VOICES OF LEWISHAM
“The food banks have been a real life line to so many of the women …. I don’t think they would have survived without them.”
Elsa helps run the Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network Women’s Group. She has been struck by the depth of resilience her group members have shown - and explains what a blessing hardship funds and food banks have been for them.
“Things feel worse lately. Under the first lockdown, there weren’t that many people around us getting the virus. But just a few days ago, a few members of the women’s group said they were recently recovering from COVID-19, including one woman who was pregnant at the time. Many of the members are very private and value their dignity. So I think it says a lot about their suffering, that people talked about their experiences to the group.
“Some of the women have been talking about the challenges of buying things online. Many don’t even have a bank account, because of their immigration status, and some don’t have devices at home or the know-how to navigate online shopping. Most of the women rely on foodbanks. So when they get sick and have to self-isolate, this can be a real issue. But what is great to see, is how much people do help. Many of the women help each other out, or have neighbours and friends that go shopping for them. One mother was even sharing her food bank parcels with a family of four.
“This was in the previous lockdown. Now, as their kids are at home and many charities like us don’t have enough funds to cover essential costs, the members are in a really desperate situation. Only some can access Free School Meals, depending on the school or borough’s policy.
“The women are really resilient, they are used to facing hardship. But I think our online zoom group, although not perfect, is providing a lot of comfort and social connections. We’ve had a lot of new women joining the group throughout the pandemic. One woman living in asylum accommodation doesn’t even have a smartphone, and uses her roommate’s phone to join the group every week.
“A few women in the group are still learning English but they are joining in because they enjoy the company, the singing and mindfulness sessions. Our signing teacher, Madeline, has been such a rock throughout, working with Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network for over ten years and her input is always appreciated.
“For the majority of the women, they are counting the days until this is all over. For a couple of our members who were homeless before the pandemic, they are afraid of the end of lockdown, as that could mean an end to the roof over their head.
“I have heard this time and time again: some of the most positive experiences under lockdown has been the extension of Free School Meals. So many have said they have no idea how they would have coped without this. The meals have helped so many parents feed their children. Others have also told me how much Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network hardship funds were a blessing. One of the ladies said it even saved her from domestic violence, as the hardship fund helped her to buy basic necessities for her and her children so she doesn't have to fully depend on her partner. This created peace and respect in the family.
“So many of the women’s mental health is pinned to their immigration status. So many women are just waiting for a letter from the Home Office to let them know they can stay in the UK and earn a living. Until then, their mental health really suffers. I have seen so many women’s mental health improve after receiving a positive result from the Home Office. So I guess their biggest hope is to be allowed to live in the UK and make a life here.
“The pandemic has really made so many people feel helpless. This was really true in March, when everything was so chaotic and people were stockpiling and panicking. What was left was so expensive. These first few weeks were really challenging. Even charities like us, had to adapt really quickly to a demanding situation. And in the meantime, many families were in a desperate situation. The food banks have been a real life line to so many of the women, including our own food bank and the local Christian charity LewCas, who’ve never turned us down to take referrals! I don’t think they would have survived without them.”
Elsa spoke to us in February 2021