This International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the strong, courageous women who are helping each other build new lives in Scotland.

Community Development Officers Farah and Yalda know how hard it is to have to flee your home and start from scratch in a new and unfamiliar country. They both came to Scotland in search of safety after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Now they run our New Scots Women’s Peer Support Network and are drawing on their personal experience to help other women find their feet.

The project brings women who are new to Scotland together in a safe and welcoming environment where they can meet new people, talk about their problems and learn from each other.

*Some names in this article have been changed

Farah: “I am really, really keen to empower women. It’s maybe a result of my personal life. I lived and grew up amongst these women and these cultures. I can put myself in their shoes. Without any judgement, I am really here for them.”

Yalda: “I have the experience of being a refugee myself. It’s hard when you’re new in Scotland. Syrian and Afghan women are often staying at home looking after their children. Some women who have recently arrived from Afghanistan can’t use the phone and internet. They don’t know how to use Google maps to go somewhere.

Supporting women across Scotland

Farah and Yalda have launched Women’s Peer Support Groups in Aberdeen, Arbroath, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverclyde, Inverness and Perth & Kinross. Each group links refugee and asylum-seeking women from the local area so they can connect and support each other as they begin the process of rebuilding their lives.

Yalda: “We know that when some women want to ask a question, they feel much more comfortable to ask another woman. It’s easier for them to speak to other women going through the same thing. We have a meeting in each area and connect the women together to create a Peer Support Network where they can discuss their problems and experiences. The women are from different countries and cultures. Some might have been living here a long time and others may be recent arrivals.

Farah: “I think it’s really important that women can feel part of a group and can find friends that share their experiences. We’re creating a safe space for women to raise their issues and concerns in their own community. We then share these issues with decision makers and people who deliver services. From my experience this really works. We’ve had good news from Inverclyde. A Halal take-away has opened, there are now women only swimming lessons, gym classes and driving lessons.”

Tackling loneliness and isolation

Seeking safety in a new and unfamiliar country can be a lonely and isolating experience, especially for people who have become separated from friends and family. Each new Women’s Peer Support Group starts with a gathering where women can meet in person.

Yalda: “We encourage people to come in person because when you see people face to face you want to talk more. It’s easier to get to know each other. People see that they are not alone. They feel very happy and they want to come again and again to meet women and come together. After the meeting, we create WhatsApp groups for each of the different areas. They can contact with other women in the group to ask for help about finding a mosque or where to shop for halal food in their local area.

“When we link these women and they start to find solutions to their problems, it’s not like we will not be in touch with them. We share updates and opportunities about housing, scholarships, jobs, courses, local community groups that can provide support – anything we think is useful.”

Farah: “I have created WhatsApp groups for women in each of the different regions I cover. I think about the problems I had when I came here and I share everything that will be useful for them. How they can use a dehumidifier. How they can use GPS and Google Maps. I want to help women stand on their feet and have financial freedom.”

Breaking down barriers to integration

The women in our Support Groups come from different countries and varied backgrounds but they face similar challenges in the UK. With Farah and Yalda’s help and the support of their peers, they are overcoming these challenges and learning to thrive in their new communities.

Yalda: “The biggest challenge for most women is language. If you don’t know the language it’s very, very hard. After that it is employability. Women want to work but it is so hard for them to find a job. In Afghanistan they used to work for good organisations but here, they don’t have the right qualifications, the right experience, or they don’t have the English language skills.

 “The network helps women identify what can make it difficult for them and work together to find good solutions to the problems people face. We help women make social connections, improve their language skills, find work. My favourite thing about this job is working with the women. As a refugee woman living in Scotland, I am helping other refugee women and I feel very proud.”

Farah: “Helping women to be independent brings me deep happiness. They need support to help them become more confident and give them a safe space to raise their voice. Step by baby step, we can enhance their confidence.

“Sometimes men are not happy for their wives to go to work. They don’t know that working has any benefits for women other than financial. But it can be so good for confidence and mental health. At work you find an excuse to put on a nice dress, comb your hair, buy a new shirt. You are contributing to society, trying new things. When you have your own financial security, you have that confidence and you can hold your head up high.”

“It can be difficult but I really enjoy my job and I know what I am doing. It’s my passion. When you hear someone say, ‘you solved my problem’, it recharges me and gives me motivation for that next step.”

*Kaameh’s story

Kaameh is in her last year of school and hopes to study nursing. She travelled to Scotland with her mum and younger sister. The family has settled in Perth where the local Women’s Peer Support Group is helping them feel at home in their new community.

“It’s really helpful for us to meet together, sit with each other and talk. It’s good for mental health. When you see [each other] face to face you understand each other. You spend quality time with each other and feel you can talk to each other about the experience of being here.

 “We came to Scotland two years ago. Everything is really different from Afghanistan. It was a hard time for us. I am so thankful I found kind people around me that helped us very much.”

 “I want to say to women who have just arrived, it’s hard to leave your home and everything you were. To leave the place where you passed your childhood. I want to say just don’t give up. Talk with other women and everything will be good. Just think what is your goal and you can arrive there.”

With the help of the local Women’s Peer Support group, Kaameh’s mum now attends cooking and English classes and Kaameh has all the information she needs to apply for a place at college.

*Hunoon’s story

Before her world was turned upside down, Hunoon had a good job and a bright future working as a lawyer. After years of uncertainty and upheaval, she has finally settled in Inverness and is starting to rebuild her life.

“We left everything – our house, job, family, our dreams. When I moved to Inverness last year I saw the problem that ladies have. They want to move on in their life but it’s not easy. The language, the culture, everything is new. It’s difficult when you can’t go to the supermarket to get something for yourself or your child because you don’t know how to speak or behave. My English is not that good but I am trying to improve day by day. It will take time. You can’t suddenly speak English well.

“Everything is difficult, especially for women who didn’t go to school or college. They are coming from war and it’s not easy for them, trust me. In the meetings we talk about the issues facing women and then all work together to talk about solutions. We have to keep helping each other. I’m supporting women in the city centre when they don’t know how to take the bus or when they look for dresses and don’t know what size. Day by day they will know how to manage life here.

“In the WhatsApp group, Farah is always sharing links for scholarships, study groups, English classes, making plans for a picnic. It’s good for our mental health. High Life Highland has now launched sewing classes, cycling classes and swimming classes for refugee women in Inverness. The women have never done these things but they are trying here. I say, ‘Do it. Don’t be scared’. They laugh at that and they are happy.”

We’re lucky to work alongside loads of amazing groups and organsiations supporting refugee and asylum-seeking women in Scotland. Read more. 

Find out more about our work with communities acosss Scotland 

Rachel Lamb
Author: Rachel Lamb