Tireless work of UK refugee supporters celebrated on International Women's Day

From left to right: Zrinka Bralo of Migrants Organise, Champion award winner Dr Jess Potter, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Vanessa Redgrave, Woman of the Year Rossana Leal, Young Woman of the Year Zamira Abbasova, UNHCR's Laura Padoan and BBC broadcaster Samira Ahmed.  © Beth Crosland

Inspirational refugee advocates took to the stage of the Royal Festival Hall in London on Friday, International Women’s Day, in recognition of the invaluable help that they provide to displaced and vulnerable people. The awards also kicked off the WOW - Women of the World Festival.


The annual Women on the Move Awards - supported by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and Migrants Organise, and hosted by BBC broadcaster Samira Ahmed - celebrate the courage and contribution of refugee women and recognise their efforts to win social change. The awards help winners gain recognition and a greater profile for their grassroots work supporting other refugees, asylum-seekers and vulnerable people.

Oscar-winning actor and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Vanessa Redgrave presented the award for Woman of the Year to Rossana Leal, a former Chilean refugee who founded the ‘Buddy Project’ in Hastings to welcome Syrian refugees. In just over a year, she has helped create a community of more than one hundred buddies and together they share Sunday roasts, visit local sites and festivals, run sewing groups, driving lessons and children’s activities for refugees living nearby.

Rossana in Hastings

Collecting her award, Leal said: “When future generations ask what was going on at this time, ask yourself: did you resist or did you collaborate? Agitate, educate and organise!”

Presenting the award, Redgrave drew on the words of Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: ’How far that little candle throws his beams!  So shines a good deed in a naughty world.“ Of the award winners, she said: “They’re like a lit candle in a naughty world… To see these women here I want to say the hugest possible thank you to UNHCR, their partner Migrants Organise and all the women who work for these vital organisations.”

UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Vanessa Redgrave.  © Beth Crosland

Samira Ahmed interviews Woman of the Year Rossana Leal.  © Beth Crosland

The Young Woman of the Year was awarded to Zamira Abbasova, a refugee from Armenia who went to school in a UNHCR tent and has worked as peace-builder, creating bridges between communities in Armenia and Azerbaijan.  She co-founded the Women’s Entrepreneurial Chamber of Commerce in Georgia, and, since arriving in the UK, she has been helping refugees to turn their business dreams into a reality through The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network.

"Healthcare is a human right. As a doctor, I want to see patients, not passports. I want to be a caregiver, not a border guard"

Founder of the WOW Festival Jude Kelly presented the Champion Award to Dr Jess Potter, a lung doctor who has been at the forefront of advocating for migrants’ rights in the NHS. Potter campaigns with Docs Not Cops, conducts PhD research, mobilises healthcare unions and has created a network of healthcare professionals across the UK in support of universal healthcare.

Collecting her award, she said: “‘No one should ever be turned away when they come up to our door and say ‘help me.’ Healthcare is a human right. As a doctor, I want to see patients, not passports. I want to be a caregiver, not a border guard.”

The Sue Lloyd-Roberts Media Award went to went to Amelia Gentleman, whose investigative journalism for The Guardian unearthed the deportation of Windrush migrants and helped bring a change in government policy.

Young Woman of the Year Zamira Abbasova (second from right) with staff from The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network.  © Beth Crosland

Before the evening’s final performance by the Citizens of the World Choir of refugees and British singers, Zrinka Bralo, Chief Executive of Migrants Organise and a former refugee from Bosnia, explained her reasons for setting up the Women on the Move Awards:

“We wanted to create a world, for at least one hour, once a year, where we can experience the world as it should be – the world of welcome and celebration and achievement of people who are making contributions, fighting for truth and justice. We wanted to have our voices heard. We wanted to show that we - migrants and refugees - are here, and we matter. And that there are people in the UK who think so too.”