“It brought back memories of when they fled their countries, war started and everyone was panicking”

In our latest blog post, Refugee Women of Bristol outreach worker Negat Hussein describes how the charity has had to adapt their work during the pandemic to make sure that the organisation’s members and their families are fed and safe.

Refugee Women of Bristol (RWoB) is a charity organisation that’s run by refugees, for refugees. The charity has been up and running since 2003 and I’ve been involved for more than 10 years. Connecting through food has always been at the heart of our work.

In normal times, we run a drop-in centre and reach out to people with a refugee background, supporting them and making sure that they get their voices heard within the wider society. Our drop-in normally provides English classes, art and crafts, wellbeing workshops, cookery classes, a lunch-club and a crèche for young children. We provide services such as help translating or writing letters, making appointments or filling in forms.

Because of the pandemic we’ve had to switch to phone and online. Many of our members don’t have smart phones – they can’t afford it or they’ve had difficulty getting a contract. So we needed to find a way to work around this. When the lockdown started we called all our 350 members, dividing them among all the staff. We needed to check do individuals have family members? What networks do they have? What is the situation like at home? Do they have food? Do they have nappies? What do they need for their children and themselves? As anyone can imagine this was so much more challenging over the phone than it would be in person.

In the beginning a lot of people didn’t understand what the Government was instructing, what the guidelines were. We had to find interpreters and call back to explain what the Government was saying, and how to keep our members and their children safe. Normally we work with lots of partners to refer our members, but we found that partner organisations were overwhelmed, or closed due to lack of staff.

It is essential that our members know where to go for help. Lots of them have lost their jobs, so we’re helping them with applications for universal credit and making sure they have food vouchers. We have partnered with Aid Box Community to provide food for families.

In May 2019 we launched a project called Mend The Gap and I’m the outreach worker for that. My role is to support BAME women who are recovering from domestic violence. We need to keep regularly checking on these women on a weekly basis. A lot of them have been self-isolating so they can’t get out to find nappies or milk for their children. So we had to arrange food parcels, nappies, milk, whatever they needed basically.

Many of the women I have spoken to have been incredibly stressed and some have had flashbacks and nightmares, triggering recollections of people queuing and empty supermarkets. It brought back memories of when they fled their countries, war started and everyone was panicking and didn’t know what to do, or what was going to happen next. So we had to reassure some of these women who were in real distress that they’re safe, nothing would happen to them.

For me it was difficult to process too. I come from a refugee background, although I was quite young when we fled the war in Eritrea. My family moved to Sweden when I was five and I re-located to the UK when I was 19. But hearing those stories from the members – people walking across the desert in the middle of the night to get to another country, worried for their safety, and their children’s safety – we all felt like we needed some counselling to be able to process their stories.

Through my work I have come across women who I knew had time and wanted to get involved in community cooking. They would come along to the RWoB drop-in session and then start volunteering in the kitchen at different events. That inspired me to set up a social enterprise called Food with a Twist, which involved supporting women in setting up their own business – from how to get food hygiene certificates to how to register with the council. Those things can be hard enough even if you can speak fluent English! I then decided to amalgamate this idea with a friend of mine Altiea who had a similar organisation called Food without Borders. So we decided, let’s do this together. I also work with social enterprise 91 Ways, which aims to connect people from diverse cultures through cookery events.

This work is about empowering the women to build up their confidence. Some of them have been lawyers, doctors or university lecturers where they came from, but because of their status as refugees or asylum seekers, a lack of UK qualifications, or because they’re out of practice, they often find it hard to get back into employment.

Cooking is at the heart of daily life for so many cultures – whatever you do for a living – and it’s a way to connect with other people, sharing your food and your networks. So even if you don’t have a common spoken language, the body expression in reaction to a tasty meal says it all! We cannot wait until we can get back to cooking with our friends in the community, helping refugee women to feel part of something and to feel ownership of their role.

If you would like to donate to support the work of Refugee Women of Bristol, please go to the website.