21 December, 2021 - By Leyla Williams

Reflections on 2021 – the Power of Community

During such dark and difficult times for those we support and so many others in West London and beyond, we’re marking the end of the year by celebrating the transformational power of community.

If we spent last year rapidly scaling up our support for local people during the pandemic, this year we focused on collaborations and making our dreams of our new centre come to life. We now holistically support 300 centre members and hundreds more through our free clothing shop. Here are the highlights of what we achieved together this year, and how working collectively locally and with others around the country has been vital for strengthening our community.

Early Covid vaccinations

In the Spring we worked with Hammersmith and Fulham Clinical Commissioning Group and Council to organise early first and second Covid vaccination doses for the refugees, asylum seekers and migrants we support locally and all our staff and volunteers, who otherwise would have been waiting for weeks or months.

In the lead-up to the vaccinations we worked closely with local pharmacist Hala Abusin and volunteer translators on multiple educational sessions around the vaccine, which did wonders for helping clarify unknowns and dissipating the anxieties of our members, leading to virtually everyone wanting the vaccine. Our members are living in cramped housing conditions, many survive on only £8 a week from the Home Office or nothing at all, and a number have a variety of health conditions. They are especially at risk of Covid, so early vaccinations brought huge relief to them and us. We’ve spent the winter supporting people to get their boosters.

Opening our new community centre

After spending the summer doing renovations, in September we opened our new space. We’re now open three days a week running our centre with our members, many of whom volunteer in a wide variety of ways – at our foodbank we collaborate on with the Felix Project; organising donations; translating; running knitting; in the kitchen; making coffee; gardening; helping with tech; supporting each other. Now we have our own space we’ve been able to team up with new friends and offer new activities, including cricket with the Fulham Cricket Club, screenprinting with Rachel Le Mesurier and Cat Sparrey, yoga with Barbara Durand, mindfulness with Ruby Wax. Our English Language Coordinator Nicci Golland has introduced new beginners English and homework groups.

Advice clinics on immigration and housing

Throughout the year we have supported our members with urgent immigration and housing advice and legal aid lawyers at our weekly advice clinic in partnership with Citizens Advice, to which we had 350 visits this year. Every week we ensure that our members have the advice and support they need to meet their essential needs, from finding lawyers to take on asylum cases and registering people for GPs and schools, to working with local authorities to ensure people avoid homelessness and challenging the Home Office when accommodation is inadequate.

We’re indebted to the dedicated legal aid lawyers we’ve worked with this year, who have taken on so many asylum, immigration, public law and criminal cases for us and given us invaluable advice – Luqmani ThompsonDuncan LewisBHDHammersmith and Fulham Law CentreCare4Calais Access to Legal Aid teamElder RahimiGold JenningsLawstopNorth Kensington Law CentreDeighton Pierce GlynnCommons Legal, and Antonia Benfield at Doughty Street Chambers.

Welcoming Afghans into our community

We’ve had the privilege of welcoming newly-arrived Afghans into Hammersmith and neighbouring boroughs, where hundreds of evacuees are living in bridging hotels while they wait for permanent housing elsewhere. We worked closely with Hammersmith and Fulham Council to ensure the Afghans had the warmest of welcomes and the immediate support they needed on arrival. We supported Kensington Mutual Aid’s huge clothing distribution for newly-arrived Afghans, and were so touched by the hard work of Emanuel School’s pupils, teachers and families collecting clothes. We have also spoken out on ITV News and the BBC about the housing issues experienced by Afghans and the impact on their wellbeing.

All this year our Outreach Coordinator Mehri organised a host of community events and picnics with arts organisations and parks locally and around the city, introducing newly-arrived asylum-seeking people to the sights, museums, galleries and parks of London. We were treated to brilliant tours and outings in collaboration with Gunnersbury Museum and Chiswick House, the Sky GardenKew Gardens, and Jennifer Hirschl.

