The Refugee Women Of Bristol

Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

Jasmine spends time with refugee women in Bristol to highlight the importance of their cause.

…the only multi-ethnic, multi-faith charity that is directly governed by refugee women

I’m at the Malcolm X Centre. It’s my first visit and I anxiously walk up the steps towards the group of ladies gathered in huddle at the door. I don’t get very far before I’m approached by someone on the phone, who quickly introduces herself as Negat. She ushers me into a lively room of vibrant women, who are buzzing with energy and charisma.

Within five minutes I’m sat comfortably with my sketchbook and a cup of tea, chatting casually and comparing fitness trackers with the woman next to me. RWOB (Refugee Women of Bristol) is the only multi-ethnic, multi-faith charity that is directly governed by refugee women. The organisation identifies ways around common obstacles, formulates workshops and skill-building sessions to improve the general quality of life, and increases opportunity for the asylum-seeking community in Bristol.

I’m overwhelmed by their warmth and acceptance, and it becomes immediately clear this was not a place for grief or judgement but a place of growth and union. I make three trips in total to RWOB, each time gaining a better insight into why organisations like this are so important.

Warm Up- Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

Warm Up- Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

On my third visit I wait while Negat welcomes some newcomers, before sparing some time to talk to me about the charity. I learn she has a long history within the group, starting initially 11 years ago as a member, before progressing to volunteer, chair, and now co-ordinator. The quantity and background of the women in the group is constantly in motion. ‘When I first started there was a lot or Yugoslavian and Bosnian as there were problems there, and after that there’s been an increase in Somalian, a lot of Arabs, it shifts all the time,’ she tells me. Throughout our chat there is a heavy stress on friendship, and how it is the most evident connection formed here. Refugees often arrive not knowing anybody and with no friends or family- one woman likened it to being ‘a bird in a cage’. ‘They know once they wake up, take the kids to nursery, they have somewhere to come and be alongside others who understand. Everyone provides advice, gain friends, get involved in workshops and just be a part of something. That’s what it is. It’s a woman kind of thing.’

‘They know once they wake up, take the kids to nursery, they have somewhere to come and be alongside others who understand. Everyone provides advice, gain friends, get involved in workshops and just be a part of something. That’s what it is. It’s a woman kind of thing’.

It’s tricky being a woman, from the smaller things like bra underwire poking you in the boob and needing the loo in a jumpsuit, to more serious matters of the gender wage gap and sex trafficking. Sexualised violence has also now been cited as the main reason women and girls are fleeing Syria, it’s a crisis that too many are facing on a daily basis. We’re jumping hurdles to prove our validity and capabilities to a world that is so dismissive. But it’s important to see what’s in place for these women who have fled their homes and been separated from their families when they arrive here. It’s important to know of the great work that’s being done by organisations and individuals to really make a difference.

Somali x Sudan- Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

Somali x Sudanese- Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

Some of the women at the group speak English, some of them don’t speak English, and sometimes watching them it’s almost like a sign language; they still understand each other. Negat informs me they actively help each other with kids and there’s a firm support system at RWOB.  ‘Everyone here is of varied backgrounds and talents,’ she says. ‘If you’re not great at sewing and somebody else is, they teach you. And vice versa; it’s about give and take.’ The language classes and conversation groups that are run here build core skills and increase the ability to communicate with one another. The English women here give people the chance to talk to them and practise their speaking skills, they read with people and give up their time to do this. The classes go through every day necessities like going to the doctor, catching the bus, things you need to feel comfortable doing as a human. This organisation not only acts as a support network but is also very much about movement.

A lot of us come from a culture where songs, dance and poetry are big things.  You sing when you cook, you dance when you’re all together, and I think once you move here, it slowly dies out.

I’m invited along to draw a dance event the group is putting on. However, the energy in the room is so palpable, I soon found myself throwing all kinds of shapes to zumba and some lively Peruvian music; stiff limbs going everywhere and completely forgetting about the little flow and agility I have. But that’s what it’s all about, a woman tells me. ‘It’s a celebration of music. You don’t need any words and you don’t need to be a great dancer, it’s open for everyone’. It’s clear these events are key for people for staying in touch with their culture whilst in England. ‘We women, we like chatting,’ I’m told while I draw. ‘We like eating and we like dancing. A lot of us come from a culture where songs, dance and poetry are big things. Back home, it’s taken for granted because it’s such a normal thing. You do it from when you are little so naturally it’s a massive part of our lives. You sing when you cook, you dance when you’re all together, and I think once you move here, it slowly dies out. Everyone lives in their little houses or flats, whereas back home people are living as a big family. Whatever we do here, there’s always singing and dancing involved.’

Peru- Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

Peru- Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

Women’s health is also constantly addressed. Doctors come in to talk about different vaccination options for the children, the team leaders are trained to be health advocates and they work actively around FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). They work in partnership with ‘Forward’ in London and the main coordinator works with the charity part time in Bristol. The NHS, Bristol Refugee Rights, and Bristol City Council are also closely involved. Domestic abuse leaflets are printed in five different languages and available to the entire group. A big part of RWOB is about awareness and providing them with knowledge so they know how to talk about barriers, benefits and address legal issues.

Palestinian- Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

Palestinian- Illustration by Jasmine Thompson

International Women’s Day is once a year. I left there thinking every day should be International Women’s day. Refugee Women of Bristol is empowering for women; it provides a safe environment showing unwavering friendship, fun and support. Some come with children, some are traffickers, some come alone and it is truly catered to everyone’s needs. Negat tells me how much she loves her job, and what she loves most is seeing the progress. I learn just how essential meeting people from a different country and culture to you is- you think you know so much then you hear different stories and get a whole new insight altogether. As I sketch, women enquiring about my work constantly approach me. They ask little questions about who I am but focus only on celebrating what I’m doing before them.

We have so much power.

We come through for each other in the harshest of circumstances.

We have a strength and spirit like no other.

If you’re in need of any support or want any more information on the work they’re doing and activities running, find these lovely ladies at Refugee Women of Bristol

And if you feel like getting those creative juices flowing get involved in acta community theatre– an arts/theatre charity engaging everyone in society.

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