English classes: the key to integration

by Dr Jenny Philimore For many years now politicians and the tabloids have pointed to so-called self-segregation of migrants and their alleged reluctance to speak English as responsible for their lack of integration into economy and society in the UK. As a result much policy focus has been placed on trying to encourage cross-community connections and linking applications for citizenship to ability to speak English. New research from the Institute for Research into Superdiversity, University of Birmingham, and the University of Cardiff provides evidence showing that for refugees at least, there is no reality behind the rhetoric. Using survey data – the [more]

Latin American Regimes

  An overview of a troubled past   By Tania Farias “From the deep crucible of the homeland. The people's voices rise up. The new day comes over the horizon. All Chile breaks out in song…” claims the first verse of We Will Triumph, a supporting song for the Popular Unity coalition led by Salvador Allende in Chile. According to the Revolutionary Democracy journal (2003) the Chilean songwriter and activist Víctor Jara sang this song defiantly after having been violently tortured in the Chilean Stadium (renamed later Víctor Jara Stadium). He had been arrested – and five days later assassinated - because of his [more]

Asylum seeker pregnancy: a very sad situation

By Tania Farias Pregnancy is a very special state for a woman, one which requires complex and specialist care to assure the well–being of both, the mother and the unborn child. Pregnancy is also a time to share and be cheerful with family and friends. However, not every woman can enjoy such a protective support and some of them are exposed to very unstable situations. A pregnant asylum seeker under the support of sections 4, 95 or 98 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 will be offered accommodation and financial support but she won’t be exempt from UKBA dispersal policies, meaning [more]

Reflections: Through the eyes of a refugee

By Mercedes What do I hear when I listen to the city, when I look to the future in this place that surrounds me? I see a neighbourhood of multiple languages, cultures, sounds, and fragrances. I see a woman wishing to tell the city that she and her child crossed the ocean and several continents to feel secure. She did not want to hear the screams of people running from the effects of war, hunger and disease. She wants to explain that she doesn’t understand what happened. Her town was peaceful before the modern tanks and men in strange clothes speaking strange [more]

Each journey entails a hundred possibilities

By Kate Monkhouse Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) works with refugees and other forcibly displaced people, promoting their rights and providing a range of direct services. In London, JRS UK runs a weekly day centre at its base in Wapping, where each week up to 120 refugees come for lunch, some practical help and to share the joys and sadness of life in this country. In carrying out its activities JRS UK works in partnership with like-minded organisations, such as English PEN, a free speech and literature charity that campaigns to defend and promote free expression. English PEN’s trainers have run several creative [more]

From Sri Lanka With Surgical Skills

Vicky Ilankovan interviews her father Since I was eight I wanted to be a doctor. I still remember using pencils as injection cylinders and giving people sachets of powder from the kitchen to make them feel better. The concept of doing something to help people has always fascinated me. However, the year that I was to enter medical school in Sri Lanka was the year the policy of standardisation came into force. This meant that Tamils needed substantially higher marks than Sinhalese in order to get into university. For example, Tamils needed 250 points to get into medical school whereas the Sinhalese [more]

london

Somalis try to break mental health taboos

By Almaas Ali

Image by Surian Soosay

Social media, videos and focus groups are just some of the tools being used to help raise awareness of mental health issues within London’s Somali community.

Mental illness is a social taboo amongst many Somalis in Britain, as sufferers are seen as weak, problematic and responsible for bringing shame on their families. Many avoid seeking professional help, preferring to find a cure through homemade treatments or even religion.

To break through the stigma, a north London support group, The Help Somalia Foundation, has joined forces with mental health charity, Brent Mind, to train people from the Somali community so they can educate other Somalis about mental health issues.

Over the summer, volunteers were trained to use social media, videos and focus groups to help start improving the plight of the mentally ill within their communities. For example, a Facebook page has been launched through which they hope to start a dialogue about mental health issues.

“People in the community are more likely to listen to people from the community rather than outsiders,” explained Tabussum Rashid, the training facilitator.

