12 June, 2020 - By Leyla Williams

Needlemover interview with our co-founders Joanne MacInnes and Seema Alibhai

Needlemover.org have interviewed our co-founders Joanne MacInnes and Seema Alibhai about why and how they started West London Welcome. The interview can be read on the Needlemover website here, or below (re-posted with permission).

When Seema Alibhai moved next door to Joanne (Jo) MacInnes, she knew immediately that she had a new friend. What she didn’t know was that the two of them would eventually team up to make a difference in their community.

The UK has seen a dramatic increase in refugees and asylum seekers over the years. According to UNHCR, there were 126,720 refugees, 45,244 pending asylum cases and 125 stateless persons in the UK in 2018. These individuals and families travel far to escape violence, warfare, and poverty. They then have the daunting task of assimilating into a community — in a place they do not know, with a language they do not understand, and with limited resources and opportunities.

Jo and Seema saw the need for a drop-in center for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, specifically to serve the needs of clients in Hammersmith and Fulham. And so West London Welcome was born, a center that provides a safe space for people to gather, to learn English, to receive advice and support, and to step out of isolation and into community.

How did you end up starting West London Welcome?

Seema Alibhai (SA): I was still working full-time at Viacom so I didn’t have any free time whatsoever. But I would see Jo in the neighborhood, and her and my husband actually became friends first because he was working from home at the time. My husband did the Three Peaks challenge to raise money for charity and wanted the money to go towards a cause related to women and children. He told me to talk to Jo because she had been in the space for a long time, supporting the more vulnerable, the refugees, the community. 

So I approached Jo and said, “I have this cheque, here you go.” And she replied, “Thank you for the cheque, but how about doing this with me? It’s been my dream to open a drop-in center for refugees and asylum seekers.” And I said, “What’s a drop-in center?” I had no idea what she was talking about. 

By now, I had quit my job and was looking to do something with more purpose and meaning, now that I had time to get more involved, but I didn’t know what other than wanting to support refugees given I myself am a migrant. So she said, “Come with me, I’ve been volunteering at this place for the last three years.”

Jo MacInnes (JM): The Alan Kurdi disaster in 2015 kind of galvanized a lot of refugee initiatives. There was one effort where three women posted on Facebook and decided to take some stuff to Calais and they ended up starting a wonderful charity called Help Refugees. I volunteered with them and did a regular back and forth to Calais. At the same time, I’d been volunteering at the Islington Center for Refugees and Migrants teaching knitting. The Islington Center is open three days a week as a drop-in center for refugees and asylum seekers, where people can learn English, do crafts, find a community. 

A refugee has been given official refugee status, they have access to benefits, housing, schooling, healthcare and allowed to work. Asylum seekers are seeking refuge but they haven’t been granted it yet. Here in the UK controversially an asylum seeker can’t work and can’t get benefits. They only have limited access to health care. They are accommodated in often very poor housing but only whilst they wait for a decision on their case. When a decision is made they’ve only a few weeks before they are turned out. They are given only 35 pounds a week to live on. It costs about six pounds a day just to travel in London, by travel card, so it’s not enough money even to leave the house. Many of the refugee & migrant centers like ours pay for people to get out and about and there are several drop-in centers like this in London, but there wasn’t one in our area. So that’s when I said to Seema, “I really think that we  should do this. Are you in?” 

What did you have to do to get West London Welcome set up?

SA: Jo already had a relationship with the Islington Centre, so she knew how they were structured and how they functioned. So I went a few times to get familiar and I thought “Wow. We can replicate that service in our part of town, under their auspices as an extension of Islington.” However that ended up not being the case because their board decided that they couldn’t justify incubating us. At first we were quite upset because that meant that we would have to start from the ground up, but as it turns out it was the best thing because we’re not as limited and create our own vision of what we wanted to offer. But what’s been really great is that they mentored us in this journey, and they’ve given us access to a lot of their resources helping us to become a fully-fledged charity. So they gave us their knowledge and support but we had to open completely independently. 

They laid out the steps, but we had to do it ourselves. We just figured it out. Neither one of us had ever done anything like this. We started very small, we had only 7,000 pounds in the bank and we found free premises very generously donated to us by the Quakers and we figured we’d somehow get people to come. We didn’t think really about the implications. 

In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?

SA: I think we learned so much by approaching it that way. 

JM: When you do things in little steps, it’s not as intimidating. We started as a Community Interest Group and that meant we were legally allowed to hold a tiny amount of money and meet for social community purposes. And then we realized, if we were going to scale up, we needed more money and if we had more money, we had to become an official charity. 

And it happened organically. Initially the idea was aimed at the families that had been officially resettled in West London, in our borough — we had about eight families at the time. In the UK, we have a Vulnerable Person’s Resettlement Scheme which applies mostly, at the moment, to Syrians. Each Council area here in London invites families to come to the UK, which is obviously much preferable to a dangerous journey across the Med. 

I was already running the area’s Refugee Welcome group which welcomed the resettled families. So we knew we wanted and needed a gathering place for those families. 

SA: And Islington’s funding had recently been pulled back, and they were only going to be open three days a week. So we decided to open our centre on the days they were closed as a way of giving their people somewhere to go on those days.

In addition to teaching English, what types of services or programs are you offering clients? 

