Conversation with Natasha Walter, Women for Refugee Women

Conversation with Natasha Walter, Women for Refugee Women

London Refugee Women’s Forum perform their poetry at the Brighton Crossing Borders festival. Photo Credit: Laura Mosedale

Since 2011, Unbound Philanthropy has partnered with Women for Refugee Women (WRW), a UK-based organization that sits at the intersection of the refugee and women’s rights movements. WRW works at the grassroots to support and empower women who are seeking asylum; it works with the arts, media, and public events to tell women’s stories; and by publishing research and informing politicians, it seeks to create a fairer asylum process. Founded by a former journalist, Natasha Walter, WRW has a unique capability to develop messages and narratives in partnership with refugee women.

Over the summer, Taryn Higashi and Natasha Walter spoke about the impact of the refugee crisis and the Brexit vote on Women for Refugee Women’s work, and the challenges of breaking through to skeptical audiences.

Taryn Higashi: This is a tumultuous time in the UK with the impact of the global refugee crisis on Europe, and then the Brexit vote. How has this period of time impacted Women for Refugee Women’s work?

Natasha Walter: It has been challenging in ways that we couldn’t have predicted. The European refugee situation has been difficult for us to impact, as an organization focused on the UK.

We have started a small project to connect with asylum seeking women who are stuck at the borders, working with partners in northern France. It’s still at its early stages but we are hopeful that we can build more support for new arrivals through this project.

The impact of the referendum is yet to be fully seen. Where we may have been able to measure our success among urban, educated audiences, [the referendum is] a wakeup call about the attitudes about migrants and refugees in communities that we’re not reaching.

Are you recognizing that you’re not reaching women who voted for Leave, or is it that they do know who you are but have overriding concerns about a message you’re sharing?

We are engaging with educated women who are already aware of social justice issues. I think it’s still a challenge for us to reach further. We have found, through research supported by Unbound and through experience, that the best way to connect is at a human, empathetic level. But how do you build from that to a strong political narrative that will remain robust even in the face of real challenges? This is what we are working toward.

The impact of the referendum is yet to be fully seen. Where we may have been able to measure our success among urban, educated audiences, [the referendum is] a wakeup call about the attitudes about migrants and refugees in communities that we’re not reaching.

The skepticism is about what part of the message?

It’s hard to break through the idea that there is not enough room and resources in the UK to look after more people. In communities that have been depleted during years of austerity, where there is pressure on schools, hospitals, housing, not enough employment—people in those situations feel there is not enough room for more needy people in this country. It’s hard to counter that. If you counter it with facts, you still hear, ‘Yes, but my hospital is still overcrowded.’ It’s hard to show that in fact what you need is more investment in public services, and then we’ll be able to build strong integrated communities that could be welcoming to refugees.

So the scarcity is real, then, as experienced by some communities.

Exactly. We can talk about economic benefits that immigration brings, but among communities that don’t see those benefits, it rings hollow. It’s telling that people in more deprived communities voted for Leave, and London voted more to remain. London has much higher immigration and we’ve seen the benefits. Obviously it’s limited what a small charity can do to counter that sense among some communities that they have been left behind, and their tendency sometimes to blame immigrants for the situation. We don’t give up hope, but we have to be realistic about what we can achieve in the short-term.

Are you working with other organizations that share your mission to figure out how to respond to the new context? What is the field-wide dynamic in response that you’re part of?

It’s strong. It was timely that there was a gathering of leaders of migrant and refugee organizations a week after the referendum vote. Agencies small and large came together, and top of the agenda was the response to the referendum. There is nervousness about what happens to the progressive agenda more generally. But we know we have to answer the challenge, and try to move forward on shared goals and build broader and more effective working relationships.

Are there bright lights to share?

Theresa May, the new Prime Minister, has a pretty good record on her strategy about violence against women and girls, on forced marriage, and so on. We’ve also recently and successfully advocated for putting a time limit on the detention of pregnant women. We’ve raised awareness on detention in the UK and the impact it has on women. And we have seen the rise of the Refugees Welcome movement in the UK. There are strong circles of support, and we must not lose sight of that.

How do you use the arts, or partnerships with artists, to help refugee women tell their stories?

One of our key early successes was a performance event that tells the stories of families in detention and we continue to use theatre and performance in our campaigning work. We’ve also carried out arts projects at the grassroots; we carried out one project where refugee women had cameras to record their conditions living in London. Work at the grassroots is partly about empowering refugee women themselves, giving them the confidence to tell their stories. It also allows us to connect them with audiences, which means that a very immediate, empathetic connection can be created.

My last question is, what is your wishlist for an audience of funders?

What’s so important is the possibility for sustainable funding. It is so valuable for us to work with funders over a few years. And, sometimes, to be taken out of our comfort zone. Also, nothing beats face-to-face connection between those working on the frontline and funders. There’s an honesty about those encounters which helps to encourage realism about what can be achieved and we like to be able to show funders the concrete evidence of the experiences of our users and the reactions of our audiences. That always beats describing those things in a report!