Gair Rhydd investigates the refugee situation in Cardiff

Oasis centre in Splott

Following a week where asylum seekers in Cardiff made national news headlines, Gair Rhydd investigated what life is like for the Welsh capital’s refugee population.

Last week, a private company in Cardiff was criticised for making refugees wear red wristbands in order to receive food.

The wristband scheme was heavily criticised as some people labelled it ‘degrading’ to the refugees, alongside accusations that it stigmatized those wearing them, making them targets for abuse and discrimination.

As a result of the news, we visited Oasis Cardiff, a centre in Splott to see what employees and refugees had to say about the matter.

The centre offers a range of activities and services for up to 200 people every day, from clothing and food to English lessons and help with tax returns.

Asked whether any of the asylum seekers at Oasis had experienced prejudice because of the wristbands, co-founder and manager of Oasis, Reynette Roberts, said: “Some people feel they have, some people aren’t bothered about them at all. There have always been people shouting abuse as they drive by. There’s not much space outside and they’re more visible so people will give them abuse. It’s a difficult thing”.

Speaking generally about the wristbands, she added: “For people who are coming here, anything that makes them stick out or makes them feel vulnerable – makes them feel targeted – is an issue”.

This idea has also been suggested by other volunteers. We spoke to the President of STAR (Student Action for Refugees) at Cardiff University, Natasha Chilambo, who confirmed that during the society’s work she had also encountered instances of discrimination towards refugees: “Locally [refugees] are victim to abuse by some members of the public; on more than one occasion we have been made to respond to people turning up to the drop-in who have been verbally and physically abusive”.

However, Chilambo did note that attitudes have changed in recent times: “There has been a big positive shift in the last few months and I think this is attributable to a greater public awareness of the refugee crisis”.

This was also emphasised by STAR committee member Anusheh Javaid, who said: “I think that overall the people of Cardiff are greatly hospitable and understanding towards refugees and asylum seekers. They go out of their way to help when they can, and it’s amazing.”

For the society, this year has seen the largest number of volunteers, a fact which has been attributed to a “greater public awareness of the refugee crisis” both on campus and in wider society.

Integration is seen as vital in reducing discrimination towards refugees, and some people have accused the national press of exacerbating this issue by reporting a reluctance amongst refugees to integrate into their local communities.

One Oasis employee, however, spoke of a group of Sudanese men who wildly celebrated Wales’ 2015 Rugby World Cup victory over England, apparently leaping up and down holding a Welsh flag. He stressed that the desire to be part of the local community is strong among the refugees that he has met.

Many of the refugees at the help centre that spoke to Gair Rhydd confirmed this, expressing their fondness of the Welsh capital and also of the acceptance of locals. One man said: “I used to live in Glasgow, and some people were not very nice to refugees. It is much different here, I like it in Cardiff”.

The centre holds many events that aim to strengthen the relationship of the refugees with the community, regularly teaming up with organisations such as ‘Community First’, a government-funded initiative, and National Theatre Wales.

Oasis’ support extends to asylum seekers and refugees who have lived in Cardiff for a number of years, as well as those who have just arrived.

Ms. Roberts said: “Things we help with might include updating their CV. They might get letters that they just don’t understand because the English is too complicated, citizenships tests, driving license, insurance and tax returns. Just anything because it can be a bit bewildering – even for a British person”.

She added: “For some people it’s just a place to come – they feel like it’s their home and they can come here”.

Like many other non-profit organisations of this type, Oasis struggle to secure funding. The centre relies on applying for grants, and according to Ms. Roberts depends upon “grant money or we have people that donate a small amount regularly, so that all mounts up; we don’t have any government funding”.

The centre also relies on donations of food, clothing and even kitchen appliances such as washing machines to support refugees.

The co-founder said: “We’re always looking for men’s clothes for people because sometimes all they’ve got is the clothes they stand in. We get through nearly 100 people a week who need clothes”.

Since August, the centre has seen a rise in those seeking help, especially among Syrian refugees. However, Oasis also has clients from Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and even Mongolia.

Facilities at the centre provide free lunch with a cafe area, as well as a variety of English classes including women’s English classes, advanced English classes, and basic classes for people who are just in initial accommodation.

Talking to Gair Rhydd, Ms. Roberts continued: “We do sport in the afternoons so we have a volleyball team, we play football, we’ve done cage cricket, we’ve got badminton, table tennis and snooker. We do music, we’ve got art class, and we try and signpost people to other things that are on in Cardiff as well”.

She also spoke of the efforts of the charity to educate people about refugees: “We’re also doing an exhibition that’ll go around Wales, so it will hopefully be for people who don’t know much about refugees”.

For students wishing to help, both STAR and Oasis are always grateful for volunteers. Similar to Oasis, STAR also provides English classes for refugees, as well as offering a place to relax and socialise.

Run by a national student network, STAR volunteers hold a weekly drop in at the Trinity Centre on Newport Road in addition to creating various campaigns and fundraising activities including the Equal Access campaign.

As explained by STAR President in Cardiff, asylum seekers face huge barriers to higher education. As a result the group has run a successful campaign at Cardiff University which has led to the creation of two bursaries provided for students who are asylum seekers.

According to Chilambo, there are currently students studying at Cardiff as a direct change in the University’s policy. This campaign is now planned to be used nationally in a hope to make Wales the first Equal Access country.

It is clear that organisations such as Oasis and STAR are extremely important to refugees and asylum seekers, and will be increasingly relied on as Europe’s refugee crisis continues.