qmunicate meets: Ubuntu Women Shelter

Susanna Zarli (Editor-in-Chief) and Emanuela Fazzio (Deputy Editor-in-Chief) interview Loa, Sumac, and Aimee of Ubuntu Women Shelter, an amazing Glasgow-based charity that qmunicate has had the chance to support with issue 145.


qmunicate: Something great about Ubuntu is its status as a pioneering charity: in fact, you are the first shelter in Scotland dedicated to providing accommodation for womxn who do not have access to public funds. Do you want to tell us a bit about the founding and history of Ubuntu? 

Ubuntu Women Shelter: Like all life-affirming and sustaining ideas, Ubuntu was conceived around a kitchen table. A group of us, made up of migrant womxn, sat down to examine the fact that in the second largest dispersal city there has been a shelter for men but not for womxn with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) and unclear immigration status. We witnessed the structural violence that is normalized against womxn with NRPF and saw the silencing and erasure of their experiences. Womxn are being denied their human rights and stripped of their dignity, and are in danger of slipping into desperate poverty without Ubuntu Women Shelter to witness and advocate. There are no destitution services in Scotland specializing in supporting womxn on spousal visas escaping domestic violence, or pre-asylum cases where women fleeing war and persecution have yet to file a claim with the Home Office. We decided to build this organisation to fill this much needed gap. It was also very important for us to acquire our own property rather than rely on state funding. We have witnessed the crippling fear of deportation and indefinite detention, and refuse to be complicit in the data-sharing between social service providers and the Home Office. We wanted to create a space that offers our guests a chance to safely rest and recover, a space which witnesses and nourishes their dignity, humanity and faith. 

q: What are the most important facts on the UK Home Office hostile environment policy and its impact over destitute womxn?

UWS: Many migrant womxn are not allowed to work in the UK and have no access to housing and benefits. There are those in the asylum process who have lost access to Home Office support and housing, and are left without signposting to the relief and care available from charities, family, or more informal groups. This could be due to errors in the processing of claims, claimants having their appeal rights exhausted, poor legal representation, or extended periods of time between the rejection of an asylum claim and the submission of a fresh one. The asylum system has an engrained racialized logic that enforced destitution will incentivize voluntary returns. 

The asylum process itself does not recognise womxn’s trauma, and is based on the invalidation and erasure of womxn’s experiences. They take a “guilty until proven innocent” approach, with the threshold for proving your right to dignity and humanity being placed dangerously high thus, re-traumatising those who are subject to this gruelling system. 

q: Can you talk us through the kinds of support you provide at Ubuntu? 

UWS: As our name states – Ubuntu women shelter. We have a flat just outside of Glasgow which allows us to provide short-term accommodation whilst supporting womxn in finding longer term accommodation. Our support follows the womxn throughout their journeys, offering unconditional cash grants, providing food and other basic necessities as well as facilitating community projects and gatherings. These are especially important as isolation and loneliness severely impact new arrivals. We aim to provide a warm environment where womxn are caring for other womxn in a way that is non-judgemental and understands trauma. Recovery and well-being underlie all activities and support measures.

More recently we have developed our trauma-informed services by offering psychosocial support in the form of 1-2-1 counselling with a BACP accredited counsellor who has joined our team. We have seen first-hand how the absence of sustained, trauma-informed support compounds the trauma of womxn already hurt by state violence in their home countries, who are then re-traumatised by the inhumane asylum system and its engrained racialized logic that enforced destitution will incentivize voluntary returns. In our direct support we have also witnessed signs of asylum process related trauma and believe that such responses are part of a complex and multifaceted reaction to their life situations, and is largely attributable to an asylum process designed to question their credibility and undermine their lived experience at every stage.

Ubuntu Women Shelter also plays an advocacy role – from facilitating asylum claims to supporting access to legal aid.  We regularly attend lawyers’ appointments and court hearings. The womxn we support are informed of their rights and advocacy is not taken ‘on behalf’ of womxn, but beside womxn, centering the compassionate ‘we’ of collective resistance. 

Further examples of our advocacy work are our recurring community meals, where we invite womxn from the community to join us for a hot meal and conversation. The purpose of these meals is to reduce the isolation that many new arrivals feel by creating a space whereby the womxn we support can meet other people in the community and extend their social networks. 

q: Ubuntu is exclusively managed by people with direct experience of the immigration system and destitution: why this choice? 

UWS: Ubuntu provides a migrant womxn led service, that is womxn only and is created, developed, and led by women of colour, where the rights of women rather than legislation are central to practice – which means that resistance and challenge are part of the organisation’s practice. We train and recruit volunteers according to this ethic, resisting leadership of white people. Our work is guided by those with lived experience as this closes the experiential gap between us and the womxn who ask us for help to ensure that our work is effective and compassionate. We want womxn to see themselves in our organization and know we are a part of their struggle. We of course allow white people to volunteer and support us in the work that we do however, we do not wish to replicate the structure that is already in place which undermines and devalues black and brown experiences.

q: Ubuntu subscribes to a no borders ethos. In his 2016 book Violent Borders, Reece Jones argues that ‘the violence of borders today is emblematic of a broader system that seeks to preserve privilege and opportunity for some by restricting resources and movement for others’. Is your view on borders motivated by a line of thought similar to that expressed in the quote? 