The majority of Somalis living in the UK migrated as a result of the ongoing civil war that started in 1991. Many suffer from traumas associated with witnessing violence, loosing family members and from having re-build their lives in a foreign. Many Somali women face the additional challenge of having to bring up their children in Britain without the support of their extended family.

Camden Lock Market: A taste of the world, a recipe for success

By Georgie Knaggs

Joe Timur of Sonita’s Kitchen in the West Yard of Camden Lock Market. Photo by Georgie Knaggs.

Camden Lock Market, one of London’s most popular craft markets, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The market is one of the many in Camden that together receive some 15m visitors each year. The job of feeding these crowds falls in part to the chefs in the West Yard. Here the cooking is personal – recipes are learned at home and flavoured with tastes from Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Take for example Sonita’s Kitchen, run by Joe and Sonita Timur. Joe, born in Turkey, is half Turkish and half English while his wife is from the Punjab state in northwest India. They sell fragrant, delicately spiced curries cooked without butter or ghee.

“It’s a really good market because it’s known as a food market,” says Joe Timur. “People come here specifically to eat.”

The West Yard at weekends probably hosts a sample of the whole world to a lunch break with visitors and stallholders alike.

A little further along, Danish Mirza, the chef from Food in the Middle, is a chartered accountant from Pakistan. He worked in the City for eight years but now he sells paratha wraps, a popular street food in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.

“I always wanted to do my own thing,” he explains. “Karachi is a cosmopolitan city and people are always on the run,” adds Mirza. “They are getting your traditional tikka and selling it in wraps. I went one step further and took my food, which is much healthier than street food, and put that into wraps.”

The West Yard has an ever-changing selection of food.  On some days, within the space of a couple of hundred yards, there will be the saffron colours of Spanish paella across from bright piles of French macaroons.  Barbecued Turkish kebabs might be found next to a pitch selling cauldrons of fresh English soup.  The macaroni and cheese stall advertising a dessert of deep-fried Oreos might rub shoulders with the wide front of the Chinese stall selling dumplings and noodles.  There might be Italian pizza, Jamaican jerk wraps, Japanese sushi, sweet French crepes, and to finish it all there will almost always be the warmth of Ethiopian coffee.

Luol Deng: A man to look up to

By Carlos Villegas

Team GB’s basketball star, winner of three major sportsmanship awards because of his ethical behaviour, fair play, and integrity on the court. A Sudanese refugee  who has not forgot his roots and works hard to bring education and sports to millions of displaced children in USA , UK and Sudan.   He plays for the Chicago Bulls in the USA as well as the UK team.  

Luol was only five when he had to flee Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War to go to Egypt with his siblings and was separated from his father for several years.  They were reunited when Luol moved to the UK when he was 10 following the decision to grant his father asylum in 1993.

His first impressions of the UK was that the country was “very clean with a lot of glass buildings”.  He lived in Brixton at the time which he felt was special.  It felt it was like a family – everyone the same – with similar problems.  Young migrant men were focused on getting better at sport, particularly basketball.  “..we needed to stick closer, work as a team and try harder to improve ourselves”. It was tough though, not speaking the language.  Now Luol continues to speak his native Dinka with his family but also speaks Arabic and English and is learning Masai.

Luol believes that it is very important that kids do not forget their roots, their mother tongue and their culture.  He felt that his Dinka language and culture gave him and his family a unique identity, strong family values, respect for his parents’ teachings and the desire to work hard and smarter in a different education system.

He became a British citizen in 2006 and says that he didn’t have problems integrating into British society.  “I came young and it was easy to learn the language.”  His respect for his parents meant that he was always focussed on having the right attitudes, not causing trouble, and being disciplined.  He says that the family always thought that they would be successful.

His father remains one of the biggest inspirations of his life.  He came from a humble background from a small village and rose to become the Minister of Education and Transportation in Sudan.  All of his family are doing well in the UK despite their struggles in his early life.

Luol was drafted into the NBA when he was 19.  He currently plays for the Chicago Bulls.  Away from the court, he has set up the Luol Deng Foundation to help children in South Sudan, USA and the UK who have not been as fortunate as himself. He believes it’s important not to be self centred and says “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile”.

