The Federation of Iraqi Refugees (FIR) supports Iraqi refugees primarily from Kurdish backgrounds living in Islington. Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, FIR has continued to deliver their core services including helping find legal representatives, translating via the phone and advising and referring women and families facing domestic or honour violence to partner organisations like the Kurdish and Middle Eastern Women’s Organization, also based in Islington.
As many of the people they work with became increasingly alarmed by the pandemic, the Federation have used social engagement and community-based activism to provide numerous forms of support. As English is the second language of their client group, FIR quickly developed digital communication channels through Viber, Paltalk and other social media platforms to provide up to date information on symptoms and how to stay safe in their own languages. They have also added Covid-19 fact sheets to their website.
When lockdown first happened, one of FIR’s key team members was personally affected by Covid-19 and sought advice on recovery from friends who were doctors. This led to him asking these same doctors if they would offer support to FIR’s clients. Out of this idea a Social Assistance Mutual Aid Network was formed. Through this network FIR is assisting the Islington Kurdish and Iraqi community who are most in need of services and support. A virtual network of physicians, social workers and activists offer medical advice to those infected by the virus, raising social awareness about Covid-19 , and advice on preventing infection. A network of volunteers was established to assist the elderly and those with disabilities, purchasing and delivering grocery shopping and medications. The group also raised money for necessities such as food, water, medicine and clothing. To date they have assisted over 95 families.
Doctors have provided daily updates about Covid-19 that are passed on to the community through their Viber groups but the groups are also used to share jokes, poems, songs and entertainment that both reduce isolation and bring a little joy at this difficult time. The Paltalk group has been used to share experiences of those already affected by Covid-19 and information from volunteers, updating people on how to stay safe and what they are seeing on the front line. Paltalk has also been used to host seminars relating to their ongoing work such as celebrating and discussing the importance of International Women’s Day and International Refugee Day.
Here is an example of a person provided with support through FIR’s Mutual Aid group:
A local resident who is a UK citizen with a Kurdish Iraqi background was instructed to self-isolate for 14 days after being diagnosed with Covid-19. Living by himself with no-one else to turn to, a concerned friend referred him to FIR. A volunteer then went to Morrisons and Boots twice a week to purchase food, vitamin supplements and paracetamol. Thanking FIR for helping him, he said that without this Mutual Aid group he didn't know how he would have coped.
Speak Street helps isolated refugees and migrants in Islington improve their English in a fun and social way. Most of their classes take place at Islington Central Library. Although Speak Street postponed face-to-face classes following lockdown, they have used this time to innovate and test remote learning and to create new learning materials. They have trialled Zoom, Whatsapp mini classes and online learning via their website and created learning materials to share with their regular participants as well as making them available for free to a wider network of organisations. They have also provided postal worksheets for those not able to access online resources. Speak Street plans to continue offering Zoom classes until social distance measures are no longer required and have recently been awarded a further ICCC grant to continue to develop their learning resources – a direct outcome of their ongoing innovation during the Covid-19 crisis.
Below is a story of one of Speak Street’s participants:
S is an Islington resident originally from Eritrea. She has a young child and other children at school. She was determined to improve her English to a good enough standard to be able to seek employment. As she has a young child she found it impossible to attend more formalised English classes but was able to attend Speak Street’s classes at the library as she could have her young child asleep in her pushchair beside her. Because Speak Street has lots of teachers and volunteers on hand they are able to split into small groups offering tailored support at different levels. S was able to get lots of support and interaction and really work on the things she found difficult such as speaking and pronunciation. She has continued with the Zoom classes and completed many of the WhatsApp challenges during lockdown. The way that Speak Street delivers the classes has meant that the access barriers she was facing were removed which has allowed S to improve her English while meeting and having meaningful interactions with people from the local community.
Jannaty Women’s Social Society supports women primarily from Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds through the provision of sewing, cookery and exercise classes. They also run a charity shop in Finsbury Park that acts as a training centre for many women who are both able to work in the shop and make clothes that they can then sell. Jannaty was quick to respond to the crisis using their members sewing skills to produce reusable face masks that were then distributed to isolated and vulnerable residents through the Finsbury Park Women’s Group – a network of eight local women’s organisations. The project has provided opportunities for participants to join with Fashion Enter (an initiative that Jannaty works closely with), increasing their chances of employment. It has also provided a sense of achievement, increased confidence and tackled isolation and exclusion through participating in a community effort while connecting with their peers who they have not seen during lockdown. Jannaty, like so many other local organisations, moved their operations quickly to online platforms including Instagram and Zoom. Instagram accounts were set up for their charity boutique so that members could access affordable items during lockdown and also used these accounts to cross refer to Jannaty’s other platforms/information sources and as a means to enable members to interact. They also set up WhatsApp groups to ensure they remained in touch with their most vulnerable members and users – some of whom are blind, disabled, single parents, living with long term health conditions, refugees and asylum seekers. This has helped Jannaty connect them to the support they need including food packages, activity packs for children, clothing, as well as providing medical and mental health and wellbeing advice in their own languages (primarily Arabic or Somali).
Below is the story of one of Jannaty’s long standing members:
A woman who could not sew previously has attended all the sewing courses from when they first started. She wanted to learn to make garments for herself and her family and extending the life of existing clothes by mending and patching them to save time and money. She now has her own sewing machine and tools and is the team leader for the sewing and garment making group who make the reusable masks that are currently being distributed.