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Where are the female refugees?

With the influx of refugees in the recent months comes the surplus of refugee support centres. But, female refugees seem to be missing in the picture.

Female refugees

©World Bank

Iryna Elbadian wearily smiles as she recalls her first week in Cardiff. She was prepping her son for his first day of school when she realized she didn’t have enough money to buy him a pair of shoes.

“UK is very expensive,” she says, stuttering.

She is from Ukraine, fled the country because of the war and of an abusive partner, and now she’s in the land of the Britons trying to figure out how to create a better life for her children.

It’s 9 AM at the Trinity Centre in Cardiff where she attends the English class for female refugees. She brings her daughter to the crèche in the centre while her 12 yr. old son is in school. She is rattled by the sound of her child crying. She peeks into the crèche to make sure her 3 yr. old is fine and then goes back to the class, breathes in and out, and tries her hand at a language she’s hoping to master.

Iryna is just one of the few female refugees who is attending English classes and integration programs by the Welsh Refugee Council. She hasn’t joined any support programs around Cardiff since arriving in September because she felt the classes were too big, full of men, and “confusing and scary”.

This feeling of fright from female refugees is not unique to Iryna, which is why the lack of females in refugee centres had become an issue. The council felt the need to address this concern and recently partnered with STAR Communities First to form classes exclusive for women. Up&Learning, a non-profit organization that works with children, was also contacted to provide the crèche.

“A recognition really among all the centres that work with refugees and asylum-seekers, they often found that English classes were very male-dominated. And that meant that either women didn’t feel comfortable coming or just couldn’t come because they don’t have any child care provision.

“So, we all sort of came together with Up&Learning and thought about how we could put up a women-only class and have that crèche provided so that women feel comfortable in a women-only environment and know where their children are,” says Iona Hannagan Lewis, education officer of the Welsh Refugee Council.

If you do volunteer work for STAR, Student Action for Refugees, you’d find two huge rooms filled with refugees and volunteers. They go into groups where one volunteer talk to maybe four or five refugees in English. There may be no female refugees at all, maybe three if they’re lucky. For a spectator, it could actually look like STAR only caters to male refugees.

Luce Parkinson, STAR’s English-teaching coordinator, says: “The numbers of refugees tend to go up and down. For the past three weeks, there has been a sharp rise.

“Perhaps there are fewer female asylum seekers in the UK and I couldn’t say for sure as this is not a specialized service. Today, we had zero females. At the most, we’ll have three or four out of around fifty.”

There is an obvious disparity on the number of male and female asylum-seekers in the UK. According to the UK Refugee Council, in 2010, 5,329 female refugees claimed asylum as opposed to 12, 571 men. In Wales, 1,571 asylum seekers are believed to have stayed in 2013 based on a report by the Home Office; under half are female refugees.

While the females in Cardiff may be fewer in number, the amount who choose not to go into centres for help, whether it may be for language or psychological support, has still been an ongoing problem.

In Oasis, another centre for refugees, the lack of women going into their support programs have been a constant difficulty as well. The centre found that most women refugees are victims of sexual violence, and so going into a new place full of strangers can be naturally daunting.

“In Lynx House for example, you maybe got 200 men to 20 women. It is a lot lower, women asylum-seekers, but then that’s a big problem because you’ve obviously got the intimidation.

“A lot of them have obviously gone through sexual violence and different forms of violence. So, it makes coming to anything like this a big deal,” says Ruth Risbinger, the officer for women refugees of Oasis.

Because these refugees choose to stay home and not seek help, helping them then becomes even more difficult. When they are not visible, the centres would have a hard time getting in touch with them. Some female refugees are even pregnant when they step foot in Cardiff, but most of these pregnancies are a result of rape, so the feeling of shame also keeps them from seeking help and opening up.

Risbinger says that Oasis and all other refugee centres have been doing various efforts to help the best way they can. Fortunately, they now have been given permission to start going to the satellite properties where women refugees are housed.

“This means we can actually go weekly to visit them; to actually introduce ourselves, so for those who will never come out or would come here and just be too intimidated, we can actually start going to where they are. And hopefully we can build up trust with them that way.”

Besides refugee centres in Cardiff, women’s rights organizations have also been actively supporting women refugees. BAWSO, for example, an organization that specifically helps victims of domestic violence and other forms of violence, has been welcoming not only women in Cardiff but also refugees.

“Domestic abuse doesn’t know any boundaries. Regardless of ethnic background, educational attainment, every community has got victims of domestic abuse. It’s just not in Cardiff; it’s across United Kingdom, and across the world, really,” says Mutale Merrill, CEO of BAWSO.

With the recent rise of refugees coming into the UK, Mutale also believes that they are more likely to get victims from different parts of the world who are coming to seek their support.

There are many more issues that female refugees face when going into Cardiff. The city is a warm, welcoming place, but fear and anxiety can most of the time overshadow logic and reason. The refugees choose to go to the UK because they see it as a place of hope where they can rebuild their lives. Like Iryna, female refugees simply want their children to grow up in an environment where violence is not a norm and living is dignified.

Iryna kisses her daughter’s forehead and playfully rubs her son hair. She asks her son a question in their language. Her son thinks for a good 30 seconds, looks up, and shouts the word “stable”. She stares into an empty space, composes herself, and very slowly says, “I want to have a stable job so I can buy things for my children.”