Parliament Week shows that Parliament is open to everyone

By Penny McLean

Photograph © UK Parliament

 

As part of Parliament Week 2012 Simple Acts is launching an online activity “Tell Your MP”, aimed at engaging migrants and refugees with the UK Parliament. Parliament Week (19-25 November 2012) aims to inform, connect and engage people across the UK with Parliamentary democracy. Coordinated by the House of Commons and the House of Lords, Parliament Week looks at the people, places and events that shape democracy in the UK and offers something for everyone including migrants and refugees.

Across the UK, charities, schools, museums and community groups are organising events and online activities that demonstrate how you can engage with different aspects of democracy in the UK. One example is the online activity “Tell Your MP”, developed by Dijana Rakovic, Project Manager of Simple Acts. Dijana says, “Simple Acts is about inspiring individuals to use small, everyday actions to change perceptions of refugees.”

Dijana says, “With the “Tell Your MP” activity, we hope to create an online platform for both refugees and politicians to engage effectively with one another around issues of parliamentary democracy in the UK, e.g. how refugees can get more involved in the work of Parliament.” She adds, “We are really excited about Parliament Week and would like to see more of these initiatives from our Parliament.”
Refugees and migrants have fled and come to the UK from countries with a range of governance systems. For both migrants and refugees, UK parliamentary democracy will be new and many may not know the different ways that they can get involved in Parliament.

Although some migrants and refugees do not have the right to vote in the UK national or local elections, they can still engage with other parts of the parliamentary process, such as by visiting their MP to voice their concerns about important issues; by visiting Parliament to watch debates in the House of Commons or the House of Lords; by attending select committees which scrutinise the work of government; or by going on a free tour of Parliament organised by their MP.

Members of both Houses of Parliament will be taking part in Parliament Week events, providing the public with the opportunity to engage with key decision-makers at the centre of British politics, as well as with the institution that makes it all happen.

For the latest list of events or to find out how you can get involved visit:

http://www.parliamentweek.org/
http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/
http://counterpointsarts.org.uk/projects/
http://www.simpleacts.org.uk/

Follow Parliament Week on twitter and facebook

Pauline Nandoo: Reaching out to asylum seekers

By: Helena Argyle

Dishing out lunch at the Southwark Day Centre's Copleston Centre

An interview with Pauline Nandoo (MBE), coordinator of the Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers (SDCAS) in London

Helena Argyle (HA): The SDCAS offers a wide range of training courses designed to help refugees and asylum seekers equip themselves with skills necessary to integrate into British society. Can you give a specific example of the positive effects of these facilities?

Pauline Nandoo (PN): One of the courses we provide is a parenting class funded by the Big Lottery, which helps families learn practical communications skills for everyday life so they can bring up confident, happy and cooperative children. As families often experience turbulent and chaotic situations during the asylum process, positive parenting is important. After taking the course, some parents trained to become course facilitators or took up further training in childcare.

HA: It can be argued that there is a sense of animosity in some camps of British society towards refugees and asylum seekers. How do you think that the SDCAS is able to give refugees and asylum seekers a voice for their own communities and as well as the skills to easily integrate into Britain without a sense of alienation?

PN: SDCAS empowers asylum seekers and refugees, encouraging them to become active participants of society. The support services provided are aimed at ensuring that the rights of asylum seekers and refugees are upheld. SDCAS acts as a mediator for refugees and asylum seekers in order to reduce barriers in accessing vital mainstream services, things that are not easy for those who experience high rates of isolation, unemployment, destitution and complex immigration problems. Together with over 50 local volunteers including students, pensioners, faith leaders and retired professionals, we try to foster good community relations and cohesion, reduce alienation, local tensions and public hysteria.

HA: The government has introduced large funding cuts to organisations and has also put a cap on the number of people entering the country. How has this affected the SDCAS’s three centres, and has this had a visible effect on the refugee communities you are involved with?

