes. A place where if you didn’t have any money for dinner it didn’t matter,. That’s why we are in this crazy world, to help each other. I could write many more things about my experience – some wonderful and others less so, but all of them made me grow as a person and opened my heart in different ways. Even though I don’t live there any more, Belfast will always be my other home, my other family.


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Former prime ministers David Cameron and Theresa May

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When I get an asthma attack I need attention immediately. I need medicine through the veins, not through the mouth. But they didn’t know this and I was deteriorating, my breathing was going Zimbabwean Norma Nyamambi tells Megan McDermott how her life was in peril after being made destitute in Northern Ireland under the ‘hostile environment’ introduced by former prime minister Theresa May when she was Home Secretary hen Norma Nyamambi’s asylum application was denied she had no idea that the severity of her case would ultimately contribute to the overhaul of healthcare laws in Northern Ireland. Norma fled the dangers of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe 10 years ago and on arrival here she was given the assistance provided to all asylum seekers – accommodation, access to a GP, and an allowance of about £35 a week. However, her case was later denied on the basis that the court did not believe she was from Zimbabwe and all assistance was stripped from her. “They were just refusing everybody,” she said. This ‘hostile environment’ was a phrase first used in 2012 by former Home Secretary Theresa May to describe the atmosphere she intended to create for illegal immigrants in the UK who subsequently found the uncertainty of their immigration status encroaching into nearly every aspect of their lives. For Norma, who suddenly found herself destitute, it was the barrier to GP care that was most serious. “They made a very big mistake because I was born with severe asthma. So when they took away my doctor my asthma went viral.” Unable to renew her inhaler prescription from her GP, Norma regularly ended up in A&E and eventually in intensive care. “When I get an asthma attack I need attention immediately. I need medicine through the veins, not through the mouth. But they didn’t know this and I was deteriorating, my breathing was going.” Norma was driven to the hospital by her friend, Liz Griffith, who was then a policy officer with Law Centre NI. “They told Liz ‘she’s going to die’. She screamed, ‘she needs a doctor immediately’. The doctor came and put the medicine through my veins and immediately I was fine. We went home and

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Support: Norma has been helped through her involvement with the Belfast Friendship Club Liz went to see her board members.” In 2013, the Law Centre and a coalition of civil society organisations took Norma’s case and a number of others to Stormont’s Health Committee and eventually managed to change the regulations in 2015 to allow destitute asylum seekers to access GP care. With her medical condition under control, Norma continues to fight her asylum case, relying on the help of a community she has built through years of volunteering in Belfast, including the Friendship Club in the Common Grounds Community Centre. “This place helped me not to get depressed. When I lost my house and became a destitute, I took my bags to the Friendship Club. We were sitting at the table and I said ‘I don't have a place to live’. And a guy stood up and said ‘Norma, you can live with me’. I lived with those people for all these years. I feel like Friendship Club, that’s where my home is.

“It’s like God knew that I was going to be destitute and there was people waiting for me. But the thing that makes me speak out is that other people are suffering.” Now living with her partner but still barred from accessible employment, Norma continues to volunteer with South Belfast Roundtable, facilitating workshops and raising awareness of asylum seeker destitution. “People say ‘oh these people are here to get money’. I tell them listen, I have never got money.” Norma would like to see a campaign to end destitution, saying “people come here fearing their country and then here they traumatise them more”. She says that many destitute asylum seekers, particularly those who don’t speak English “are afraid even to go to the Home Office. They live in this life of fear. But me, I’m not afraid anymore. All these years that I’ve suffered, they made me very strong. They made me who I am.”


