Love Welcomes, a social enterprise helping to support and employ refugee women has become a vital lifeline in more ways than one.
Founded in 2017 in response to the European refugee crisis, the initiative began with the creation of a workplace and skills training centre for refugee women living in camps in Greece.
Co-founder, Abi Hewitt, had previously worked for an American social enterprise that provided women coming out of sex trafficking, addiction and jail, with employment and a means of rebuilding their lives.
"We wondered if this model could work in the refugee camps, but from our experience in the States we knew that people were not interested in working whilst they were in survival mode."
"There was no way this project was going to succeed where people were still trying to survive and trying to make sure their children survived. However, we found people at refugee camps on mainland Greece that had been there for upwards of three years. They were incredibly despondent with nothing to do all day. They wanted to work; make decisions for their family and community, and to enable self-empowerment within themselves."
Around six months ago, Love Welcomes moved from the refugee camps in Greece amid new restrictions limiting the way social enterprises could work in camps. "We still fund and provide resources to these camps but now have a workshop in London that employs recently resettled refugees," says Abi.
Over this time, refugee women have joined Love Welcomes' London workshop from across the world, including Afghanistan, Syria and Sudan.
Housed in Greenwich Peninsula's Design District, the workshop is a hive of activity. Reams of colourful material spill over large workbenches as everything from hand-woven cushions and quilts to crochet bags are crafted. The initiative has also collaborated with everyone from street artist Banksy to globally renown guitarist the Edge.
Alongside employment, the female-only workspace is used to teach the women new skills. "We commit to at least four to five new creative skills a year being taught, which could be weaving, screen-printing, sewing or pottery," says Abi.
Conversational English classes, and computer and financial literacy are also taught to help refugees integrate into society. "It just enables everyone to have a little bit more confidence on how to navigate systems in this country. In our London workshop we have loose guidelines, which is that two-thirds of the week is spent on creative skill learning and producing the products we sell, and the other third is spent on integration skills," adds Abi.
Ethiopian Sofia, 34, joined Love Welcomes last year after hearing about the initiative through the Refugee Council. "When I first arrived in the UK, I tried to find a job and settle down but it was really difficult and people kept telling me I didn't have enough experience. I was struggling to get things done on my own and under great financial difficulty. This kind of situation puts you through a lot of psychological stress, it was really tough."
Sofia's circumstances are not uncommon with many resettled refugees facing serious difficulties in finding a job. She is one of over 130,000 refugees living in the UK, who, after travelling long distances and enduring unimaginable conditions, must then cope with long periods of unemployment due to a myriad of obstacles including language barriers and no references.
When you are by yourself, it feels like it's only you and the world is crashing over your head. But with these women and hearing their stories, you suddenly realise that you're not alone and that you now have support.
"It's not just about work for us; it's like being in a family," says Sofia.
The pandemic brought additional challenges for Sofia and others working at Love Welcomes. High rates of social isolation are common among refugees as they settle in new places, and coronavirus amplified these issues. "Resettled refugees aren't living in nice apartments, they are often in really bad hostels. The team here felt very lonely and isolated for two years," says Abi.
There is no doubt that Love Welcomes fills an important and often overlooked space in tackling the seemingly endless barriers to securing a sense of place, community and financial stability. Alongside this, the work carries an additional and important meaning. "We're not just selling products, those products go out there and take our stories to people from all over the world," says Sofia. "It's not just about us; it's about all those women who have been displaced."
As for the future, Abi hopes to recreate the London workshop in different areas around the UK, employ more people and continue to support refugee communities around the world.
Sofia and many others who have been there since the beginning will join her for the journey. "We all started together and we now want to see Love Welcomes making a difference out there," says Sofia. "Being a refugee is hard, but we are survivors. We're trying to remake our lives, and that requires a lot of courage and strength. This is what we want to show the world, that we're hard working and just want to give ourselves a better life."