People who come to the UK seeking sanctuary from war, oppression and persecution often arrive with visions of peace and safety.

Sadly, many find themselves facing a punishing, hand-to-mouth existence as they try to navigate a demanding asylum system.

For women, that process can be even tougher.

Kara Tilbury, coordinator of the Women’s Project at the Red Cross in Plymouth, said: “Women claiming asylum face gender-specific challenges and the system needs to be sensitive to that.

“Some women have experienced extreme trauma. They are forced to make a journey they do not want to make.

“It is a journey they have to make – maybe to escape honour violence, forced marriage, FGM (female genital mutilation) or sexual and domestic violence.

“Seeking asylum is not a choice for these women; it is a necessity due to circumstances beyond their control.”

Supporting vulnerable women 

Kara and her small team of volunteers, many of whom have first-hand experience of the asylum system, support vulnerable women as they settle into their new lives in Plymouth.

Our Refugee Services team see every newly dispersed asylum seeker arriving in Plymouth through its ‘Welcome Project’.

The team at Plymouth refugee services

The team at Plymouth refugee services

All asylum seekers are visited by a Red Cross volunteer within hours of their arrival in the city, welcoming them and helping orientate them to their new home.

All women who receive help from our Welcome Project are referred on to the Women’s Project.

Our volunteers provide the women with one-to-one support in a safe and confidential space. They encourage them to build friendships to reduce loneliness and refer them to other agencies providing support.

Celebrating International Women’s Day

As the world marks International Women’s Day on 8 March, the Women’s Project team will host a celebratory breakfast and meditation session at their offices in Plymouth.

Kara added: “International Women’s Day is a day of celebration for us and the women we support.

“Women seeking asylum carry a fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion.

“These women are being forced to flee their homes and the lives they have built, sometimes being separated from their families or experiencing trauma.

“Many of the women we work with are highly educated and had built successful lives for themselves before being made, against their will, to flee.

“Individuals seeking asylum are not allowed to work or seek an education while their claim is being assessed. This creates additional challenges.

“The lack of options imposed by the system can result in increased social isolation – negatively impacting on women’s mental, emotional and psychological wellbeing.

“International Women’s Day is an important opportunity to highlight the specific difficulties women face as they try to claim asylum.”

“I understand the isolation”

Many of the Women’s Project volunteers have personal experiences of navigating the gruelling asylum system. This first-hand knowledge has helped shape the service and support it offers.

Fatima Isse has been volunteering for the Red Cross for over two years. Originally from Somalia, she has experience of seeking asylum.

Talking about the Women’s Project, she said: “I have been in their situation. I know what it’s like to be in a foreign country where you can’t understand what people are saying, where you can’t communicate. I understand the isolation.

“People need a sense of safety, a sense of belonging. It’s not easy for them to leave everything behind. We try to help them feel they can be safe here.”

Giving women hope

Ruth Namuswe, a refugee from Uganda, has been volunteering with the Red Cross for six months. She arrived in Plymouth as an asylum seeker in August last year and was supported by the Welcome Project.

Ruth said: “When I first arrived in Plymouth I was scared about moving to a strange city where I didn’t know anyone. I was alone and I cried a lot. When I arrived, the Red Cross volunteer welcomed me to the city and that gave me hope.

“I see people who have given up on life. I hear so many stories of people much worse off than me and I want to give them hope too.

“We try to help by building their confidence and encouraging friendships. By bringing women together it gives them a chance to support each other and share their experiences.”

“The Red Cross helped me so much”

For Jury Arevalo, an asylum seeker from Venezuela, volunteering for the Women’s Project gives her a sense of purpose.

She said: “Women asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable. I had that feeling as a woman seeking asylum.

“I have faced destitution and needed financial support to survive. The Red Cross helped me so much I knew I wanted to volunteer straight away.”

Kara Tilbury, who heads up the Women's Project in Plymouth

Kara Tilbury, who heads up the Women’s Project in Plymouth

Kara added: “There are many gender-related issues, such as sexual violence, social isolation and specific health issues, like FGM and domestic violence that need a sensitive and understanding approach. That is what the Women’s Project provides.

“International Women’s Day can help to highlight those issues, but it is also a great opportunity for the women to come together – for us all to celebrate the strength and poise of these amazing women.”

This piece was written by Sam Whitwham, media relations officer