Gathered in a room in a Quaker House in Hammersmith as this year began, a group of local Londoners wondered aloud how we might open a space for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants living in this neighbourhood and the wider London area, how we could go about managing such a space, and what this all might entail. We were all united in our passion to support refugees, asylum seekers and migrants living locally, and many of our founding volunteers were and continue to be highly active in Hammersmith and Fulham’s Refugees Welcome group, but our path to creating and sustaining the physical centre we had in mind was uncertain. A year later, after carefully developing our recurring Thursday schedule in tandem with our clients and with the great support of our generous funders, we are extremely proud to be successfully running a busy, creative, and peaceful drop-in centre for any refugee, asylum seeker, or migrant who is looking for safety, support and company in West London. Here are some highlights of our first year in operation.
Settling in at the Quaker House
At the Hammersmith Quaker House, which is very generously donated to us by the Hammersmith Quakers each Thursday, we use the five lovely, light-filled rooms at our disposal to flexibly create classrooms, a canteen, a crèche, a library, and an advice centre. We also have use of the peaceful garden outside, which we hold our English classes in on sunny days. On arrival, everyone is met with the offer of teas, coffees and delicious donated pastries from local bakery Patisserie Saint Anne. Volunteer Susan of the Quaker House lays all this out for us, and importantly ensures that those finding us for the first time are immediately made to feel welcome and at ease. The various spaces in the centre are focused around the myriad activities led by both clients and volunteers, and we work together to create a positive, caring environment that welcomes both regular visitors and those who might only ever drop in once or twice on their journey elsewhere.
Progressing English skills
The language skills of our clients regularly joining us for English lessons have progressed leaps and bounds since we first started classes back in January. Clients attend group or one-on-one lessons depending on their level of skill, and we are lucky to have our sessions coordinated by experienced ESOL teacher Martha MacLachlan with the support of a number of other trained teachers. Classes are designed to be flexible and inclusive of all abilities, and are tailored to the groups and individuals in attendance on any given Thursday. The result of this approach, which sees clients being taught by dedicated teachers who teach their classes with a great deal of fun, patience, and care for newcomers and those experiencing any number of life challenges, has been that our clients have demonstrated impressive progress in their language skills.
Our hot lunches are something of a local legend these days. We wrote back in April about the news that one of our chefs, Rose Dakuo, had been nominated for the BBC’s Cook of The Year, and it’s the hard work of Rose and our other chefs (who we pay a Living Wage and who also work at events around the city including at the fantastic Amnesty International initiative Welcome Cinema + Kitchen) that means we get to offer clients and volunteers really delicious Middle Eastern and African food at the centre. The chefs experiment with their concoctions each week, so both regulars and newcomers are always treated to a plate of something new to get to know one another over.
Our centre regularly welcomes visitors from the local community as well as those from further afield. This first year we were thrilled to welcome in Juliet Stevenson, Lord Alf Dubs, Dame Harriet Walter, Andy Slaughter MP, Hammersmith and Fulham Council Leader and Councillor Stephen Cowan, Councillor Sue Fennimore, Councillor David Morton, Phil Storey of Citizens Advice Hammersmith and Fulham, Latymer Upper School teachers and pupils (the latter have also been volunteering at our centre after school), directors from the Nawaal Benevolence Fund, representatives from our funders the Hammersmith Quaker Meeting House and Hammersmith United Charities, and many more from the neighbourhood.
Our advice service is expanding
Some months ago we formalised our relationship with Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre, which means that clients are now able to access free legal advice on immigration, housing, employment and other matters at our monthly Law Centre clinic. We are excited to be begin working with advisors from Citizens Advice in Hammersmith and Fulham in 2019 to expand our advice service to include guidance on benefits and other concerns of our clients.
An arts-focused centre
As 2018 progressed, West London Welcome established itself as a space that greatly valued creativity and the arts. As such, alongside the knitting classes we started offering back in January, we now offer art for all ages (led by volunteer Susan), games, and morning theatre classes from the Scheherazade Foundation. We have also been extremely lucky to welcome Tunisian visual artist Héla Ammar to run a photography workshop as part of the Shubbak Festival.
Our childcare team at the centre runs an increasingly busy all-day crèche for the children of West London Welcome, freeing up our client families to rest, get to know other clients and volunteers, and participate in centre activities. This is a particularly important service for new mothers and those who often have very little time away from their children.
Finding words at West London Welcome
Centre volunteers and professional writers Anna Perera and Catherine Davidson have been running a reading and writing club at the centre every week, which has developed into a highly creative session complementary to our English classes. In this guest blogpost from November, they describe their experiences of working with different clients and the ways in which they experiment as a collective while learning the beauty of the English language.
Resting minds and bodies
On alternate weeks, clients take mindfulness and yoga classes at the centre, which they have reported greatly aiding them in finding some time for themselves to rest and be at peace with their bodies and mind. Travel costs for asylum seekers to visit us for these classes are funded by Localgiving and the Postcode Community Trust through a Magic Little Grant. Simon Heale, who runs mindfulness classes at West London Welcome, reflected for us in this blogpost on what ‘settling’ in his sessions looks and feels like, and how meditation and mindfulness in a tranquil setting can enable our clients to take a vital pause from their often chaotic and unpredictable lives.
Getting out and about
If you pop by the centre on a Thursday and we’re not in, we might be out and about exploring the city. This year, we visited Kew Gardens, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and QPR and Chelsea football clubs. We have many more trips in store for 2019!
Celebrating our community
Even if we say so ourselves, we do a pretty good job at celebrating the community we’ve built together at the centre, whether it’s a birthday, a religious holiday, World Refugee Day, or really just an excuse to dress up…
To round off the year, our Christmas party this month included carols around the piano led by regular client Adia with musician Sandy Burnett, delicious food as far as the eye could see, presents for everyone, and special guests santa and a frankly far too scary grinch. We loved ending 2018 with a huge sense of pride in the many brilliant achievements of our clients and the superb work of our volunteers, from their setting up of the centre at the beginning of the day to their scrubbing pans in the kitchen and cleaning up at the end. In times so hostile to the refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who visit us each week, we believe we have created an immensely valuable space in our patch of London that offers safety, education, and companionship for anyone seeking support.
— Leyla Williams, West London Welcome
West London Welcome is currently closed for the holidays and will re-open for the new year on Thursday 10th January 2019.