On March 8th, 2012 international Women's Day more than 250 people gathered at the Royal Festival Hall for the first ever Migrant and Refugee Woman of the Year Award to honour three outstanding women.
The 2012 winner was Nazek Ramadan, founder of Migrant Voice, and two honorary awards were also given to Luljeta Nuzi, founder of Shpresa Programme for the Albanian speaking community, and Clara Osagiede, London Underground RMT Secretary for Cleaners. The ceremony was hosted by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Natasha Walters, and Zrinka Bralo.
From autumn 2011 a group of organisations that supports migrants, refugees and women joined forces to launch this award to honour inspirational migrant and refugee women who are improving the lives of people and communities across London. 40 nominations were received.
“Women cross borders to come to the UK for many reasons; many of them come fleeing human rights abuses. They have often faced great challenges to get here and further challenges once they arrive here in our asylum and immigration system. Yet their courage and resilience is so often remarkable. The leadership many provide at the grassroots to others is an inspiration, and it’s wonderful to be able to celebrate this.” said Natasha Walter, author of The New Feminism and Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, and director of Women for Refugee Women.
Community work comes naturally to Nazek. In the 1980s she opened her home in Beirut to refugees, and when she and her family had to flee Lebanon in 1986, she began volunteering soon after she arrived in the UK, initially at an Arabic speaking supplementary school. Her first challenge in London was to learn English, which she did by watching children’s TV (advice she still gives to others), going to classes and joining in any activity she could.
The early years in London were not easy and Nazek experienced racial abuse. She discovered that learning English and getting a job were not enough to be accepted. When a fellow migrant said to her ‘how can they hate us so much, when they don’t even know us’ she replied by saying, ‘you’ve answered your own question, they don’t know us’. She realised that ‘everyone was talking about migrants except migrants’ and so set out to remedy this.
In 2007 she launched the New Londoners newspaper which, modelled on London’s freesheets, succeeded in getting migrant and asylum issues in front of London commuters and won two awards from the Mayor of London. And in 2010 she founded Migrant Voice, an organisation dedicated to addressing the lack of representation of migrants in the mainstream media.
Nazek is building and training a movement of migrants to speak up about themselves and their lives. In the words of her nominators ‘members of Migrant Voice are empowered to find opportunities, develop leadership skills, discover solidarity amongst their peers, and start laying down roots within the wider community. The act of communicating their experiences and making themselves understood by the wider public has a transformative effect on those speaking out. That they are being heard and validated gives them power and self-belief, where previously they had neither.’
Nazek has her eyes set on the next general election by when she aims to have a team of migrants ready to speak up with politicians and to the media.
When Luljeta came to London from Albania in 1999 with her family seeking sanctuary she was isolated and desperate to learn English. A mixture of anger and gratitude motivated her to volunteer – anger, that she was misinformed about the support available to her and gratitude, because a local project helped her find her feet. ‘Everything I learned, I shared with my community’ she says and in 2001 she founded the Shpresa Programme, ‘Shpresa’ meaning hope. Today the organisation has nine staff, 52 active volunteers, provides services across seven boroughs and campaigns nationally. Shpresa’s integration model which Luljeta shares freely, often mentoring other community organisations, is to work in partnership to make services accessible and only to set up new ones if no one else can help.
Her nominator says of her: “At the heart of Shpresa is a belief that communities can and do bring about change themselves. Shpresa, under Luljeta’s leadership, has nurtured a generation of young Albanian speaking people who are engaged, high achieving and active citizens. This is an extraordinary achievement and blazes a trail for other refugee and migrant community groups.”
Shpresa Programme website: www.shpresaprogramme.com
Clara works as a cleaner and is a trade unionist on the London Underground. She came to London from Nigeria in 1995 ‘to get away from trouble’ resulting from her involvement in student politics. Cleaning is a poorly paid job with difficult work shifts. A large part of this workforce is made up of migrants from the African and South American continents and unresolved immigration status can be used as a threat to workers trying to organise themselves. When the RMT Union decided to recruit cleaners, Clara put herself forward and became one of the only women reps and subsequently the Secretary for them. From 2000 onwards she organised her colleagues, enlisting support from the tube drivers when necessary, and led a long and successful campaign for cleaning staff to be paid the London Living Wage. She leads by reminding her colleagues that there is dignity in their work and says that the people she serves come first.
One of her colleagues said of her: “Clara is a passionate fighter for justice at every level. Her experiences of life and migration are a source of strength to her. She will still be fighting when the rest of us are put out to grass. She is a worthy recipient of this honour.”
Photography by Aliya Mirza