PN: Despite a fall in the official number of asylum seekers entering the UK, we are not surprised by the increase in our client base each year. Recent reports on destitution and mental health (by British Red Cross, Oxfam and MIND) show that there is a continuing need for services like ours. For the last three years our core costs have been met with the help of the Main Grants Programme of Southwark Council, and while we are hopeful that we will receive some core funding over the next year, because of drastic cuts in government funding we are still unsure of this. There is also increasing competition for funding from charities and trusts, so despite submitting a number of applications we have not yet received guaranteed funding for the coming years.

HA: The SDCAS focus on providing legal advice, medical advice and counselling. In your experience, how accessible is advice such as this outside of the centres and how much importance does it have?

Advice and information services are limited and this is a problem especially in terms of specialist immigration advice. SDCAS relies on a few agencies that provide free, accessible, good quality and appropriate legal advice in the areas of immigration, housing, welfare benefits, debt management and public health. These are essential services for asylum seekers and refugees who are often unaware of their rights and entitlements; this can often lead to a crisis occurring and poor mental health. SDCAS provides General Help Level 1 advice and works closely with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Southwark Law Centre, Migrant Resource Centre, South London & Maudsley NHS Trust and the PCT’s Health Inclusion Team.

HA: The SDCAS also provides language courses. How do you feel a grasp of the English language helps refugee and asylum seekers with their new life in Britain?

The English classes we provide are aimed at beginners. Without basic language skills, people struggle to read important documents and interpreters are not always made available for appointments. Also, people need some language skills to pass the pre-entry tests required to enrol in English classes provided by colleges. Many women attend our classes and benefit from using the playgroup for young children not in school. Knowledge of the language helps decrease isolation and leads to more opportunities in terms of employment and education.

HA: You deal with a vast range of cultures and traditions. In your opinion, how does the mingling of so many cultures affect London life for new migrants, and what kind of social activities does SDCAS organise with these different communities?

The centres are vibrant and stimulating places in which various communities come together from places like Algeria, Iran, Congo, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and Kosovo, which is what makes life in London for these people so interesting. The centres provide a forum in which to form friendships, where mutual support can flourish, where people can experience being useful together and roots into the wider community can grow. The centres partake in various activities around London including trips to museums – we work with the Hornimans Museum to celebrate refugee week, and services users have exhibited artwork at Docklands Museum. We also organise great day trips to the coast in the summer, lively parties, theatre trips and picnics where service users plant and grow fruit and vegetables. We hope this continues in years to come.

HA: What do you see in the future for SDCAS? What are your hopes for the coming year, and what new programmes do you plan to introduce?

SDCAS has set up a Friends Scheme, which is due to be launched this year. There is already a lot of enthusiasm about getting involved in our fundraising events, such as our concerts with great performances from local musicians. Identifying a source of funding for would help us enormously to meet our needs and we hope the scheme will showcase our services and raise our profile so that we attract more support and resources, enabling us to reach more asylum seekers and refugees.

Osama Qashoo’s London

By: Ellen Grefberg

Osama Qashoo in London. Photo by Ellen Grefberg

 

It’s easy to understand why Palestinian filmmaker Osama Qashoo finds it difficult to trust people – after all, he was on the ill-fated Gaza ‘Freedom Flotilla’ in 2010, he’s been shot six times and imprisoned on 28 occasions since he was a boy and first threw stones at tanks.

London has been Osama’s home town since the age of twenty but he’s always travelling following his passion for human rights; demonstrating to bring about regime change. He has travelled across the Middle East in the light of the Arab Spring uprisings and the sweeping changes. These, he feels, are the first stage of a global movement of peaceful change for social justice arising from the experiences in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

“Before I came to London I didn’t think much of the fact I’d been in prison 27 times in Palestine; it was almost part of everyday life. Then when I came here I thought, ‘this is messed up’.

“I’ve nearly been killed because of my passion for change,” he says, explaining his lack of trust. “My family has been affected, and three of my close friends have died under very suspicious circumstances. One was drowned with his hands tied behind his back. They called it suicide. Have you ever heard of anybody killing himself like that?”