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I talk to them about Sudan, about the schools in my country, so they realise we’re the same as them, that we are human beings Heba Hussain tells Megan McDermott about her experiences of racism, including a terrifying encounter on a bus in Belfast eba Hussain came to Belfast from Sudan in 2016 to seek asylum with her four children. In Sudan she had studied law, but her situation here meant she was unable to practise. “Basically I’m starting from scratch. It’s a bit difficult but nothing is impossible.” But when she took on a role as a typist for human rights lawyer Pádraigín Drinan she was once again drawn into the legal world, this time focusing on Northern Ireland’s ongoing review of hate crime legislation. Ms Drinan took her to meet the man leading the review, Judge Desmond Marrinan. The judge wanted to hear Heba’s experience of racial hate crime, which has now surpassed sectarian hate crime in Northern Ireland. “I just laugh,” said Heba. “I don’t give them any reaction. It’s just the media and the idea that a Muslim woman with a hijab means terrorist and all these things.” Heba then recalled a terrifying encounter she had with a man on the Ormeau Road in Belfast. “Everytime I got on the bus he would sit near me and talk very quietly. He would say, ‘I’m going to kill you and I know where you live’. He made me terrified because of my kids. The moment I saw him I would get off the bus.” A woman working in a cafe next to the bus stop eventually realised what was happening and intervened. “She talked to the driver and told him about the man. He said: ‘Sir, if ever this lady or any other lady complains about you again, you will never

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get on buses in Northern Ireland again, I will make sure of that.’ “After that, whenever he would see me on the bus, he would get off it. So it worked.” Heba said that many migrant women are afraid to go to the police about hate crime for fear that making complaints about the local community will label them as troublemakers with the Home Office and jeopardise their asylum status. “And most of the time the offenders know that you won’t go to the police. They know that you are scared. That’s why they choose you.” Heba said that for those brave enough to call the police, it’s essential that these incidents are accurately described as hate crime. “When the police come and you can’t speak English and exactly explain what happened to you, they will just write down ‘anti-social behaviour’. So when you go to

court it won’t help you. The name they give the incident is really important.” Perhaps the most challenging aspect is when these incidents involve children and teenagers. Heba said she knows of one family in west Belfast that has about 21 police cases in a couple of months because of hate crime. “They throw eggs at their windows, they throw rocks at the house, they attacked her kids, they urinated on the windows of her house. They are all teenagers – so when the police come they will say: ‘Oh we can’t do anything’.” She said many migrant mothers often feel unsure how to confront the racism that their kids experience from other children. “Sometimes their children keep it inside them because they don’t want their mother to worry. I still remember when we came at the beginning, one boy asked my son, ‘Where did you get these Adidas shoes? Is it from the tax my mum and dad pay and your mum takes it as a benefit?’” Heba has participated in awareness workshops in schools which she feels are vital to stop prejudices trickling down from one generation to another. “You know from the questions the kids ask what their parents are telling them at home. Some of them say ‘Do you have money in your country? Do you have houses?’ They are silly questions but we are happy to answer them. “I talk to them about Sudan, about the schools in my country, so they realise we’re the same as them, that we are human beings.”


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Campaigner: Nigerian native Aderonke Ado-Imoisil at the Belfast Mela festival

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Language barriers can be a major obstacle for those women who do seek help over domestic violence Aderonke Ado-Imoisil tells Megan McDermott about the challenges she faces trying to get African women to report abuse to the PSNI deronke Ado-Imoisil is the founder of the African Women Organisation NI, and as a Nigerian native, she sits as the only black and minority ethnic representative on the PSNI’s Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence Independent Advisory Group. She said: “I don’t have any problem with my papers. That’s why I feel so free to work with the police.” But she acknowledged that other women in her community do not feel so at ease with the force. “Some of them believe that when they report cases the PSNI will try to find out their immigration status. From there it gets to the Home Office and they get into trouble and probably deported. So many of them keep quiet.” Indeed the UK’s new domestic abuse bill currently making its way through the House of Commons has been criticised by multiple migrant women’s groups for failing to establish a firewall between those reporting a crime and any investigation into their immigration status. “I’m still trying to build confidence with African women in the PSNI,” Aderonke said. “But it’s like the support they give is more concentrated on locals. That’s what our women believe. I’m trying to make them understand that the police are for everyone. To understand that if there is some issue with domestic violence it’s not something you can handle on your own.” Aderonke, who has lived in Northern Ireland for the last 10 years, said she has already arranged for increased community engagement from the PSNI. “Before the

