Sister I see you, sister I hear you, sister I feel you, sister I act with you - That is the motto of Sisters United, a support group set-up by Halifax residents Veecca Smith and Florence Kahuro.
Working with members and other women who are closely involved, in just seven months they have built their organisation from nothing into one that helps around 55 people of 17 different nationalities every week to improve housing conditions for refugees and asylum seekers as well taking people to hospital, registering their children for school meals, arranging toy collections and helping find school uniforms for families who can’t afford them.
“It’s a passion,” said Veecca, 41, originally from Nigeria. “Going through the journey yourself you see what others are going through.”
The pair met in October 2016 at the St Augustine’s Centre in Halifax, which offers support and advice to vulnerable people in the community.
“There was no women’s group in Halifax that supports the vulnerable with psychological and emotional support,” said Florence, 33, originally from Kenya.
“Through volunteering with St Augustine’s we could see the need for women to have their own space and meet each other.
“We also saw the different cultural challenges that make it hard for people to integrate.
“We knew if we created a group just for women in Calderdale, people would come to it.
“We’ve been through the struggle ourselves with no support so we know the problems.
“You are dealing with women who undergo so much trauma on their journey to the UK seeking refuge.
“That can make someone feel isolated or suicidal because they feel trapped.
“You are in a house and you don’t know what your life holds. It’s during that time that people have psychological problems.
“The asylum process alone, even if you don’t have any mental health problems, makes you mentally ill.
“Your life is depending on someone’s decision and you don’t know which way it will go.
“So we try to get people to come out of their homes to meetings and events, and that helps them.”
Veecca said: “These people had good lives before coming here, they had jobs, or they were professionals and had degrees.
“They are coming here because they want to be part of society and live and work here.
“But the systems in place here stop them from doing that.
“They are seeking refuge, maybe from war or persecution, but they are labelled asylum seekers, which immediately comes with a stigma.
“An asylum seeker has to live on just five pounds a day. How are they supposed to afford clothes and food for their children?”
“Knowledge is power,” said Florence. “If these people have the knowledge about their rights and how they can get help, they have the power to change their lives.
“All these people have their own identity and they need to own it. Say ‘this is me and this is what I want’.
“We want to bridge the gap between them and the local community so that people know where they are coming from and why they are here.
“Some people’s mentality is ‘why should these people get things for free’.
“But they want to give back to the community, either through volunteering or working and paying their taxes.”
Sisters United run sessions including yoga, arts and crafts and pampering one day a week (Mondays, 1pm to 3pm) at the Queen’s Road Neighbourhood Centre and is welcome to everyone, not just refugees, irrespective of nationality, gender or sexuality.
“We founded it, but it is for everyone,” says Florence. “One person might say ‘I want to teach people how to dance’ or ‘I want to invite my friend to do some LGBT training’.
“They have all this knowledge but they’ve not been given the chance or the confidence to come out and share it.”
The pair have plans to expand Sisters United into a nationwide network and help improve the standard of housing given to asylum seekers and improve access to counsellors, translators and child care.
Veecca and Florence’s work with Sisters United, and their additional community work, was recognised recently when they won the Woman of the Year Award at the Women on the Move Awards, presented by Migrants Organise and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
“It’s such a thing of joy for us to be recognised” added Vee. “We’re not doing it to be recognised.
“But when it happened it makes us feel we are on the right path and doing something nice.
“We really appreciate what the Kings Church, St Augustine’s, Racial Justice, Migrant Organise and UNHCR have done for us and for working alongside us.
“We just enjoy doing it.”