Following on from my visit to the Migrant Access Network, which only lasted two hours, some of the groups represented at the meeting wanted to spend more time sharing their own stories of cultures and the challenges that are relevant to them in their surroundings.
One of these groups is the Bahar Afghan Women’s Association led by Maryam Bahar. Maryam is the name Bahar used when she fled Afghanistan with her husband thirteen years ago, but she prefers Bahar. We swapped a few emails and she asked me to meet her at Lincoln Green Community Centre so she could find out about the project and make sure it was right for the group.
A lot of the groups I attend start like this. First they want to meet me, make sure that I will be respectful and that I understand what life is like for the people who attend those groups. Trust isn’t offered up straight away and often you have to convince a gate keeper that you’re legit. It’s completely understandable once you are sat in those groups listening to their experiences.
I passed the test and was invited back to Lincoln Green Community Centre which sits pretty much at the end of Mabgate five minutes’ walk from West Yorkshire Playhouse and the new John Lewis. Although a five minute walk it’s a world apart in appearance. The centre looks forgotten and I’m not sure what it used to be but it’s a myriad of rooms of odd sizes with two kitchens taking up space, like two buildings at some point got joined together without much thought. There is nothing shiny here but there’s plenty of life, lots of chatter and a warm welcome.
It turns out that I have been invited to what is the annual meeting, to hear about the work of the group but also to see how we can work with them and support their aims.
In a pre-meeting tour Bahar says that the group isn’t just for Afghani women. There are Pakistani, Iranian, English and Afghani women in the group and she would like to welcome others. She says that it isn’t about this nationality or that, it’s about supporting women and helping them to find their way in a new country. When she first arrived she didn’t speak English and spent four years raising her kids in relative isolation because there was nothing like this for her. She doesn’t want others to do that. After 13 years Leeds is home, she loves this city and wants those who arrive here to be able to enjoy it. It’s a very lovely and generous thing.
However, there is a harder to edge to the group. She looks me dead in the eye and tells me that Afghani women are not weak – and I believe her. She tells me that the stories in the media that breed ignorance are wrong. The women of her country are every bit as strong, intelligent, creative and gifted as those here in my country. She talks about some of the customs that the media like to sensationalise such as the dominant man. She says of course every culture has its issues and yes this does sometimes exist here. Bahar Afghan Women’s Association works with the men in the area as much as they do with the women building trust and encouraging openness. She says that if you can explain to the men that learning English isn’t losing your way of life, it helps to integrate and means that if something is needed at school or the doctors and your wife speaks English you don’t need a day off work. Sometimes it takes a while but slowly their numbers are growing. When the women know the language they can speak in confidence about issues and get help if it’s needed.
The challenge for the association is to stay afloat and to reach out to as many women as possible. They can only meet once a week for 2 hours as that’s all the space available to them. They don’t have money, people chip in and they have volunteers, but money to teach language, to celebrate Eid or to venture beyond Lincoln Green is difficult. They do get grants from time to time but it’s few and far between, and as they aren’t seen as ‘arts’ or ‘culture’ those kind of grants are even harder to access. She says people shy away from funding any religious activity such as an Eid party, even a small one.
In the meeting everyone introduces themselves and says a little about why they are here. It starts with Angela who is White British from Dewsbury. She is painfully honest, that while it might look like she is helping out and doing something worthy, she actually suffers from depression and anxiety and the network gives her a safe space to help build her confidence.
We go around the table and hear stories of women who married from abroad and suffered domestic violence for years and women who lost their families in brutal conflict in Syria. As the women share their background I’m struck by how many of them have been stripped of their identity by the loss of common language. Around the table in a shabby Community Centre were teachers, agricultural engineers, researchers and policy makers. Without Bahar Afghan Women’s Association and others like them providing language classes to those not confident enough to attend colleges they would never recover this identity or have the chance to create a new one.
One of the people at the meeting is frustrated with the lack of support for groups like this one. They talk about the role they have in supporting with everything from welfare support and integration to domestic violence and yet groups like this are not recognised and regularly funded for the work that they do.
At the end of the meeting Bahar asks what those around the table can do to support the work of the association. She is again determined and to the point – she doesn’t want words, she wants actions because that’s how the group can keep going.
When I ask about culture they don’t talk about art, poetry, food and the things they do in their spare time. Culture for this group isn’t about activities or even spaces and places. To the Bahar Afghan Women’s Association culture means generosity, fierce determination, courage, openness and solidarity. It’s about the values that transcend nationalities, genders and ages.
As I’m leaving Angela tells me about lady who came for an Eid celebration. She says it wasn’t much, everyone brought what they could and at the end the lady was found sobbing in a corner because it was the first time she had felt at home in two years. She gives me a massive hug and thanks me profusely for attending, like just by being there I somehow did her a favour and I realise that sometimes culture is the small things that fall between the cracks.
Bahar Afghan Women’s Association meet every Monday at Lincoln Green Community Centre 11am-1pm. They offer English Classes, Computer Courses and support, conversation and informal counselling.