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lockdown we had a project to bring the PSNI to discuss with our community members how they can engage more with us on domestic violence issues. However, she feels a dedicated community referral team would be a real gamechanger. “If they set up our own community organisation as a referral point it would let a woman have more opportunity and freedom to speak out, and talk to someone who understands where she is coming from.” But Aderonke is frank about the fact that women are also often silenced by the community itself. “Sometimes the response they get from their own family members is even worse than what they’re going through at home. Because when it comes to the African community and the issue of domestic violence, they tend to see it as a traditional norm which they have to endure. It’s a big issue among the community but they’re not talking about it” She said the language barrier can be a

major obstacle for those women who do seek help. “When you don’t speak English and there is information given out to the community on how they can seek help for domestic violence, these women will just look away because they don’t understand it. So I raised that with the advisory group: if they can go the extra mile and make campaigns in other languages such as Arabic.” The process for many migrant women seeking support for domestic abuse can be complex in any language. Those who come to Northern Ireland on a partner visa have no access to public funds, barring them from the majority of women’s shelters. Such women can apply for a destitution domestic violence concession, giving them three months support while they apply for a visa independent of their partner. But the addition of a language barrier to such a bureaucratic process can be problematic. “I know of a woman who decided to take this up on her own,” Aderonke said. “She went to Women’s Aid and they got her all the assistance she needed. But she was able to get such support because she can assert herself in the English language. But we are also talking about women who can’t understand English, who can’t express themselves. It’s a big issue.” “It would be great to help them out because some of them are ready to come out and let you understand what they are going through in their own home. If the government and organisations can review their policies within the BAME or African community it would go a long way.”


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COMMENT

An uncertain future for new migrants Les Allamby, the Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, looks at the UK’s plan to introduce a new points-based immigration system s we all grapple with the Coronavirus crisis, the government has made welcome public expenditure commitments to help keep the economy afloat like never before. The contrast between some of its previous approaches have been stark. In March 2020’s budget, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced his intention to increase the fees payable by new migrants to access the NHS once the United Kingdom completes the transition period and fully leaves the EU at the end of this year. From that date an adult arriving to work in the United Kingdom will pay a levy for NHS health care support of £624 while any children will be charged a levy of £470. The current rates are £400 per adult and £300 per child for those from outside the EU and no levy for EU citizens arriving to work here. This is part of the government’s wider plan to introduce a points-based immigration system which will apply to new migrants from 2021 whether coming from the EU or elsewhere. Those plans will provide a new system of points for specific skills, qualifications, salary levels and specific recognition for the shortage of specific professions. The qualifications and salary thresholds appear designed to keep lower paid migrants out of the scheme. While this could be attributed to a desire to end low pay, there are some who are more cynical and believe the motivation will to be combine this with tighter rules around seeking work within the social security system to fill lower paid posts. Take social care, for example, an area where the private sector has traditionally relied on migrants from abroad. Social care employers could continue to rely on such labour through paying higher wages, recruiting people with better qualifications and passing the cost on to people in residential and nursing homes. To do so would mean charging higher fees which will often be picked up, at least in part, by local authorities. Will central

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The tightening of access to support appears to bear little recognition that migrant workers face the same contingencies as other workers, including being made redundant or falling ill

government provide the extra funding? Based on the experience of the past decade the prospect of such an approach seems remote. Moreover, the charging of higher fees for migrants to access the health service suggest no such intention. The proposed new immigration arrangements suggest no solution for this conundrum other than a vague hope of retaining existing migrant staff and recruiting from local labour. At the time of the new immigration policy the Chief Executive of NHS Employers, Danny Mortimer, signalled that “it is of great concern that it provides no obvious solution for social care”. The recent history of the treatment of EU and other migrants is not a welcoming backdrop. The arrangements for access to public services such as housing and social security benefits has been inexorably tightened through immigration rules and habitual residence and right-toreside tests applied to certain means-tested benefits. All of this has been done despite voluminous evidence that migrant workers are a net gain to the public purse by paying more in taxes and National Insurance then consuming in public services. The tightening of access to support appears to bear little recognition that migrant workers face the same contingencies as other workers, including being made redundant, falling ill, becoming pregnant or having to take on family care responsibilities. The impact is stark, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced a report on Destitution in the UK in April 2016. It found one and a quarter million people had been destitute in the previous year with migrants facing a disproportionate likelihood of destitution. No one knows how society will change when the Coronavirus pandemic is finally over. The hope is that we emerge as a kinder and more welcoming society. One litmus test of the change is how society and government treats and appreciates existing and future migrants.


