By Sophie Radice, Women for Refugee Women
‘What happens to a man on this journey? The most is that he is whipped and tortured. I would have rather had the same fate. But no women pass through the Sahara to Libya without being raped.’ Those were the words of one Eritrean refugee, read by actress Tanya Moodie at an event in London last month, to a packed and attentive audience.
The event, Listen to the Women, was organised by Women for Refugee Women and Care International UK in the run-up to the UN Refugee Summits, to highlight the particular challenges women face when they flee their homes to find safety.
The evening was opened by singer Yasmin Kadi, who was herself a refugee from Sierra Leone and whose brilliant verve and energy electrified the crowd. Then the audience heard from actors Anne-Marie Duff, Tanya Moodie and Juliet Stevenson who read searing testimonies of women’s experiences of fleeing from conflict to seek safety. Juliet Stevenson, who has campaigned over many years for the rights of refugees, read the words of Nadia, a refugee from Iraq now stuck in Serbia, and described how her unborn son died on the Mediterranean crossing and was buried in a mass grave. The women’s words brought home that every woman caught in the current crisis has a personal story to tell, and her own fears and dreams.
Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, then introduced ‘Fatima’, a woman who had herself made the dangerous journey from Sudan to the UK through Libya and Calais. Fatima explained that although she had passed through great horrors, but now looked forward to learning English and rebuilding her life in the UK. Refugee women from the London Refugee Women’s Forum then performed their own powerful poem about leaving their homes and seeking refuge. The audience gave the refugee women a standing ovation. As Natasha Walter said, they reminded us that refugees are not just victims, but are resilient, brave and full of potential to build a better world.
The event concluded with a panel discussion lead by radio 4’s Jane Garvey featuring the MPs Heidi Allen and Yvette Cooper, who are vocal advocates for the rights of refugee women and children; Howard Mollett, CARE Senior Policy Advisor; and Ghadah Al-Naseri, who sought asylum in the UK from Iraq, and now volunteers with Women for Refugee Women. Yvette Cooper summed up the mood of the event when she said:
The way that we make things happen is to tell these stories. It reminds us of the common humanity we share … and that it is possible to change things if we stand together.
The event was closed with the beautiful music of Eliza Shaddad, a singer of half Sudanese half Scottish descent.
The audience left with a strong message – to press the government to step up to ensure more support in developing countries for refugee women; provide safe, legal routes for refugee women so that they don’t have to dangerous journeys at the hands of smugglers, and to give refugee women in the UK dignity and a fair hearing. The words of the refugee women themselves resounded in their ears as they left: ‘Anyone can be a refugee.’