On a cold February day, the hills surrounding Halifax in West Yorkshire begin to turn white. On the outskirts of town, a community centre fills with laughter and a dozen languages as members of ‘Sisters United’ take their seats around the organisers, Veeca Smith Uka and Florence Kahuro.
Some of the women and their children are from Halifax, others from further afield: Albania, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Somalia, DR Congo, Cameroon and Afghanistan. For many, it was the first time they had left home that week. Florence cuts a striking figure as she delivers the notices: the local church has donated a cheque to pay for tea and cake, and that afternoon there will be dancing to celebrate.
Veeca – known as Vee – explains why she and Florence set up the group, which supports around 50 women of 17 nationalities at weekly meetings. “My goal was for women not to feel trapped in their properties. So many were at home, suicidal and depressed. They were isolated and had no confidence because they couldn’t speak the language.”
Both women have been living here just over a year, and they struggled with life in a new town, alone. “When refugees and asylum seekers come to this country, they don’t understand what to do or if they get status, how to look for a job, and then they find that their housing benefits have stopped,” Vee told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. “The church didn’t know that people are suffering in their community; our MPs, our community, they don’t know what people like us go through. We do know, and we try to bridge the gap.”
When Vee first met Florence, they recognised in each other a shared passion to help others. For 33 year-old Florence, the details of her past are too painful to recount; the abuse she experienced led to utter despair.
“When I told Vee about my life, she wasn’t judgmental. So I thought, this is the right person, we can achieve something together,” explains Florence. “I could see myself slipping away. I was so desperate, I had no one. I thought I wouldn’t see tomorrow, but I still had hope and I thought, ‘you have to help other women Florence, that’s what you have to do now’. Because there are women out there with even less support.”
"They always put a smile on people’s faces"
When Florence moved into her flat in Halifax with her daughter, 4, she was initially delighted. But when an immersion tank in one of the flats above hers crashed through two floors in the block, and the extractor hood fell from above her oven cutting her arm, her sanctuary began to feel unsafe. Watching news of the tragic fire in which residents of London’s Grenfell Tower lost their lives, Florence was determined that a similar disaster should not take place. She began organising the block’s residents, and before long, Sisters United was formed. Florence contacted the council’s fire and environmental services, bought chains for the doors, forced the housing provider to fit emergency lighting in stairwells, fix boilers and fit fire doors.
“So far we’ve achieved a lot in making sure the accommodation is safer. But when it comes to housing, in the whole of Halifax there’s not an asylum seeker or refugee who’s been given good accommodation,” she says. “There’s damp, overcrowding, darkness. There’s mice, rats, cold - in some of the flats the heaters aren’t working. ”
Vee fled to the UK from Nigeria, where she faced persecution because of her sexuality. After applying for asylum and being sent with her three children to Halifax, her main concern was their safety. But when she arrived she found the flat she had been allocated was unclean, there were no chairs and the oven and boiler were broken. Due to delays in receiving support, the family was left without money and her son had to walk four miles to school. Vee was determined that Sisters United would provide that safety net.
Every Monday Vee meets newly arrived asylum-seekers in Halifax at St Augustine’s community centre and takes them on a walking tour of the town. She fills in forms for them, registers them at their local GP and accompanies people to hospital if they don’t speak good English. When they’re out of hospital, she brings them food. She checks which schools the families have been allocated, she applies for bus passes and school meals for the children, and finds them uniforms.
Lora Evans, a programme leader at St Augustine’s, says that within a fortnight of arriving Vee had started volunteering. “Vee is doing everything,” she said. “I just cannot believe how much empathy and space she has in her heart for other people: she has an unlimited amount of time and patience. Vee has inspired other women, she’s mobilised men and women across the community.”
Although Halifax has recently become a dispersal area for asylum-seekers, St Augustine’s leader Vicky Ledwidge talks proudly of its heritage in welcoming new communities. Built on the textile industry, she explains that there is a history of contribution from people of migrant backgrounds. “We’re a patchwork community,” she says.
“Both Vee and Florence are always here, they’re bouncy and brilliant and they always put a smile on people’s faces because they’re incredible ladies. Both have been amazingly active in starting Sisters United. It’s so incredibly brave of them to do it. …They’ve paved the way and now the men are starting to come together too.”
"If you believe in humanity you go out there and fight, you don’t sit back and wait."
Back at the community centre, Vee is in charge of the sound system as Florence leads the dancing. Nigerian music is followed by Balkan and then Middle Eastern songs. The women laugh as they learn new moves and children tear about excitedly.
Rosa* takes to the floor to demonstrate the folk dancing of her native Albania and describes how she has been helped. “At first I was afraid, thinking I can’t speak or do anything for myself. But Vee says, ‘anything you need, I can help you.’ It doesn’t matter the time or what she’s feeling, she’s always there.”
After hours of talking and dancing, and with all the cake eaten, Sisters United head home. Vee and Florence are clearly proud that their friendship has grown to encompass other women, not just asylum-seekers and refugees.
“Sisters United is a home, it’s a safe place,” explains Vee. “We’re always here for each other. In my world, I don’t believe in impossibility. Women should feel respected, they should have their dignity. We’ve accepted our similarities rather than our differences. Sisters United is helping to integrate people into society.”
Florence adds: “I want Sisters United to be in all cities in the UK, I want it to be global, to give people hope so that they don’t give up. We want to encourage women that there is more to life than just giving up… If you believe in humanity you go out there and fight, you don’t sit back and wait.’
*Name changed for protection reasons