UWS: We take an anti-colonial stance: borders and race are twins born of colonialism, are inherently stratifying, and therefore dehumanise through the governmental practice of differentiating human rights between populations to create colour lines. We know from recent history that borders are mutable, but more importantly we see and know that migrants challenge borders every day. If borders can be questioned and flouted, so can their overseeing authorities. They aren’t just hoarding resources and opportunity, they consider themselves more human than us. 

q: Another wonderful thing about Ubuntu, reflected both in its name and in its motto ‘a person becomes a person through other persons’, is its stress on cooperation and inclusivity: could you tell us more about the values at the heart of the charity? 

UWS: Our name is derived from the Nguni Bantu term meaning “I am because we are”, and we use the word ‘shelter’ as a verb – thus no apostrophe. Below are our core organisational values.

  • Led by and for: 

An organisation led by and for migrant womxn of colour, black and minoritised womxn who experience destitution or have no recourse to public funds in order to facilitate reparations from colonial and structural violence. 

  • Womxn Centred Ethos 

Ubuntu adheres to black feminist values and recognises intersectional identities in the contexts of intersectional oppression. Creating active listening/hearing spaces for diverse womxn that are anti-misogynoir and designed specifically for the needs of womxn. We center our rights, liberation, autonomy, and economic/social interdependence. 

  • Radical Practice

Delivering support to womxn that is rooted in anti-oppressive, black feminist, ending VABWG practice in an environment of caring, warmth and love- that is respectful of difference, is playful and celebratory. Where a womxn’s journey begins with belief and openness (rather than a need for womxn to ‘prove’ their need) and is a space of reflective practice. 

  • Political Vision and Ethos

Ubuntu aims to end VABWG, destitution and the oppression of womxn who have experienced gender based violence at personal, community or state levels. Focusing on the lived experiences of migrant womxn who have no recourse to funds and have experienced violence in its multiple forms (domestic and sexual violence as well state and transnational violence) Ubuntu adopts a resistant No Borders ethos that is anti-racist and is underpinned by black feminist values. 

q: How are you at Ubuntu responding to the challenges of the coronavirus crisis?

UWS: Over the last eight years (long before the coronavirus crisis began) the enforcement of Hostile Environment policies by the UK Home Office has ‘successfully’ demeaned, isolated and impoverished migrants (of any status). This finely tuned enforcement apparatus now combined with self-isolation and pervasive fear opens up stark choices for destitute womxn with no recourse to public funds – police brutality on the streets or the brutality that comes from being locked up with sexual predators, without bank accounts or disposable incomes womxn with families are choosing to ration scarce food supplies, starve or risk infecting their households with trips to empty food banks. What we have witnessed during the lockdown, in the sixth richest country of the planet, is families starving and young mothers with no baby food or nappies, single womxn being forced to live isolated in hotel rooms on floors with men, womxn in need of emergency accommodation after being forcibly evicted, and the deterioration in mental health of people who were already forced into isolation by an immigration system that drives people into the shadows.

In response to the needs being communicated to us by the womxn and families in our communities, we have organised a purpose-built emergency response and implemented it across Glasgow. This has included weekly deliveries of hot meals, mother and baby support with weekly deliveries of nappies, baby food, baby wipes, toys and clothes, a phone call counselling service with our Trauma-Informed Destitution Support Coordinator, and referrals to other local organisations for grocery and toiletry deliveries. Alongside our distribution, we have also set up an emergency food fund where we offer families/individuals a grant depending on their household needs. We are also doing credit top-ups and purchasing much-needed items for the recent arrivals in Glasgow. 

q: During these months, much has been said about thinking of the coronavirus emergency as an occasion to try and construct a fairer post-pandemic world. In Scotland, this has led to the #everyonehome campaign, trying to achieve a more just housing system. What is your stance on these efforts?  


q: How can students get involved with Ubuntu?

UWS: First and foremost, we implore people to read up. It is important to inform yourselves on the history of the British empire (and Scotland’s role in the slave trade!), the death and destruction that came with imperialism and the ways in which the racist ideologies that were founded by white people are continuously perpetuated in our everyday lives. Without critical evaluation of your own conditioning and complicity within this capitalist structure that relies on the systematic oppression of black and brown people, direction action cannot be taken. 

Secondly, we encourage fundraising and awareness raising. University spaces are ideal for this type of work and the engagement of youth is vital in ensuring that organisations like us can sustain ourselves, as well as encouraging the collective mobilisation of young people to resist the hostile environment and the oppressive legislation that the government continuously puts in place. We support efforts to end homelessness, but we have to emphasise that poverty and oppression do not end with a roof over our heads, as we see here in Scotland and across the world.


[Loa, Sumac and Aimee of Ubuntu Women Shelter]

[Photo credit: Ubuntu Women Shelter]

For more information visit http://www.ubuntu-glasgow.org.uk/

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