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A Syrian mother and her child at a refugee camp in Lebanon

Syrian refugees deserve to be treated with dignity Ann Allan looks at five key challenges facing women who flee their homes hat makes a woman living in Syria pack up her belongings and move to a foreign country? In my research for the VIEW edition on the Voices of Migrant Women I have become more aware of why they had, in many cases, little choice. The United Kingdom has accepted more than 10,000 Syrian refugees in the past two-and-a-half years. This response was prompted by the awful pictures of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose tiny body was washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015. Analysis by the BBC indicates that in 2016 Scotland took four times as many Syrian refugees as Greater London, while Northern Ireland had taken over 300 more than the whole of the east of England. Many of these migrants are escaping the war in Syria but some, mostly women, will have other reasons to leave. Kristin Myers from Concern USA lists the five unique challenges facing Syrian refugee women:

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Violence • Many Syrian refugee men are unable to find work and provide for their families. As a result, their traditional role within the family is being disrupted, leading to stress and lowered self-esteem. As men, facing mounting poverty and desperation, their frustration has increasingly turned into physical violence towards their wives. Women have reported that stress has also led

them to be violent towards their children.

Child Brides • Even before the war, around one in 10 Syrian marriages involved a girl under the age of 18. Tragically, the ongoing conflict and refugee crisis has caused this number to increase sharply. Marriage is now more frequently seen as a way of providing for daughters when there are few other options, as well as offering some protection from sexual violence.

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growing feelings of isolation and desperation, often leads to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

Loss of Hope • The war in Syria war is now going on for nearly nine years. While almost all refugees want to return home, their belief that they will be able to go back has steadily disappeared. Many refugees see the conflict as getting worse. Uncertainty about the future has caused many of the refugees to be engulfed by despair.

• The UN estimates that women lead a quarter of Syrian refugee households in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt which means that many of them are forced to take on the hardships and responsibilities of looking after their families while not coping with dwindling resources. While it is difficult for Syrian men to find work in host communities, it is even harder for women, leaving them jobless and desperate. Many women have been forced to turn to prostitution to make money for food and rent. Others engage in what is termed “survival sex” – in exchange for food, clothing, and shelter.

How sad is it that when they are given asylum here they often find themselves living in inadequate housing, receiving low wages and racism being directed against them. We need to remember that they are living in a strange country with many of them having left loved ones behind. They need to be treated with dignity and allowed to settle in an environment that is peaceful and welcoming towards them. Most of them hope that some day they can return to their homeland. Let us try and make their stay a positive experience.

Suicidal thoughts

More information: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk43826163

• Syrian refugee women – particularly those without adult male family members – are an increasingly vulnerable population, and fear of sexual assault is keeping many of them indoors. This insecurity, as well as

https://www.concernusa.org/stor y/five-unique-challenges-facingsyrian-refugee-women/


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And as we pick up the pieces after this crisis and start to shape a new normal, we argue it is crucial that the voices of the most marginalised, including refugee and migrant women, are part of the dialogue By Kate Campbell and Chris McCartney – from the ‘Voice of Migrant Women’ group ocial distancing, Covid-19 and shielding – terms we hadn’t heard of a couple of weeks ago now dominate our lives. As we write, society has been thrown into tumult and much of what we took for granted has been turned on its head. What will we learn from this crisis, and will things ever be the same again? It’s much too soon to say. But one early lesson is that those already living precarious lives are also most at risk in a crisis. Amid the talk of zero hours workers, those in poor health, workers in vital public services or families reliant on a flawed benefits system, there has been little attention to the impact on Northern Ireland’s small but growing population of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Like their neighbours, they are trying to stay safe, protect their families, keep children stuck at home occupied, and get hold of basic supplies. In many cases they navigate these struggles without savings, family networks, often in insecure or overcrowded housing, sometimes with limited English. Almost three years ago, when the VSB Foundation and Pilgrim Trust started to explore issues facing refugee and migrant women, we had no idea the world would face an emergency on this scale. Through small grants to six organisations doing practical and flexible work on the ground, the Voice of Migrant Women project has sought to better understand and meet the challenges facing this community. Together, these small projects have worked with 300 women from more than 30 countries. Their approach has been varied, always driven by what women say they most need and value. Some have had regular group sessions – as simple as to

