In the aftermath of the magnificent Women’s March, I interviewed two women running their own quiet protest. Bread and Roses is a new social enterprise, teaching refugee women in London the art of floristry.
Working against the marginalisation and hardship of refugee women and asylum seekers, the floristry work is an opportunity for holistic care and improving employment prospects. Their bouquets and posies are then sold to local independent stores. I talked with the co-founders, Olivia and Sneh, to discuss the business; stories of women at their workshops; and their concept of ‘home’.
Hattie: Bread and Roses isn’t just beautiful on the outside, please tell me about your founding principles!
Olivia Head: Bread & Roses is a small London organisation. Our mission is to tackle the social and financial isolation of refugee women – and we do this by inviting women into our community and helping them to develop some of the skills they need to secure employment.
Hattie: Why have you chosen floristry to carry out your mission?
Olivia: There are three important reasons…
- We want to give refugee and asylum seeking women the opportunity to be creative and enjoy something beautiful. It’s a way of addressing the low self-esteem and self-confidence many of these women have, due to the difficult experiences they’ve been through.
- The floristry generates income that allows us to fund our work without being reliant on donations or charitable grants, increasing our autonomy and chances of sustainability.
- There’s a gap in the market to combine floristry with a social mission. There ae already a number of brilliant initiatives helping refugee women through baking, cooking and sewing – floristry is another practical skill that women who may not be confident speaking English could learn.
People don’t expect to look at a pretty jar of flowers and find out that the person who arranged them is trapped in an ugly situation.
Hattie: Sneh, you were studying French and German at Bristol University, what led you to intern at the UNHCR in Berlin?
Sneh: As part of my year abroad I had the option to either study, teach or work abroad. I was really interested in international affairs and diplomacy throughout University and wanted to gain first-hand experience and insight into what working for a UN agency entailed. It was from my internship that my interest in rights of refugees and asylum seekers increased, essentially leading me to co-found Bread & Roses.
Our mission is to tackle the social and financial isolation of refugee women – and we do this by inviting women into our community and helping them to develop some of the skills they need to secure employment.
Hattie: Olivia, which aid organisation were you volunteering with in Calais and Dunkirk and what was your role as a volunteer?
Olivia: I volunteered for Utopia 56, who run the camp in Dunkirk, and Help Refugees, one of the organisations providing aid to those living in the jungle. Most of my time there was spent cooking, organising donations in the warehouses and sorting clothes into kits to be distributed to people in the camps.
Ahead of the demolition of the camp in Calais, Sneh and I also went out to help Care 4 Calais collect data and share information with some of the 8,000 people being forced to move on. Like a lot of people who volunteer in refugee camps, I didn’t just want to offer practical support and show solidarity to those living there – I wanted to meet the people who had fled their home countries and listen to their accounts of what they were going through.
Hattie: The labels on your posies are insightful, shocking and moving. Do you see Bread & Roses as a message-in-a-bottle way to communicate with bustling Londoners?
Olivia: We absolutely see the labels that way! It’s our way of reaching an audience who might not otherwise know about the reality facing refugees when they come to the UK: waiting for up to twenty years to be given protection, during this time receiving less than £5 a day to live on and being denied the right to work. People don’t expect to look at a pretty jar of flowers and find out that the person who arranged them is trapped in an ugly situation.
Hearing about the traumatic experiences women have been through here in the UK, because of our asylum process, has made us feel angry about the Border Agency and Home Office often act on behalf of the British people. Sharing the stories of the women we work with is a way of informing the public about the further damage our system does to women who have come to the UK to flee rape, torture and oppression. Raising awareness in this small way is part of a larger aim to campaign for an asylum process that treats people humanely, offers protection to those who deserve it, and enables refugees to begin participating in and contributing to society in the UK much more quickly.
