[Photo from Oxfam blog]
Eileen Dillon writes about her volunteering visit to Oxfam’s Sanctuary in Wales project in Cardiff as part of Oxfam’s See for Yourself programme for its supporters.
When I arrived at Oasis, a support centre for refugees and asylum seekers in Cardiff, I felt as though I had been invited into someone’s home. A local volunteer and a woman from Pakistan sat at a sewing machine making trousers together and another woman, (I can’t remember what country she came from) was playing on the floor with her daughter. Helen Gubb’s the Oasis women’s worker funded by Oxfam invited me to a cup of tea and it wasn’t long before we were all in a conversation about music. Monday’s at Oasis has been set aside as a women’s only day because it has been noticed that the centre is being used almost exclusively by men. I was informed by Reynette Roberts who founded the centre four years ago that today, Monday, is very different to other days. On other days the average number of visitors to the centre is eighty. Today the centre was used by six women and their children. When the trousers were completed, the table was cleared and we all sat down together to a meal of chicken and salad. After lunch the table was cleared again and one of the refugee women, who had been funded by Oasis to receive training in teaching English, gave an English lesson to two women who spoke very little English. One of the women came from Libya, where darker skinned Libyans are being attacked because they are seen as supporters of the former Gadaffi regime. This woman had fled Libya after witnessing her brother killed and her village ransacked. As the Oasis child worker played with her two children and another refugee taught her English, I felt proud that my small monthly donation to Oxfam is supporting this project.
As promised by Reynette Roberts, today was a very different day to yesterday at the Oasis centre. The centre is open to asylum seekers and refuges five days a week from 10.00am – 3.00pm . Mondays is a womens’s only day and Friday is a men’s only day. As the doors opened this morning a few men had already gathered, keen to use the computers. The centre’s five laptops were in constant use throughout the day. At 10.30am English lessons began and were taught by two teachers from Pakistan who are themselves seeking asylum. By midday, despite it being described as a ‘quiet day’ the centre had filled with approximately seventy people who sat down to a lunch of pasta and fish cooked by a man from Sudan. The opportunity to cook the meal seemed to be in demand, with one man being told he would have to wait until next week before there was a free slot. Tomorrow’s dinner will be cooked by a man from Algeria and Thursday’s by someone from Afghanistan. Speaking of a global cuisine, I was very impressed to learn that Reynette has forged very strong links to Cardiff’s Museums, in particular St Fagan’s natural history museum, where Oasis will contribute to a food event with foods cooked from around the world. This relationship began last year with an extremely successful partnership in which refugees from Oasis worked with curators from the museum to create the exhibit. ‘The Refugee’s House’. Fagan’s museum is an outdoor museum featuring different styles of housing found throughout Wales at different periods in its history. These include a celtic village, medieval cottages, Victorian shops etc. It is the most visited museum in Wales and ‘The Refugee House’ was their most visited exhibit last year. What an innovative way to raise awareness about the experience of refugees living in Britain today. In addition to the many conversations that I had today, I helped an Iranian woman prepare for an English exam, assisted a man from Sudan with a passport application and learnt to say my name in Arabic. Tomorrow, I look forward to joining a women’s singing workshop.
There are some people you meet who you can’t help being impressed by. You see that their actions are really making a difference in the world. Reynette Roberts who founded the Oasis centre in Cardiff is one such person. It is now a week since I left the Oasis centre and looking back, I am still impressed with what she has achieved at the centre she set up four years ago because she saw a gap in the provision made for asylum seekers. Four years on she has secured a building, from Monday to Friday, that houses a drop in centre where asylum seekers can access information, a hot meal, English lessons, a range of workshops, outings, the internet and perhaps above all, a friendly welcome. In the three days that I was there, I was impressed with the range of activity and support that was being provided. It had never occurred to me for example that a woman fleeing her home country with her husband would have no support in childbirth, because in her homeland this was a role exclusive to women. Reynette has been the birth partner of one of the women who uses the centre and Helen Gubbs, the newly appointed women’s worker funded by Oxfam, is about to do the same.
The support provided at Oasis goes way beyond immediate crisis management, although this is also provided. (Whilst I was there a newly arrived asylum seeker was given food and found temporary accommodation). Reynette has also set up local partnerships that raise awareness and employment opportunities among the established local community. In the week that I was there, a young Cardiff woman was completing a six month work placement as a child worker and had a job interview at the end of the week. Two other young people were in similar work experience posts. Most impressive, in respect of raising awareness about the lives of asylum seekers, is the partnership that Reynette has forged with the museum sector. The exhibit, “The Rufugee’s House’ at the Fagans Museum on the outskirts of Cardiff, was the result of the partnership between Oasis and the Museum and included recordings of Cardiff asylum seekers speaking about their experiences. I understand that St.Fagan’s is the most visited Museum in Wales and that “The Refugee’s House’ was the most visited exhibit in 2012. The success of this project has led to the planning of future collaborations between the Museum and Oasis. Joint ventures are taking place for International Women’s day and Refugee Week, which will involve centre users working alongside curatorial staff in the museum. Oasis, originally set up to meet immediate need, is reaching beyond this and intergrating newly arrived asylum seekers into the culture of the city, whilst simultaneously increasing understanding within the city of the experience of asylum seekers.
It is no surprise to me that Reynette has secured Oxfam funding to support the work of Oasis. Its culture of giving people the tools to improve their own lives (all meals at the centre are cooked by centre users and at least one refugee is now a member of staff) is one shared with Oxfam. As a supporter of Oxfam, I am very impressed with the local partner that Oxfam have chosen to work with in Cardiff and hope that the relationship continues. At present Oasis has to clear the building at the end of each day because it is used for other purposes at the weekend and in the evenings. Who knows what someone with Reynette’s energy, vision and impulse for inclusivity could achieve with a dedicated building. May the funding stream continue!