Osama studied at the National Film and Television School in London and is now building a reputation as a filmmaker exploring the power of youth as a force for social change and creativity, in particular in the Arab world.

He has produced and directed a number of films including “My Dear Olive Tree” which drew attention to Israel’s destruction of olive trees in Palestine and which, he says, led to two million olive trees being planted in Palestine. The film came about from “the irony of my existence in London and my discovery of peace doves made from olive trees of the Holy Land.”

His first feature film is currently in pre-production. “Emergency Radio” is a story of two young men coming of age as radio DJs in Palestine.

“You meet the whole world here,” he says of London, “If the whole world wasn’t here, London would be very boring. London is an expensive place and all that, but it is the best place for people who want to feel like they are part of something.

“Like more than 5 million Palestinians, I am forbidden by Israel to return to Palestine.” Osama knew in May 2010 on the Mavi Marmara, one of eight ships in the ‘freedom flotilla’ which sailed towards Gaza, that he would not reach the country of his birth that time either.

“We didn’t expect to reach Gaza,” he says, “but we didn’t expect 25 helicopters, over 60 Zodiacs and four war carriers attacking us on international water either. We did defend ourselves when they came – as we had said. But, where we had pipes and chairs, they had bullets and tear gas.” It became the 28th time Osama had been imprisoned by Israel.

“I lost my faith in humanity on that ship,” he says. His face twists in pain for a second as he remembers the victims of Mavi Marmara; but he is also proud of the results. “Now people talk about Gaza ‘before’ and ‘after’ the ships,” he declares with a crooked smile. “The eyes of the world turned to Gaza; now much more aid reaches the country after Egypt eased some of the sanctions.”

When asked about the future, Osama has his goals figured out, counting them out on his fingers: “I want to make a successful film, learn how to play the piano, drive a car and remove a few dictators.” When asked what the deadline for all of this is: “two years”, he says with a smile.

So what drives a person like Osama to carry on? “I don’t want to be high profile,” Osama explains, “I just want to do what everyone should be doing.”

Does he expect to be arrested a 29th time? “I am not afraid of being arrested but I will face challenges: jail, bullets, harassment. And, if you hear I die in a car accident, it won’t be an accident,” he says with a wry laugh which doesn’t reach his eyes.

Next up for Osama Qashoo is another trip to somewhere in Europe or North Africa – anywhere he feels he can get involved, and make a difference, removing ‘a few dictators’. He has yet to decide where it will be next, and even if he had, I have a feeling he wouldn’t tell me where he was going.

 

My Anti-Crime Campaign

By: Khadija Abdelhamid

“RIP bro, just an indicator of the wasted values of the world we live in today, where a pair of trainers are held by some sick individuals to be more valuable than a man’s life” – Omar Farooq Begg, posted on Facebook after the tragic death of 18-year-old Seydou Diarrassouba, victim of an Oxford Street stabbing in late 2011.

Khadija Abdelhamid


London has become a landmark when it comes to crime. According to the Metropolitan Police, 7,006 firearm offences were recorded in England and Wales in 2010/11. In 2010/11, the police recorded 32,714 of these offences (including homicides) involving a knife or sharp instrument.

These statistics show the reality of gun and knife crime in the UK. Of course, everyone has their own opinion about why gun and knife crime is on the rise. From broken homes to absentee father figures, financial issues to peer pressure, childhood abuse and more.

However as a young anti-crime campaigner myself, with no experience of losing a loved one, I believe I could be a victim of discrimination, simply because of the crimes that the teens of my generation commit. This is a stereotype I’m hoping to change. The fact that I’ve never been associated with a gang or lost a loved one to gun and knife crime, should start to portray a positive image about youths.

I grew up aspiring to be like people who have changed the world, people who had a passion to spread peace and equality. The more I looked up to others that made a small or big change in the world, the more I aspired to follow in their footsteps, but I must also remember that I must make a different change, one that has not been made yet. Like Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.”