Olivia: We have a huge crush on the founders of Birdsong. One of the biggest things Year Here taught us is that you can only build solutions if you have a deep understanding the social issue you want to tackle. It sounds obvious, but many systems that support people at the margins of society – the benefits system, for example – seem to have been designed without real insight into what the lives of benefits claimants are like. We’re constantly trying to understand more about the lives of the women we work with, so we can design our programmes in a way that better meets their needs.
Hattie: What was the first workshop you both ran with Bread & Roses?
Olivia: The first workshop we ran was at Women for Refugee Women, in May 2016. We spent the first half of the session talking about the women’s experiences of working and applying for jobs, so that we could go away and begin to develop a plan to support each of them. Then we brought out the flowers. At first, the women seemed a bit hesitant to touch them – as though they were afraid of ruining them. But once we’d demonstrated how to condition each stem, taking off all the lower leaves and snipping them at the right angle, everyone got involved. Ever since that first session, the mood in the floristry workshops has been the same. There’s lots of chatting and getting up to make cups of tea whilst we’re talking through the flowers we’ve got and what kind of arrangements we’re making. Then the moment everyone gets started on making up their posy or bouquet, the room becomes very quiet.
Hattie: Please could you share a few of your stories with the women you support and work with?
Olivia: In our last programme, the majority of women we worked with were asylum seekers – meaning they don’t have the right to work and are still fighting to be given protection in the UK. As we mentioned before, many of these women have been here for up to fifteen or twenty years and are still in this limbo legal state. It’s an incredibly difficult situation to be in. The fear of detention or deportation is huge. The determination these women have to build a life for themselves here is admirable, knowing as they do that at any moment it could all be taken away from them. But still they go on learning English, gaining work experience, attending the different activities available to them.
One woman – let’s call her J – came to the UK with her disabled son twelve years ago. Her community at home feared her son’s disability and treated him with cruelty and there wasn’t adequate healthcare for him. Even if there had been, it’s doubtful J would have been able to afford it – the system is so corrupt, she would’ve needed a considerable amount of money to pay bribes before she’d even begun paying for his care.
Fearing for her son’s life, J decided to leave. A family friend offered to help her get to the UK – but in exchange she was forced to do whatever he wanted. Although he was abusive, J felt she had no other option. Eventually, she and her son made it to London. J has been fighting her asylum claim ever since. If you met her you’d never guess that she’s been through so much – she’s vivacious, warm and always smiling. But as we’ve got to know her, we’ve learned that she’s really struggling. Her son is sixteen now and, having grown up with the uncertainty of whether he’ll be deported, he’s very unstable.
One day, she received a call from his school saying he’d attempted suicide. All J wants is for him to feel safe and happy, but as their case is in the hands of the Home Office, the situation is out of her control. This causes her so much pain. In our last session together, she thanked us for giving her the time to take her mind off things each week, for valuing her enough to give her that space. We’ve seen that for women like J, who have no real support network and are struggling to stay afloat, having some time to recuperate and be with people who care about your wellbeing is a really important thing.
Hattie: How best can we get involved and support Bread & Roses?
Olivia: We are currently working on a collaboration with Beulah, a store in Fitzrovia selling beautiful clothes with an ethical purpose, for a Mother’s Day event.
You can follow us on our website and social media to find out our latest news- as our plans for 2017 are still underway. If you’ve got an event coming up and would like to invite us to do the flowers, or speak (or both!) get in touch at email@example.com so we can make it happen. We’re also always looking to meet new people with skills they’d like to offer the women we work with – interview preparation, singing lessons, whatever you think they might benefit from.
Hattie: Making refugee women feel at home is central to Bread & Roses and the holistic support and careers advice you give. Where do each of you call home and how is it a special notion for you?
Olivia: We both call east London home now, but grew up outside of London. We’re really lucky to live with close friends and to be in a part of the city where we can walk to Regent’s canal, or head to a nice local pub. Home is really just a special place because it’s where you can relax, feel comfortable, and be surrounded by the people you love.
Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
This interview is also published on Into The Fold Magazine. A wonderful outlet for art, politics, lifestyle and fashion for young women.