Meena Centre brings refugee women and the local community together

At their “Breaking Bread and Boundaries” event last Saturday, Meena Centre announced the opening of a new space to support refugees and asylum seekers. The centre will open in Birmingham on June 20th. At last week’s event, refugee women shared their stories with locals from Handsworth and members of different ethnic local group. 

Originally from Ivory Coast, Agnes Tanoh (second left, photo below) talked about how the Home Office declined her asylum applications 6 times now. Her story was featured in The Guardian 4 years ago, but not much changed since. She still lives on £27 a week, and faces deportation. Agnes said she was taken to the airport 3 times and nearly put on the plane back to her home country. She fled the Ivory Coast 7 years ago, under threat of political persecution, where she says she would even risk her life if she ever went back.

“Sitting at home would make you depressed” – says asylum seeker

An asylum seeker herself, Agnes (second left) now volunteers for Meena Centre.

Before fleeing Africa, Agnes worked as a financial and social affairs adviser for the government. Amidst the political crisis following the 2010 elections, many were imprisoned and faced persecution, including Agnes. When she came out of prison she relied on the stash of money she’d hidden under her sink, as the political police seized everything of value in her house. She used the money to run away.

Now, still unable to get a job due to her asylum seeking status not being clarified, Agnes volunteers for Hope Project, the same organisation which helped her. She says:

Sitting at home would only make you depressed, you have nothing to do. I now volunteer with Meena and with a church in Coventry too. Hope Project provides accommodation for asylum seekers whose support has been stopped, but no official decision was made. They would end up homeless!

I went to prison in Ivory Coast. They put me in a detention centre here for 3 months, because my claim was rejected. When my visa expired, I asked the Home Office for advice. They told me to go back and renew it. I can’t go back there! They made so many mistakes in letters they sent me – once I was from Sri Lanka, once from Morocco.”

The pilot refused to take off with screaming refugee woman

But these stories of asylum seekers are not singular and not new. Local people, involved in activism and present at the event, remember how women were targeted and deported in the 80’s. Mogs, who engaged in such campaigns of helping refugees, shared a story about an Iranian woman taken out of her house at 3 am, without warning. Mogs and her husband were helping this woman with advice at the time. She said the law enforcers took the Iranian women to the airport and placed her by force on the plane. She kept screaming so loudly that the pilot refused to take off. Then they returned her home and left her without any information about what will happen to her next.

Locals in Handsworth talk about a culturally diverse community

From Inside Handsworth, John O’Meara said that, despite being a white British man himself, he lived a nomadic lifestyle himself as a boy, due to his father being in the army. When he and his wife were looking for a place to settle in and raise a family, they chose Handsworth for the cultural diversity. John said:

We felt that these challenges, in the community here, were showing us the future and where we ought to be heading to in terms of diversity.

Another local at the event, Catherine Lawlor, formerly a teacher, also remembered fondly the time she started teaching in Handsworth.

I have been teaching here from the 70s and back then the school system was very open. It felt like a wonderful opportunity to teach English to children of different ethnic backgrounds. First there was the wave of kids from Vietnam, then from Somalia. I learnt a lot from these kids myself!

Migrants help migrants through Meena Centre

Speaking on behalf of Meena Centre, Musurut Dar (photo, speaking) explained what the aim of such event was. The organisation brings together migrants previously settle in the UK, local people and refugees who still live in a limbo, to create a network of solidarity. Musurut said:

Most of our families are migrant. We can related with stories of migration and struggle. Looking at what friendship an support has offered to us when we came here as migrants, we know what we can do to help migrants and refugees today.

Also Harriet (in the video below), a volunteer with the organisation, talked about what the new centre will offer, starting end of June.

Harriet supported refugees in Calais and in Germany before returning to the UK.

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