Women’s Week: International women’s group helps refugees and asylum seekers settle in Suffolk

Some members of Suffolk Refugee Support's international women's group. Picture: GEMMA MITCHELL

Some members of Suffolk Refugee Support's international women's group. Picture: GEMMA MITCHELL - Credit: GEMMA MITCHELL

Refugee and asylum seeking women living in Suffolk say getting to grips with the English language is one of the biggest challenges they face.

The international women’s group at Suffolk Refugee Support meets in Ipswich on Wednesdays and aims to help newcomers establish a stable life in the county.

Each session attracts around 35 women, hailing from countries such as Iraq, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Albania.

Attendees are supported to improve their English skills, given advice on living in the UK, taken on trips into the community and empowered to maintain good health and stay safe.

I joined members for their first meet-up after the Christmas break to hear about their experiences, on the proviso they would remain anonymous.

Nearly everyone in the room said they had fell victim to some form of prejudice, particularly if they were wearing a headscarf because as one woman put it: “people don’t like Muslims”.

Members said the man of the house was seen as “the boss” within many families in their homelands.

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Praise was given to the education system in the UK because it is accessible to all children regardless of their wealth or social status.

I was told many pupils in Turkey were forced to leave school early to get a job because their families could not afford the fees.

However, an Albanian mother revealed how some parents at a play group in Suffolk would not let their children interact with her son.

What all the women did agree on was that life in Suffolk would be much easier if they could speak fluent English, but they said this had not prevented them from integrating into the community.

Meetings are often attended by a guest speaker who will give a talk or demonstration on their field of expertise.

One session involved a workshop with a female genital mutilation (FGM) professional, and Fran Ciotaki, who coordinates the group, said this had enabled one victim to speak out about her experiences for the first time.

Miss Ciotaki said: “It’s improving their health, employment and educational choices, which traditionally maybe these women have not been able to access in the past.”

Suffolk Refugee Support has run the group for 12 years and it is largely led by volunteers.