Isolated but not alone: how technology is helping young female refugees express themselves and support each other
Last updated 25 April 2023
As our refugee support programmes moved online, our teams found an unexpected bonding opportunity for young women
Surviving isolation through lockdown
Separated from friends, family and partners, the Covid pandemic has been a lonely time for many of us. It's been even harder for some young refugees and people seeking asylum, who already lived apart from their loved ones.
The British Red Cross supports many young refugees aged 15-21 with individual help, meals and group activities. But during the pandemic, they way we gave this support had to change.
A need to adapt very quickly
Before Covid, our refugee centres hosted activities including practical courses on accessing healthcare, asylum support and budgeting, as well as art, music and dance classes. Part of our Surviving to Thriving project, these activities unfortunately came to an abrupt halt when the first national lockdown was announced.
Almost immediately, Red Cross staff worked with Samsung and Vodafone to get 60 smartphones and phone plans donated to young people who needed them. This allowed us to deliver online sessions in every area where we already supported young people.
The online groups got off to a slow start, but soon had a positive impact.
“It’s a bit strange to see other people’s faces on a small screen and trying to speak when your English maybe is not great, so it took a while,” said Ambra, a Red Cross refugee support worker.
“We just try to recreate what we used to do together, and also make sure that they know we’re here for them to speak to if they need to. To create the same kind of safe space, with their friends, with us, and with the volunteers," Ambra added.
WOW - helping young women grow and thrive
As early as March 2019, young women refugees had asked the Red Cross to set up a group for them, in addition to the mixed-gender groups we already ran.
They had experience of the specific problems that young women can face after arriving in the UK and described a need for female-only spaces. But since there are so many more young male refugees than females, it was hard to set up a women's group in person.
Lockdown changed all this when our services for young refugees went online. In April 2020, we followed their suggestion and created a national online group for young women from across all of our young refugee projects.
Young women were consulted about how they wanted the group to work, when it should take place and what kind of topics and activities they would like to cover. These included empowering public speaking, confidence-building and learning about their rights.
“When I first joined [her local Red Cross group] there was only me, one girl,” explained Maryam, a group member.
“But now with the online groups, all girls are talking to each other. Some girls might feel like ‘OK, there is a guy, I can't talk properly.’ But all of the girls are comfortable, so they can talk widely and share their problems, their opinions,” Maryam said.
The young women decided to call the group Women of the World, or WOW for short.
Poems to tell their stories
Writing workshops, organised in partnership with Good Chance Theatre and Eko Zine, have also been popular.
The sessions improve English language skills and celebrate the many languages and cultures represented in the WOW group. Young women were given writing prompts and were then encouraged to write poetry and share stories in both English and their mother tongues. The central theme was ‘Sounds of Welcome’.
In response to the prompt ‘adventure’, Mika from Azerbaijan wrote:
Life is adventure
I walk through life non-identical
Holy and sinful
I have outlived my desires
I am flying over the mountains
And winds are blowing
Like a cloak on my back
I have outlived my desires
The language of feelings
Many of the young women were also interested in art, and when people could meet in person again, we held art workshops.
As with young women everywhere, thoughts and conversations often turned to love. One WOW group member's poem reflects this:
Love is sweet
Love is the language of feelings
Love is when
You think of
Someone all the time.
It has the hands to help others
It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy
It has eyes to see misery and want
It has the ears to hear the sighs
And sorrows of men
That is what love looks like
So well that
You may lose it.
Love has no eyes but love is not
Meeting in person for the first time
When lockdown restrictions were lifted, the Red Cross organised a face-to-face trip for the WOW group to Malham in the Yorkshire Dales. Finally able to meet and support each other in person, the young women came from all over the country, meeting in Leeds alongside one staff member and two volunteers.
For many of the young women, it was the first time they had been outside of the cities where they live in England and Scotland. To help them get out into nature more, they hiked to Malham Cove, Janets Foss and Gordale Scar, and also did creative writing sessions, scavenger hunts and felting.
The young women also quickly formed friendships and began to create their own group activities. One arranged a time capsule activity and film night for the rest of the group. WOW members, staff and volunteers all agreed it was an unforgettable weekend.
Something good to come out of lockdown
Many people experienced familiar activities shutting down or becoming less active during the pandemic. But instead, WOW is a great example of how creative thinking in lockdown helped our services grow, and helped more young refugee women expand their horizons.
This includes taking part in new research on how the UK asylum system could be safer and fairer for women and girls. WOW group members contributed their first-hand experiences of seeking asylum to We want to be strong, our report with recommendations for policy makers on refugee issues.
WOW group member and student Maryam spoke for many when she said, “I don't get bored that much because I'm busy with my stuff. But I know there are some girls who might not be with their family, but when they join the group, all of us are there to help."
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