SA: We have a parenting discussion group in Arabic and French, because the majority of our guests are either from Syria or French speaking Africa. We have knitting, art, photography. We have women’s health clinics, yoga, mindfulness. We have partners to help with hardship services, legal support, casework and housing solutions. And we’re one of the few refugee drop-in centers in London that offers childcare so mothers can access English lessons — we really want to empower people because it’s only once they learn English that they can really integrate into society. 

JM: But the most important work we do is offer a community centre — somewhere to go and be greeted with warmth. 

You approach your work by “asking as few questions as possible.” Can you unpack what that means?

JM: Some people are refused asylum seekers, so to be able to extend help to them, we have to be sensitive to the fact that people are very suspicious that we might be connected or collaborating with the Home Office. And that’s not our business. We’re not police. We try to welcome everyone without making them feel like they’re getting the third degree. 

Initially, we don’t ask people anything beyond their name. There comes a point if they want advice and help over that we may need more information. We do keep a database but only include data when someone is willing to contribute information.

SA: It’s several layers, right? There’s personal trauma that people have gone through, and we don’t want to bring it up unless they want to start talking about it. Of course, we’re a sounding board, but we don’t ask them about their back story because it’s often too traumatic.

Our underlying aim is to preserve human dignity. When you view someone as only a refugee or only an asylum seeker, you inevitably minimize their personhood. 

JM: Yes. People don’t come to us for therapy. They come for the community. And it’s a good point, because they are so much more than just that one component. 

And along the same lines of dignity, refugees and asylum seekers are very vulnerable populations, but they’re also enormously resilient. So often we view people through that lens of vulnerability as opposed to strength. 

JM: Yes, and both are true. Most everyone is resilient and that they’ve got this far through pretty eye-watering circumstances like escaping war or extreme poverty or violence. Some people overcome that with great resilience and then in turn give back. There’s one remarkable man, an English teacher from Syria, and he’s decided he would volunteer and clean hospitals during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

SA: There are also the women who cook for us. We offer a hot lunch that’s made by a collective of women refugee chefs and they’ve set up this business called Welcome Kitchen. That again is an example of sheer resilience. It’s a really nice example to our community members that they can make a productive life here in the UK. And we have to remember that a lot of migrants and refugees are qualified professionals in their home countries and most of them really want to succeed — there’s just such high barriers to entry.

JM: The other big barrier is English. We get a lot of young people who came as unaccompanied minors, walking across countries and going through a lot of danger and hardship. They haven’t been in school since they were 14, when they left, and now they’ve got to catch up on English. They’ve missed years of education so they’re just so much further behind in terms of realizing their ultimate career choice. But still marching on and doing it. 

JM: There’s a young guy who left his country in the Middle East when he was about 16 and he had walked all the way through Turkey, across the river and down into Greece. He’s said that there are things from that journey that were too awful to repeat. But he was speaking in Parliament last week on what it’s like to be an asylum seeker who can’t work, he has set up his own refugee networks and advocacy groups, and he’s just so nice and he volunteers everywhere. He’s now got his own little studio apartment that we found through our networks. 

SA: There’s another resettled family — they came from northern Syria and they were not educated, the parents never went to school. They came here with their young children and three years later, the five-year-old (who is now eight) speaks fluent English. She helps us communicate with her parents and translates doctor’s appointments and parent-teacher meetings and this and that. She has had to rise up and she’s doing an amazing job. 

What are some of the misconceptions you’ve encountered about displaced persons?

JM: That most people would prefer to be at home. People get on boats because it was worse on land and they had to leave. 

SA: It’s a complete misconception that it’s their choice. Certain factors have driven the situation to the acute levels that we see. They are at our doorstep because of actions in Africa, actions in the Middle East. The other misconception is that they’re just here to mooch on our benefits and on our social systems. But again, I can’t tell you how much they want to be standing on their own two feet, work and contribute. There is such a high barrier to entry, they are given zero opportunities except from organizations like ours. The more we help them assimilate and feel a part of this community and foster opportunities where they can give back and be productive — the more they feel empowered. 

JM: And they’re often extremely well educated themselves. Some people just need help with English but that’s the limit of it really. 

What have been some of the biggest lessons that you’ve taken away from this personally?

SA: For me the biggest thing is that if you want to do something, do it. You might fail and that’s fine. We made loads of mistakes along the way, but at the end of the day our intentions were in the right place. I think if you do something with the right intention, it will materialize. 

JM: I’m also amazed at how quickly things have evolved. During this lockdown, we’ve seen mutual aid groups pop up over the course of the weeks to help everybody in their community. Things can happen quite quickly and you shouldn’t intimidate yourself with the amount of work ahead – just crack on and do it. 

How would you say that you move the needle through your work?

JM: We make a real difference to people’s sense of isolation and we are often able to improve people’s lives practically and materially as well. We might have helped get a lawyer that helped to get them their status. We have kept people alive with food and money. We have people taking English classes now online. There’s just a feeling of belonging to a community that we’ve established. Our service users know they can call on us and that they have support. As much as we have to face a lot of difficulties and despair, we have the gratification to know we’re really making a tangible, positive impact on people’s lives.

SA: We have moved the needle not only in terms of the support we are providing for our clients but equally on how we have raised awareness and built not only bridges but true friendships within the community, and sowed the seeds for a future that is so much more accepting and tolerant, highlighting the importance of integration and assimilation in achieving that goal.