Georgina Bartlett explores how Pomegranate Workshops are helping refugees and asylum seekers find their feet in London.
Many new to London life will speak of how lonely and impersonal the city can feel at first. For refugees and asylum seekers, who already face the strain of the tough British asylum process, isolation can take a particularly significant toll on their mental welfare.
In the year ending September 2018, 11,538 asylum applicants had been waiting more than six months for initial decisions on whether they could remain in the UK or not, according to the Refugee Council. During this period in limbo, applicants have limited access to education and are unable to find jobs in most fields, with opportunities confined to a government-issued list of skill shortages. While supported by the government, those stuck in this situation are expected to live on around £5 a day – and must find employment the second a request for UK living status is concerned. As Pomegranate Workshops founder Shayane Lacey maintains, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
During her placement as a support worker at London-based charity Housing Justice, Shayane developed a hosting programme for destitute asylum seekers. It was there, during welfare check-ins, that she realised low confidence and poor sociability were common problems amongst those she was helping to settle in. They would often see no one but their host, their lawyer, and Shayane herself between visits, instead choosing to stay at home for lengthy stretches of time. A combination of travel costs, a lack of local knowledge, and linguistic barriers mean that refugees and asylum seekers often fail to integrate into wider society, and naturally experience the burden of social marginalisation as a result.
Structural support in combating these issues needs considerable work: as is common knowledge by this stage, mental health services have long waiting lists. While specialist organisations such as Freedom from Torture do the important work of tackling specific hardships faced by refugees and asylum seekers, there remains a lack of base-level provisions for those struggling to stay afloat day-to-day.
Pomegranate Workshops, currently in its prototype stage, aims to ameliorate this gap in the asylum process’ logic. Founded last summer at the culmination of Shayane’s time at Year Here, a postgraduate course in developing social enterprises, the start-up presents a 10- week programme of arts and crafts workshops for refugees and asylum seekers. Participants from a myriad of backgrounds engage in different creative activities each week, from painting to stitching, from collaborating on a large canvas artwork to writing letters for the future. At their heart, the workshops open a space for refugees and asylum seekers to find peace through self-expression and socialising, all within a welcoming and pressure-free environment.
As a former Women’s Officer at Cambridge University, Shayane’s experience in craftivism has, for her, reaffirmed art as a grassroots “conduit to solving social problems”. From merely putting pen to page, there grows great potential; refugees and asylum seekers are encouraged to build their individual artistic strengths and self-esteem, and in the process, form meaningful connections with those who have similar life experiences. Completing the workshops’ emphasis on safety and support are opportunities for idea-swapping and plenty of laughter, speed art challenges, and background music featuring Simon & Garfunkel.
Transcending language barriers as well as popular media narratives, art also offers new ways to tell refugees and asylum seekers’ stories outside of turbulence and darkness. Shayane emphasises the importance of talking about those parts of refugees’ lives unshadowed by trauma; they are, she explains, accustomed to having difficult conversations on loop, meaning casual, lighthearted chatter becomes ever more necessary to improving their mental health. The opportunity to take the narrative back into their own hands, to tell the story they want to tell, is a welcome one. Refugees and asylum seekers may or may not share the negative parts of their lives, but the crucial point is that it’s entirely up to them in these moments. This cornerstone of Pomegranate’s philosophy is no better portrayed than by its reflective self-portrait class. Inspired by artists like Frida Kahlo and Loïs Mailou Jones, it is spent selecting and compiling colours, objects, and materials that participants feel best represent themselves and their stories.
And why the name? A child of Iranian parents, Shayane plays on the significance of pomegranates in her family’s culture, as well as in other parts of the world, for symbolising life, hope, and prosperity for centuries. The workshops aim to trigger long-standing change for refugees and asylum seekers in their journeys onwards – to build better foundations as they put down new roots in the UK.
And Pomegranate isn’t alone in this mission. Its development comes during a spike in London-based enterprises geared towards improving the lives of refugees and asylum seekers. Welcome Cinema & Kitchen combines film and food to craft much-needed accessible entertainment, while Migrateful, also a product of the Year Here course, trains refugees to cook for paying customers. Pomegranate will follow a similarly empowering path through its artist development programme, a platform for improving transferrable skills and prospects for employment. Targeting an increasingly experience-based economy amongst the millennial market, and led by the appeal of cultural exchange, Shayane plans to train workshop participants to pass on their artistic skills for a fee.
Solving problems in creative ways, empowering the vulnerable, and activating a social conscience are crucial parts of the work being done by Pomegranate and similar organisations. Where support systems are failing, they step in and improvise – and it’s them who pave the way forward in making London a truly welcoming city.
Set to launch in early 2019, Pomegranate Workshops will soon open volunteering opportunities to members of the public – students included.
This article was originally published in Issue 722 of Pi Magazine.