Our Chiswick satellite group

All year our Chiswick group has been supporting asylum-seeking people living in local hotels with a weekly community gathering, where local residents eat together, learn English, make art (including painting with the Abundance London), gone on trips to Chiswick House, and more. The group’s lead volunteers Rachel, Harriet and John have poured so much energy and love into the project, developing relationships with the local hotels as well as with local organisations in order that they can make their new neighbours feel as welcome and supported as possible.

Campaigning and working with other community groups

Such is the intensity of the hostile environment and the uphill battles faced by our members, the possibility of making real change lies with working with other community groups.

This year we joined hundreds of other groups in opposition to the Nationality and Borders Bill. We also campaigned for the improvement of food in hotels for asylum seekers alongside Care4CalaisKensington Mutual Aid, and other groups, featuring on Sky News and other outlets, which resulted in improvements in hotel food local to us. The Smile BrigadeUNITED in Hammersmith and FulhamFusion Nutrition, and the Barons Court Project helped us to support asylum seekers with alternative food and supermarket vouchers.

We campaigned on the issue of asylum seekers being stranded without any money by the Home Office, alongside other groups like Positive Action In Housing and our MP Andy Slaughter. Thousands were without any money for weeks after their new Aspen bank cards failed to arrive, leaving them near-destitute and grassroots charities like ours going into emergency mode to support people.

Finally, we worked with others in forums and the media to repeatedly raise the issue of asylum seekers facing huge housing issues and being moved from one accommodation to the next with no notice – we have seen some improvement on this particular ’dispersal’ issue locally, though distressingly this does continue to happen. With the housing circumstances of asylum seekers being so unstable, we at least have comfort that we have built strong relationships with groups who are ready to support people wherever they may be moved to. Shout-outs this year to Kensington Mutual AidCare4CalaisMigrants OrganiseRefugees at HomeHousing JusticeYoung RootsScouse KitchenCooperation TownNew Citizens GatewayStronger Together TamesideRefugee ActionTogether with Migrant ChildrenHappy Baby CommunityLittle VillageReady Tech GoScreen ShareMosaic RoomsKim Johnson MP’s officeDoctors of the WorldSolidarity Sports, the Nanny Solidarity Network and Halton Women’s Centre.

Delivering Christmas joy

Thanks to the amazing help of our friends in the neighbourhood, we were able to help Santa deliver 430 presents and 45 supermarket vouchers to local asylum-seeking kids and adults in temporary housing this Christmas. Massive thanks to West London Free School PrimaryFulham SeniorSt Michael & All Angels ChurchSt Paul’s Church in Hammersmith and Chiswick and Bedford Park School. Extra shout-out too to Little Village and The Entertainer stores for their vouchers for local asylum-seeking kids to buy their own toys this Christmas.

Our incredible volunteer team, funders, Trustees, and friends

What we do wouldn’t be possible without the amazing people who support us. We’re a tiny staff team, supported by around 60 locally-living volunteers, our funders, our Trustees, and other friends of the centre. A huge thank you to all of you, who are too many to name.

Special extra shout-outs to the Michael And Betty Little Trust for their repeat funding; our Welcome Circle members; all the people who sustain us with such generous donations, big and small, through Localgiving and otherwise; the Laure Lagrange family; St Paul’s Church and St Mary’s Church in Hammersmith for hosting us for many months; St Michael and All Angels Church for making us a chosen charity of theirs; our volunteer Phyllida Lloyd for treating us to the spectacular Tina Turner Musical and Little Amal events where we were flagbearersWendell Park Primary School for raising £500 for us this year to support newly-arriving refugees, which they fundraised for by running a cake sale and a festival of lights; Apala Chowdhury and family for running the Supernova 5K and raising £2,742 this winter; Beyond Domestication for their donation this Christmas; and Free Cakes for Kids Fulham for the many gorgeous birthday cakes for our centre’s kids.

How you can help

We rely on regular and one-off donations to holistically support all the members of our community. We’re incredibly grateful for any support people can give us through Localgiving this Christmas here.