Nestled on Brick Lane in London’s East you will find women from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East who embody the meaning of this word. They have arrived in London from vast and varied circumstances and their new life in the UK is just that - a gift and a blessing.
In search of direction, community and a sense of home, more than 300 migrant women a year come to the organisation rightly named the Heba Women’s Project. Some stay just a few months; for others, it’s a lifetime affair, returning time and time again for the friendship and the support. Regardless – each woman leaves Heba feeling different. Changed even. Empowered.
And the key to this empowerment? The safe space, the people and the learning opportunities most certainly help but the real elevator – the ultimate personal endorsement - is commitment. Commitment on behalf of each woman to be open, listen and try.
The project was started 24 years ago by eight Bangladeshi women, wives of leather workers, who needed a space of their own for informal study and problem sharing. New to London – and its people, cultural norms, working environment and family demands - the women realised that there were many other new women to London who felt just as lost. These founding members were provided a room among the vintage boutiques and curry restaurants on Brick Lane by the Spitafields Small Business Association, a not-for-profit organisation which supports community and socially-minded initiatives take flight.
What has developed is a centre which provides more than 300 women a year from diverse cultural backgrounds with a safe space to make new friends and connections, learn valuable knowledge and skills, and engage in enterprise activities to meet their individual needs and family commitments.
I walked into the centre just on lunchtime as spoonfulls of couscous, shepherds’ pie, lentils and beans were being dished up. There was a constant hum of chatter and spikes of laughter as the women caught up after the morning session of classes.
Breaking for lunch with the women, Anne Wilding, the centre’s manager, said: “This is an important part of everyday. Uniting over food.”
A large majority of the women are from Bangladesh and Somalia with smaller numbers come from northern Africa, parts of the Middle East and Sudan, so there is always an eclectic range of foods for the tasting.
|Anne Wilding (tall and centre) with ladies from the centre with women from the centre showcasing clothes made in class|
Anne continued. “What we try to do is help these women become more active in their lives and equip them with the skills they need to get by in everyday life here in the UK. That might be to get a job or to continue their studies – whatever their desire is.”
Heba offers courses in spoken and written English, sewing and design, as well as information and technology, providing women with nationally recognised qualifications to enter the workforce. It also provides enterprise programs on production work through its connection with designers, and has a small number of subsidised work spaces within the centre for women who want to try out new ideas and start up in business.
In fact, in 2010 Heba was recognised as the winner of the Social Inclusion and Diversity category of the Tower Hamlets Third Sector Awards.
Many of the women come to the centre feeling vulnerable, depressed and lonely explained Anne. “Many experience domestic and cultural isolation when they arrive here in London as they try to adapt from an extended-family way of living, which they have known all their lives, to this new context, where nuclear families are expected to be autonomous. Nobody prepares you for this change, so you can end up feeling very alone.”
“A big part of what we do is also helping the women to expand the space they feel safe in, by using libraries, community centres and leisure venues for example to connect and socialise with people. We often arrange day trips using London Transport to familiarise the women with the environment and demonstrate how it is done. This increased confidence in the wider community helps women be better mothers.”
There are two sides to the coin however.
Previously, the sole purpose of the project was to support the women to build the confidence to actively participate in society, but this is only possible with mutual understanding and acceptance from the local British population. “We now work to bridge this gap and aid cross-cultural appreciation and exchange,” Anne said.
“Britian is a multi-cultural nation and we have a duty to increase cultural understanding on both sides.”
One of the ways the project does this is by offering evening and weekend courses in sewing, Sylheti and (soon to come) Moroccan, and inviting the local community to events and fundraises.
“Unfortunately though, stereotypes and misconceptions blind people.”
“We want to change the landscape, so to speak, and build a culture of awareness and reciprocal respect for each other’s differences – and to learn from these differences as opposed to being frightened of them.”
“We essentially want to breakdown the idea of they and come back to we,” Anne explained.
“Even among the women at Heba there are often assumptions made on cultural background, but as the women interact, you see the shift happen and awareness set in.”
Sandra is one of Heba’s youngest women. She is just 16 years old and arrived in London in December last year with her parents. Originally from Dakhar, Bangladesh, Sandra has lived the past 14 years in Italy. She says: “It wasn’t my choice to move here. I was doing well in school and all my friends are all in Italy.” Hoping to begin a course in childcare, Sandra found herself stuck when she arrived when she realised that courses didn’t commence until September.
“Unfortunately we arrived late and was really missing all my friends. I thought I would go crazy with boredom!”
Sandra’s dad had heard of Heba through friends in the area and suggested she maybe look into doing a course and meeting new people through the centre.
“I was excited but also very nervous when I first came to Heba. I realised that I am quite a lot younger than many of the women… Day by day, I had more confidence and now we are like a big family. I am learning how to manage the main office and reception area. We are all volunteers on reception so we all work as a team to help the other women. That means I’m learning to be more responsible and have ideas and start projects. I am going to plan and run a weekly training session for women who want to know more about social media and how it works,” Sandra added.
Sandra will begin her course at a collage in Hackney in the next few months. “I can’t wait to start! I love working with children and I feel I am ready now after my time at Heba.”
On Sunday June 22nd, the women of Heba along with members of the local community, will meet at 10:00 in the morning and walk 10km to Buckingham Palace to raise awareness of the charity, and fundraise for these vital services. If you would like to sponsor one of the walkers, click here.
Story by Leah Davies
Leah is a passionate storyteller, a multi-skilled communications specialist and a devoted human rights activist. She writes to ignite meaningful connection, to arouse curiosity, to push boundaries, to live large, to speak up, to create change.
She is deeply fuelled by a desire to create ideas and build visions to make this world a better place. A place where we can each equally follow our dreams - regardless of the place we were born, our religious affiliations, our sexual identity, our access to education. Everything in fact to do with the status quo. After studying the causes of conflict and division in society, Leah now uses storytelling to unite people, to create community and to open opportunities for collective action.
Her website, Paper Planes Connect, is a place to celebrate our difference and to unite in our sameness.