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More than 8,500 readers have so far given to charities providing help to refugees and asylum seekers
‘We are the talk of the town’: the refugee-led Glasgow charity helping women caught up in asylum system Therapy, accommodation, haircare – Ubuntu offers destitute women practical help and advice, and an emotional lifeline
“Shelter is a verb,” says Dania Thomas, volunteer director of Ubuntu, the Glasgow-based, refugee-led charity supporting several hundred women each year who have been forced to the margins by the asylum system.
It was an idea conceived around Thomas’s dining table over a pot of hot curry and rice, explains founding trustee Fatou Gitteh, when friends and activists questioned why there was no dedicated shelter for women with insecure immigration or no recourse to public funds (NRPF) status in Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest asylum dispersal area.
Five years on, Ubuntu – the name is derived from the Nguni Bantu term meaning “I am because we are” – offers crisis accommodation in its two-bedroom shelter, and drop-in services from its office in the Gorbals, south of the River Clyde.
Last year, about 200 women used Ubuntu’s services, with referrals increasing exponentially, first as a result of the charity’s popularity – “Now we are the talk of the town,” laughs Syeda, who runs the emergency hotline – and then recent Home Office attempts to clear the asylum backlog.
‘We realised we needed to give the women access to GPs, lawyers, cash’: Dania Thomas, volunteer director of Ubuntu. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
At the office, where support workers and shelter guests are drinking spicy Eritrean coffee, Thomas says: “First it was about providing accommodation – the rule is that no one should be destitute, so we pay for a night in a hotel if necessary. Then we realised we needed to give the women access to GPs, lawyers, cash.”
Women referred to Ubuntu by other agencies across the city, or who self-refer, are provided with a £50 grant immediately, no questions, and then £40 weekly when they stay in the shelter. “Just to have immediate independence, when you have money of your own – it has a big impact on mental health.”
Ubuntu is a member of Naccom (No Accommodation Network) – one of the charities supported by the 2023 Guardian and Observer appeal, alongside British Refugee Councils and Refugees at Home. The appeal has so far raised more than £1,225,000. Most of Naccom’s donations will go as grants to grassroots organisations tackling refugee homelessness and destitution, like Ubuntu.
The experience of asylum-seeking women – what it is like to find oneself alone on foreign streets, possibly with children, and without a common language – is the cornerstone of Ubuntu’s service provision, and a dramatic contrast to the anonymous, punishing bureaucracy of the asylum system. Three former service users are now part of the seven-woman team that runs the charity.
‘We are the talk of the town’: Syeda, one of the seven woman team. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
“Talking to someone who knows the system, having lived through it, is really important,” says Syeda. “These women are new in the city. They don’t know what organisations can help them or where to get legal advice.”
Lack of signposting remains a real problem, they all agree. Gitteh recalls, at a bus stop, meeting a woman and her child holding a food voucher but with no idea where to spend it.
There is a very real risk of sexual exploitation for women in such precarious circumstances, Gitteh adds, and Ubuntu is explicitly open to sex workers, recognising the intersection of gender and the hostile environment. This inclusivity also extends to self-identifying women.
Aleena, who spent 10 years in the asylum system after fleeing Pakistan and now works as Ubuntu’s grants lead, explains: “When I started as a volunteer I had zero confidence and I needed helped building it back up, so I’m able to better understand [new arrivals’] feelings and needs.”
All these women recognise intimately the importance of this sort of emotional scaffolding among women navigating the asylum system for the first time.
Rita Elias, from Eritrea and the most recent former service user to join the staff, explains how she became a guest of Ubuntu during lockdown after other organisations refused to help because of her NRPF status. “Ubuntu would call me every day to ask: ‘How did you sleep? Did you go for a walk today?’ at a time when I felt so isolated.”
The newest team member, Rita Elias runs haircare sessions at a salon, which encapsulates ‘the magic of Ubuntu’. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
Now she runs weekly haircare sessions at a salon in the city centre, which she says, encapsulates “the magic of Ubuntu”.
“African hair needs more care and attention, but for a lot of women this is the first time they have been to a salon since they came to the UK, because it costs money, and so do hair products.”
She smiles as she describes the effect on her clientele: “When women leave the salon you can see the change in their face. This is not only about haircare – it is therapy. When they sit in the chair, you hear a lot of stories, emotional things they have gone through, the memories it brings back.”
“I know how I lived when I was in the system,” adds Aleena, “and wherever I went, whatever groups I joined, they always talked about asylum, lawyers, Home Office. But women don’t want just to focus on the asylum system. So we are trying to do makeup sessions, hair, sewing, just to talk about different things.”
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Ubuntu’s regular women’s groups collaborate with other Glasgow activist groups across the city, sewing banners with the Make Your Mark craftivist group, creating artwork at Glasgow Women’s Library and planting beds at the GalGael Trust with the intention of growing vegetables for community meals. Ubuntu itself is directly descended from the Unity Centre, which championed migrant rights in the city but sadly closed its doors last month, leaving a huge gap in Glasgow’s vibrant activist ecosystem.
“We couldn’t have done this if we weren’t in Glasgow,” Thomas concludes. “There are so many layers of activism in the city; it’s almost a historical memory, so nobody is surprised by what we want to do – and we want to do a lot more. It’s an almost intangible acceptance.”