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Call for unity: Kate Campbell, left, and Chris McCartney gather for a cuppa to tackle isolation or practice English, or seminars on housing and education systems to empower the women to claim their rights. Others are providing tailored casework supporting women to unravel a complex set of issues. There are innovative ideas such as photography and art projects, supporting women to explore social enterprise, residential gatherings and space for women to share their skills with each other, running their own classes. We have discovered it is not uncommon for migrant women to experience a number of difficulties simultaneously: trauma, separation, limited English, insecure housing, uncertain asylum status, poverty, isolation and lack of support networks. Each issue can make it harder to address the others, without the right support. Often generic services are inaccessible to refugee and migrant women, whether due to a lack of available interpreters, cultural issues or simply because the bus fare to an advice centre is too much when you are living on £37 a week. We have also witnessed a wealth of skills and resilience within these communities. Almost without exception, asylum seekers would rather earn a living from their hard work, training and talents than live on meagre benefits, denied the

right to employment for years. And these kind of hostile environment policies are to all our detriment – today there are experienced doctors and nurses unable to work in Northern Ireland and join the fight against Covid-19 because of these rules. If the coronavirus crisis has highlighted one thing, it is how interconnected we are, how our health and wellbeing are reliant on the wellbeing of our neighbours and that when those among us are living precarious lives on the edge, it makes us all vulnerable. It has also shown how mountains can be moved rapidly in policy and funding terms to protect those most at risk, to house the homeless, to ensure people have a basic income and enough food to eat and to invest in frontline public services. We have seen individual efforts and community responses that seemed unimaginable just weeks ago. It is important we don’t return to business as usual. It is vital we come out of this stronger, more united and with a new sense of what is really valuable to our communities. And as we pick up the pieces after this crisis and start to shape a new normal, we argue it is crucial that the voices of the most marginalised, including refugee and migrant women, are part of the dialogue.


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COMMENT

Vital need to protect migrant women Maria McCloskey, immigration solicitor with the Children’s Law Centre, says the coronavirus pandemic presents specific challenges for refugees and asylum seekers hen I take time to reflect on my situation, as a woman who was born and has lived in a liberal, ‘developed’ country, I am so grateful for all the privileges in my life. My upbringing, my education, my career, my (somewhat modest yet beautifully cosy and comfortable) home, and many other things besides. I know that I often take it all for granted, and I think it’s fair to say that many people in similar circumstances do too.Yet for so many people around the world, these privileges are not guaranteed and are often precarious or even entirely non-existent. While I had previously undertaken volunteering projects in Brazil and Mozambique, it was only when I volunteered in Calais in 2018 that I really started to comprehend the hardship and plight of many migrants who, for whatever reason, have fled their home countries. During my time with Care4Calais, I assisted with daily distributions of food, clothing and toiletries. The refugees, who formed orderly queues and gratefully received the handouts, were living in makeshift camps in unused industrial estates, under bridges, and in other secluded areas around the city. Some even slept in trees due to their fear of the French police, who reportedly destroyed sleeping bags and tents, among other worrying acts. In my first few days I noticed that I did not see very many women refugees on the streets of Calais. This might have been due to their fear of the authorities in France, or the nature of the journeys undertaken or attempted from Calais to the UK. I often think of what daily life must be like in a refugee camp; where there is usually no running water, very little shelter, and almost no privacy. For women and girls, what most of us consider to be basic hygiene needs simply cannot be met. I

