As we commemorate Black History Month in 2023, we shine a spotlight on two remarkable Black women, Florence and Eva, who have not only triumphed over the hurdles posed by the UK asylum system but have also become strong figures within their communities. Both integral members of the St Augustine's team, have made significant contributions over the years through their dedicated work in casework, advice drop-in sessions, the Bike Project repair shop, and their warm presence at the reception desk. Their stories and wisdom perfectly align with this year's theme, 'Saluting our Sisters'.
Who has inspired you and made a significant impact in your life?
Florence: "I have one person in mind that I salute a lot. Her name is Vee. We set up a women’s group called Sisters United…She’s gone ahead and set up an LGBTQ+ group. To break that barrier as an African woman coming to the UK is a massive achievement and a brave thing to do, she’s my inspirational Black woman." Florence also finds inspiration in Wangari Maathai, the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize. "She motivates me every day to do what I do to make a difference. She came from nothing, she created a movement of saving trees and fought against the stigma of the African background that women have no stay."
Eva: "Oprah Winfrey. She came from nowhere. She went through difficulty when young and then she rose to be a powerful woman."
What do Black History Month and 'Saluting our Sisters' mean to you?
Florence: "People should be celebrated all the time, we should not just be waiting 1 month to celebrate Black women like Wangari Maathai. I come from a culture where women don’t have a say. It’s about men and not women. Black history should be embedded within the education system. It’s about creating awareness."
Eva: "Most people don’t want to appreciate what women do. But when you educate a woman you educate a nation. Black women are looked as nothing, only to be compared to as a man. To salute women is very educating to women, to empower them, to dream, to have more women that could be leaders and protect our rights."
How has being a Black woman shaped your identity and life experiences?
Florence: "It was really difficult. People don’t understand. It made me become stressed and the constant fighting and fighting because I have an urge for change. The fighting has made me and shaped me into a warrior. I was determined to use myself as a vessel for the women out there as it’s their right to express themselves in a free world."
Eva: "You have confidence in yourself but people might look at you differently. That can pull you down. I learnt as a Black woman coming to this country, is humanity. You have to care for one another. I have been here for almost 4.5 years, and I have learnt a lot. You have to appreciate people just the way they are. Treat them in the way you want to be treated."
How has St Augustine's Centre supported you and other Black women?
Florence: "In 2017, I started volunteering as a receptionist. I then saw the need for a women's group for women going through The Asylum Process. Myself and V set up Sisters United. Then in 2019, we were selected as Women of the Year by the UNHCR. From there through St Augustine's, we saw the need for better housing for asylum seekers. We then started a campaign for G4S, we brought the community together: MP, The Mosque, The Church, Sisters United, St Augustine's, and Calderdale Council shared their experiences about their housing. A debate then went to Parliament and G4S lost their contract. Mine and Vee's story was shared in Parliament."
Additionally, Florence's journey with our centre has inspired her to advocate for the provision of asylum seekers with disabilities in the UK asylum system.
Eva: "Everybody is welcome at St Augustine's. They make you feel at home, they really try. You listen to my problem, you accommodate everyone, that’s why everyone always comes back to the centre."
What advice do you have for a young Black girl reading this?
Florence: "Be you. Believe in yourself. It has to start with you. Go out there, and with an open mind, stand to fight. You have to be resilient, don’t give up. Be the voice of the voiceless."
Florence and Eva, are just two of the many examples of Black women who play essential roles at our centre. Their voices serve as a poignant reminder that celebrating and empowering Black women is not limited to a single month—it's a year-round commitment. The stories encapsulate the extraordinary contributions of Black women to our communities. At St Augustine's, we remain committed in our dedication to supporting and empowering individuals from diverse backgrounds. We extend an invitation to you to join us in this mission.