My passion for my campaign became official on 31st January 2011; I started a Facebook group with over 1,000 followers. I started to attend anti-crime events, and I have now been approached by a film company to produce an anti-gun and knife crime DVD for my campaign, which will distributed across London high schools and anti-crime events once finished.

Only three months into my campaign, the issue of gun and knife crime tragically reached close to home when a person I knew lost a loved one. I have given my campaign drive, motivation and determination to achieve the success it has reached today. I travelled an emotional journey, meeting with families who’ve lost a loved one to gun and knife crime only furthering my ambition to reduce gun and knife crime in the UK .

Venezuelan political opposition abroad

By: Bernardo Rodriguez-Salcedo

Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela since 1999. Photo by Bernardo Londoy

It was a cold and rainy Sunday even by London standards, but that didn’t stop 290 Venezuelan expatriates in the UK from coming together on February 12th in a central London hotel to take part in one of the most important political events in Venezuela: the first ever opposition’s primaries held abroad.

The primary saw Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of the state of Miranda, picked to challenge President Hugo Chávez in the presidential election planned for next October.

Chávez, the left-wing president, has governed Venezuela since 1999. His successive electoral victories have caused long-term disarray for the opposition. But the political opposition is now campaigning on a unity platform, trying to mobilise Venezuelan communities abroad before the next presidential elections. Efforts have extended to the UK where there are 1,174 registered Venezuelan voters, the fifth largest concentration of voters abroad and the second largest in Europe, according to the official electoral registry.

“We had a turnout of 24.7 per cent, which is outstanding for a primary election. The participation and enthusiasm of Venezuelan voters in the UK far exceeded our expectations,” said Domingo Lapadula, president of the London Committee of the Primary Elections Abroad Commission, established by the opposition’s umbrella organisation Unified Democratic Panel (MUD).

The high participation rates were the result of long hours of community work that used traditional media and also social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, explained Lapadula.

“We contacted as many people as we possibly could. The Venenin [Spanish acronym for Venezuelans in England] Facebook group, now with more than 1,800 members, has been very useful for this task. It started out as a way of organising social gatherings, but it has become the first point of contact for Venezuelans arriving to the UK,” he explained.

Voters said they are motivated by a desire for political transformation in Venezuela.

“For me, there is a central reason for participating: I want a change in my country,” said Francisco Perez, a Venezuelan living in the UK for 10 years. Irene Caldentey, another voter, cited her “aspiration for democratic participation” as her motivation for voting.

Once the primary election has been carried out, there is now a bigger challenge, explained Lapadula.

“Many Venezuelans have arrived into the UK during the last six years, and most of them are not registered to vote here. In addition, there are sizable Venezuelan communities in places such as Manchester, Reading, Oxford, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Belfast, yet the only voting centre available is in London,” said Lapadula. “We have to work closely with the Venezuelan consular authorities in order to guarantee no one is left without the opportunity to participate”.

A Ukrainian Easter in London

By Christina Senechyn

Photo by Amanda Schutz

The spirit of Ukrainian Easter remains strong and essential within the Ukrainian community in the UK. This is the major religious holiday in Ukraine. In the UK, the Ukrainian community still follows the tradition of going to church in the morning and coming home to spend time with family over the traditional supper at the table.

Ukrainian families abroad keep a piece of their traditions in their everyday lives. Easter, in particular, is an important Orthodox holiday in Ukraine. Traditionally, it is important to fast before Easter, a time to cleanse your soul (giving up eggs, meat, and dancing, among other things). A week before Easter, you have Palm Sunday or as the Ukrainians call it, “Pussy Willow” Sunday.

The preparation for Easter is done over the last week of the Lent. The house is cleaned, the traditional food is ready to go in a basket to take to the church in the morning and the family is ready to spend a weekend together after a long week.

The Easter basket should include the following: sausage (a small ring), a root of horseradish, sweet cheese, butter, salt, hard boiled and peeled eggs, dyed eggs, pysanky (traditional Easter eggs), and last but not least Paska, a sweet bread with a candle beside it to be lit when the priest begins the blessing ceremony.