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It was only when I volunteered in Calais in 2018 that I really start to comprehend the hardship and plight of many migrants who, for whatever reason, have fled their home countries

think too of the risks that females face of being assaulted and of falling victim to human trafficking and sexual exploitation. In the midst of the current global pandemic, there have been reports of outbreaks of the coronavirus in refugee camps in Europe and in other parts of the world. Social distancing in such conditions is virtually impossible, as is the ability to keep hands and surfaces disinfected to any meaningful degree. An extremely concerning situation for women in our own communities, during the government restrictions on movement, are the reports of an increase in domestic violence. For migrant women whose immigration status is precarious, this presents further difficulties, given that many applications by women for asylum or leave to remain are automatically attached to their husband’s application. For other migrant women who do not face the threat of domestic violence and whose immigration status is guaranteed for now, they are nevertheless disadvantaged if their leave is – as with many types of leave to remain – on the condition that they will have ‘no recourse to public funds’. This means that the financial packages offered by the government to help those in need as a result of Covid-19 are simply not available to those who have such conditions attached to their leave. While the fear and restrictions surrounding this global health crisis will eventually ease, it has brought into sharp focus some of the additional challenges faced by refugees and migrant women. It is a stark reminder that the UK remains a hostile environment. With Brexit looming, and given the anti-immigrant rhetoric that was reported during the emergence of the pandemic, it is clear that the work of those seeking to ensure the protection of rights for migrant women is as vital as ever.


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A number of women have spoken about the difficulty of recounting traumatic experiences in their home country in front of their children as they attempt to get asylum in Northern Ireland

Bid to set up creche facilities to help mums tell harrowing stories By Christine McCartney “When you remember what happened you feeling sad and cry – I prefer the kids don’t see that.” These are the words of a mother of three who recently made an application for asylum in Belfast. She had to bring her children to interviews that would determine her asylum application, often lasting several hours and during which she was questioned about the traumatic experiences that led her to flee her home country. And she is not alone. It’s hard to say how many single parents go through the asylum process in Northern Ireland each year – regional figures are not released. A group of women personally affected by these issues have taken on the task of finding out more and campaigning for improvements. They are based at SAWA women’s space – a project by and for refugee women supported by Homeplus NI. SAWA offer classes, activities, advice services and the opportunity to connect with each other, and in the future. hopes to provide a creche. A survey by SAWA showed several families had been affected by having to take their kids to asylum interviews, and the impact that it had on them.

Some women reported interview lengths of four hours – naturally children became bored, hungry, unsettled and upset. Women said it was difficult to concentrate on the crucial interview as they were attending to their children and trying to keep them occupied. Very distressingly, a number of women talked about the difficulty of recounting traumatic experiences in their home country in front of their children – or being faced with the choice of withholding details of what they suffered to protect their children, potentially undermining their asylum applications. No woman should be faced with this dilemma. Another mum of four shared her experience: “It was very difficult, my daughter was hungry and was crying a lot. When she cried it confused me and distracted me. Also my older children could understand and I was forced to share information in front of them which they did not know. This affected my children as I had previously hid details about what happened.” The survey also revealed that women who had recently arrived and were living on a tiny allowance each week had neither the money nor the social and family networks to arrange their own childcare. It doesn’t have to be this way. In 2007, the asylum interview centre in Cardiff

became the first in the United Kingdom to set aside a room and provide childcare during asylum interviews for single parents. In 2009, an evaluation showed substantial benefits for applicants as well as the UK Border Agency, as there were fewer delays, interview cancellations and less risk of relevant information being withheld in interview and revealed later on appeal. At this time the Home Office stated that it hoped to roll out the Wales pilot nationwide. It was not until 2018 that childcare provision was provided at all eight interview centres throughout the UK apart from Northern Ireland. Belfast remains the only interview centre without any childcare provision. Home Office officials have told SAWA that they intend to provide childcare here too for single parents of pre-school children, but a meeting to discuss provision and press for its implementation has been postponed due to the current Coronavirus crisis. A spokesperson for SAWA said: “We want to keep this issue alive and look at how we can make sure Belfast catches up with childcare available elsewhere as soon as is practical. A lack of childcare raises huge human rights, equality and child protection issues for the Home Office and we’d like to work with them to find solutions.”


