We’ve been working with resettled refugees in Hull for nearly 10 years. As part of this work, we support a local refugee women’s group which was set up two years ago by refugee women from Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan to help other women in the community.
Group members help each other to cope with daily life; including looking after children, training, housing issues, cooking and language. The group meets weekly and welcomes women from any nationality or background to come along and share skills, knowledge, experiences and traditions.
Established photojournalist Lee Karen Stow volunteers with the group; here she shares her experiences of working with the women.
Every Tuesday morning at the Women’s Refugee Group in Hull I see the fabric of life taking shape. Women driven out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia meet, for a couple of hours, their troubled past, present and future pushed aside.
They tie dye with bright reds, canary yellows, and cobalt blue. They stitch and seam the cloth, transforming a bed sheet into a dress, or slicing felt into squares that are patched up into a purse. Shiny glitter and plastic beads catch the light.
These pieces of cloth and textiles remind me of landscapes in Africa, threaded by rivers and streams, folded by mountains, divided by boundaries. I try not to see in the red splashes of ink the bloodshed. After all, it’s just dye spattered onto fabric that is carefully being transformed by their hands, into something else, something useful, something beautiful.
I began working with the group a year ago, off and on, and now can’t imagine a week without seeing them. We recorded in images and poetry the war and peace stories of Honorata (Congo), Shuke (Ethiopia) and Eman (Iraq) for the Hull Libraries project I Remember and for my larger Poppies: Women and War. It takes great courage to share a memory. More recently, I recorded some of the Somali women singing songs of the lands and homes they left behind.
We have much to learn from these women who carry the label ‘refugees’, a label often misused and misunderstood. Being a refugee is a huge part of their history, but is a fraction of their hidden depths.
Like the scraps of fabric they scissor and stitch, I hope these women and what they have to offer become more deeply part of the tapestry that is Hull, a city hoping to be an even stronger community of culture. If more barriers are broken and more doors are open to them.
Photo © Lee Karen Stow