Leyla* came to Oxford from Syria in 2016. She had to leave behind her home, her job as a social worker, and her friends and family.
"I went through very hard time. You know, you come, you don't know anyone, you don't know language, you don't know culture, you don't know people - it’s journey, you need to learn all this kind of stuff, you know.
And small support is very appreciated. Anyone say "Hello" to me, I still remember them, because it was meaningful for me, honestly. Like, you need these people around you. When you foreign, when you come for study, when you come for job, you don't know people, you will be more strong - but when you lose everything, you know, when I say goodbye to my family, I didn't know if I'm going to see them again. You know, how hard is it? We're not only settling here, we also have stories there. Our minds are still there because we have a family there, we have a people there been dying every day, you know?"
Those first few months here were so difficult for Leyla, and recognising that she herself is a strong, independent and educated woman, she realised it must have been harder still for women arriving in the UK who had never even left their village. The language and social barriers for them will have made them feel incredibly isolated. But having had the same experience as a refugee, she knew she was uniquely placed to be able to reach out and help them.
"Like, is why I really willing to support these people. It's hard you know, believe me, no one can feel it if you didn't went through it. You see me now, I'm running business, and I'm working full time, you know, but it was not easy to arrive to this one. And it's why I really want to help these people through their journey, resettling in different culture and different countries, it is journey.
This one lady, she crossed the board from Syria to Jordan, her son been killed there, and she came to Jordan and she live in very, very bad environment and they moved her from Jordan to here. She's very lonely, isolated.
And a lot of Sudanese people here who's been here refugee for a long time, but they never involve in, in big society, which is very sad - 20 years and they don't know anything about Oxford, is very sad you know?"
This motivated Leyla to volunteer with different organisations in Oxford supporting refugees, and two months after she arrived in the UK she set up Syrian Sisters. She wanted to empower women from Syria to create social connections and improve their language skills to develop their independence in the UK. Life here is very different to the one they were used to back at home. In Syria there is an engrained culture of supporting neighbours and frequent contact with friends and family close by in their locality. Here she knew they would be feeling very alone, which could result in long-term mental suffering if no one was there to help guide and support them.
"And especially our culture is very different from your culture. In lockdown English people they go for a walk, they go for cycling… if it was good or not good weather, they go out for do some exercise! We don't have this culture, sorry. We really don't have this culture you know?"
For some of the women Leyla was helping, language was their biggest barrier to feeling like they belong here. Many of them, however, were incredibly skilled cooks. People loved their traditional Syrian food – falafel, mezze, tagines - which they would have made all the time for friends and family back at home. Big feasts are an integral part of Syrian culture.
"I mean, first, they was very shy, they don't have a confidence. I worked three months volunteering, I did hygiene food certificate to be allowed to be in the kitchen, because the women was without confidence. They couldn't do it. But they were so happy together. you know, when we cook some time in the kitchen, they say "Oh my Grandma used to do it like this", you know, and I will say "Oh, my Grandma do it like this!" Yeah of course, remind you of families and home and house and everything, it's just like, warm place. You know like, after five minutes, you will see how they laughing and they enjoying themselves, and they cooking and where some like, someone come with an order or they come with feedback to us and say they so happy, saying "Oh they love our food" you know?"
Leyla decided to progress the venture by setting up a social enterprise: Damascus Rose Kitchen. With grant funding, she bought a laptop, secured hygiene certification and insurance, began administrating and marketing the business, and taking bookings for large catering events - including Oxford University. DRK now employs six women. To start and grow this venture during the Covid-19 pandemic was no mean feat. Working for DRK is already having a significant impact on the mental health and the social and economic independence that refugee women so urgently need.
"I mean, I heard a lot of story from this woman, I mean, one of them, like she says, ‘she helped me mentally’ - she'd been in depressant medicine all that time and now she's less and less, which is very good, which is like, part of our target, you know. And you know we start in Covid time, which is was struggling, everyone was struggling. We did great achievement you know.
I don't let them notice they are vulnerable. I always tried to say "You can do it, you will do it, you know, start it, do it", you know?"
It is a priority for Leyla that the women she works with are no longer defined by their trauma or the circumstances by which they came to be here.
"Because they call you refugee all the time, and now this "Oh poor refugee" - no. You are can help and support and stuff. We all need support. I don't mind to go for counselling sometime and do all these kinds of stuff, it's fine, we are human. But also I don't want to always be looked at "Oh, poor refugee, she can't do anything...", no. I don't want to be like this. It's not my whole story, why you don't look at me as I'm good woman? I want to be the strong woman who are fun. To live, and save her family, and be strong, and help different people."
* Not her real name