VIEW, Issue 55, 2020

www.viewdigital.org

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Please contact Advice NI if you have concerns about your rights under the new EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) Four scenarios which show how seriously people could be affected if they do nothing

he current circumstances are extremely challenging for all of us, with access to services and support restricted by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. This concern is heightened for EEA nationals and their family members, whose rights will be affected by Brexit from June 30, 2021. Advice NI continues to offer support to those people throughout the current emergency and urges those still to apply to do so as soon as possible as interruption to services at this time could cause delays in applications. In order to protect their right to continue to live, work and study in the UK, the majority of EEA nationals are required to make an application to the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS). If those eligible apply to the EU Settlement Scheme successfully, settled or pre-settled status will be granted allowing the holder/s to continue living, studying, working in the UK after June 30, 2021. It will also ensure they have access to vital services such as enrolment in education, access to public funds such as benefits and pensions if eligible for them and to travel in and out of the UK. Advice NI, its members and partners have been working hard to support as many eligible people across Northern Ireland as possible to obtain pre-settled or settled status. This support has been provided through digital, face-to-face and telephone advice channels and has focussed especially on our community’s most vulnerable citizens, many of whom face difficulties accessing or navigating an online application or proving eligibility and residency. It is perhaps more important now than ever to provide assistance to those most in need. Anyone making an application to the EUSS, or who is unsure whether they should apply, should call the Freephone helpline on 0800 138 6545 from Monday to Friday between 10am and 4pm. Alternatively, they can email euss@adviceni.net or text EUSS to 66644 to request a call back. We can also provide an interpretation service for those who do not feel confident communicating in English.

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Beatrice has lived in Northern Ireland for over 25 years. She is a Danish national who met and married an Irish man when she was a student. “I’ve lived most of my life in Northern Ireland; my children were born here,” she said. “I don’t think this EUSS requirement to register applies to me. I’m part of my local community already.” Thinking that the requirement to apply to the EUSS applies only to recently arrived EU ‘migrants’, she takes no steps to register for settled status before the deadline (June 30, 2021) expires. In August 2021, Beatrice becomes unwell and after a series of tests is diagnosed with cancer. Her doctor wants to organise hospital treatment. As a preliminary step, Beatrice is asked to demonstrate that she is lawfully in the UK and entitled to free use of NHS services. She is unable to do this as she has not gained ‘settled status’; she is told that she is not entitled to free treatment but must pay for it. Paolo is a Lithuanian national who has lived in Northern Ireland for the last five years; he works in a food factory whenever the work is available. He has limited English and is unaware of the political changes happening in the UK and the need to apply for the new immigration status for EU nationals through the EUSS. In September 2021, his boss tells him there is a vacancy for a supervisor in the factory and encourages him to apply. As part of the application, Paolo must demonstrate that he is lawfully in the UK and entitled to work here. He is

unable to do so and loses both this opportunity and his intermittent employment at the factory. Roman is a Romanian national living in Belfast for over 10 years. A friend has helped him to complete his application to the EUSS. As he has been working in a car wash for cash payments, his DWP tax and National Insurance records are incomplete. He can show he has lived in the UK for at least one year, but doesn’t have the documentary evidence to prove he has been continuously resident here for at least five years. He decides to apply to ‘presettled status’ as it is easier to prove that he is currently in the UK. In 2025, Roman’s presettled status expires. He should have applied for settled status but is unaware that he must do this. He has no legal right to live, work, access health or other services in the UK. Olivia is a Bulgarian national who has lived in Northern Ireland for seven years. Since arriving in the UK she has worked in a local care home. Olivia was advised she was entitled to ‘permanent residence’ – a technical legal term – under EU law (as previously existed) and could get a document from the Home Office to prove this. She made an application for permanent residency and has a document to prove that she has ‘permanent residence’. Thinking that she is protected by this document, Olivia does not apply for settled status under the new EUSS. As a result, from 30 June 2021 she has no legal right to live, work, access health or other services in the UK


Need help with gaining Settlement Status in the UK?

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