The Easter traditions within the Ukrainian community in the UK have remained stronger within the elder population. Many young Ukrainians also very much respect the Ukrainian culture and traditions away from their home country, although not as passionately as their parents.

“I respect my culture and traditions, I remember them and enjoy celebrating them, although for me it has faded slightly throughout the years, feeling that the time is moving so fast in the city that I simply forget it as years go by”, says British-Ukrainian Katherine. 

Katherine adds that if it wasn’t for her parents she may have slipped away from her Ukrainian culture when coming to live in London. Her parents have kept up with the Ukrainian traditions in London yet not as much as they would have back in their homeland.

Where there is no sunlight: one worker’s story

By: Khadija Najlaou

A domestic worker from Morocco, Najilaou is now working in London and tells the story of her struggle for rights and dignity.

I am 44 years old but I have only spent seven years at school. My family was very poor and they couldn’t afford to send me to school so I left just after primary school. My father earned 200 DHS/week (approx. £34) as a security guard. I have three brothers and four sisters and sometimes we had nothing to eat.

At the age of 15, I was forced to work in a garment factory 13 hours a day 6 days a week. My salary was less than £4 a week. Life became even harder when my father passed away in 1995. I didn’t even see sunlight in the factory. I felt like a slave trapped in a building with no way to escape because my family would starve if I didn’t work.

In 2000, my mother became very ill. I couldn’t afford her hospitalization, so in 2003 I decided to work abroad as a domestic worker. I went to Dubai because this was the fastest way to secure a job in another country. I worked for a good family there, but the hours were long for only £180 a month. In 2004, I came to the UK but just two years later, my mother passed away. I begged my employer to let me go home, but she refused. She said there was no need for me to go home because my mother was already dead. All I could do was cry.

In 2007, A friend told me that in the UK I had the right to change employer. I found a new job, and then another one, but I was still working long hours. When I became ill the doctor said I was overworked and advised me to rest. But how could I rest? I asked my employer if I could go to a friend’s house and rest. She wasn’t happy. She put all my clothes in a black bin bag and I was fired. Things didn’t get better after that. My next employer accused me of stealing £225 and a very expensive leather jacket. She later found the money and the jacket, but I felt I couldn’t stay after that. I was lucky to find another employer shortly after that so I was able to renew my visa. However, everyday it became harder to work in isolation with no voice, no rights and nowhere to go.

Finally, in 2009 I joined Justice for Domestic Workers (J4DW). It’s a self-help, advocacy and campaigning organisation run by migrant domestic workers, representing more than 300 London-based domestic workers from all over the world. We may all come from different countries but we share similar stories of suffering back home and different forms of abuse in the UK. Slavery is very much alive in the life of many migrant domestic workers. We work very long hours for very low salaries trying to support families back home.

At J4DW, we work together to improve our living and working conditions.We campaign to be properly recognized and respected as workers because we contribute to the economy of both our home and host country.

We are now campaigning to reverse the recent changes made to the UK visa conditions of overseas domestic workers. Since April 6th 2012 migrant domestic workers coming to the UK with their employers will be given a 6-month visa and after this time they have to leave the country. They don’t have the right to change employer, even if their employer is abusive. Previous rules allowed us to change jobs and move to a different household without losing our immigrant status.

These changes sadden me because even if I won’t be affected (I was in the UK prior to April 6), they will leave many of my fellow domestic workers open to abuse and exploitation. If their employer doesn’t pay their wages, makes them work 18 hours a day seven days a week or beats them, they won’t be able to access help. And if they leave the house and try to find another job, they will become undocumented and risk deportation. I am fighting along with my fellow domestic workers to stop this unjust situation.

J4DW (along with Kalayaan, Unite the Union, TUC, Anti-slavery International, Christian Aid, Amnesty International, and Children Unite) has been campaigning for the ratification of the Domestic Workers Convention 189. UK was one of 8 countries including Sudan to abstain from supporting an International Labour Organisation convention on protection for domestic workers, claiming there were already good safeguards in place, despite these protections having been removed.