Smallwood’s COVID-19 grants in action: Lesbian Immigration Support Group (LISG)

As we continue to look at how our grants are being used, we speak to Karen from the Lesbian Immigration Support Group about the unique challenges their organisation face.

Can you introduce yourself and the Lesbian Immigration Support Group (LISG)?
I’m Karen, the treasurer of LISG which has been going for 13 years now. We started as an anti-deportation campaign for a lesbian from Sierra Leone who was seeking asylum. After a year she successfully got her refugee status, but during that time quite a number of lesbians that were also seeking asylum gravitated towards the group so it became obvious there was a need for us and so we decided to carry on supporting lesbian and bi-sexual asylum seekers in the Greater Manchester area.

With LISG members their asylum cases are based on sexuality, but the issue is how do you prove your sexuality? The women we support are largely from Africa, Asia, Caribbean and the Middle-East who may not have been able to speak about their sexuality and experiences in their home countries.

So as well as the emotional support it’s that practical support as all the volunteers are lesbian and bi-sexual women and we can go to court with them and try to support their case.

Before COVID, we’d all get together once a month. It’s a joyous space where women could share their stories and be in a room with other women who understood what they were going through.

What has been the impact of the COVID-19 Frontline Women’s grant, in partnership with The National Lottery Community Fund, on your organisation?
We’ve used some of the grant to help with phone credit so our members can access online support, zoom meetings, the internet and be able to speak to other members, volunteers and communicate with people back home. Another part of the grant went towards monthly supermarket vouchers to supplement the £40 a week (Home Office support) they live on. So they are able to get more than just the absolute basics, such as more nourishing food and extra cleaning products.

Also, if someone is self-isolating or unable to use their kitchen then it helps them be a bit more self-sufficient. Additionally, we have used the grant for emergency situations such as when someone might need cooked meals to be delivered if they aren’t able to use the kitchen.

Finally, we’ve been able to bring in a consultant to look at LISG and help us find different ways to deal with situations and to streamline some of our processes. They’ve also helped with the finance management which unburdens the volunteers so they can spend more time doing case work. The consultant is also helping us to get registered charity status that will put us on a firmer footing for future grants and opportunities.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve experienced during the pandemic?
The fact that we meet on Zoom instead of in person is really difficult. It isn’t the same and then there are issues with people not being able to use the technology due to their age. Also women seeking asylum are living on less than £40 a week so there’s issues with getting phone credit to access zoom calls and the internet in general.

Then there’s the impact on the women’s mental health from not being able to get together and so experiencing that sense of isolation. Most of our members are in the asylum seeking process and living in shared Home Office accommodation with other women who are seeking asylum so there’s no control with whom you’re sharing the house with. The facilities are all shared which has incredibly challenging implications if someone has COVID or has to self-isolate.

So we’ve provided a lot of emotional support to reassure them that they are not on their own as well as practical advice about COVID. We also signpost them to resources for legal and wellbeing resources.

What funding improvements would you like to see?
I’ve been really amazed at how personable it has been to work with Smallwood. It has never felt scary to ask a question or submit our interim report. You understand women’s organisations and haven’t been overburdensome or too bureaucratic. It would be a joy if all funders were like that.

Do you see enough lesbian or bi-sexual specific projects or services within the women’s sector? What are your hopes?
It’s not that common to have specifically lesbian and bi-sexual women’s groups, they tend to fall under the umbrellas of women’s groups or LGBT groups. When you are talking about asylum seekers, men and women have different experiences particularly when they are fleeing their country because of their sexuality. It’s always brilliant when women get their refugee status and come back to us as LISG should be run by women with lived experience.

Having places where lesbian and bi-sexual women can get together is where our members will often feel the safest as many have experienced sexual violence and rape.

How important is it to have women in leadership roles in organisations trying to tackle gender inequality?
I think it’s vital as only women know the effects that society has on them. The reason we are a group of lesbian and bi-sexual women helping those seek asylum seekers is because we are a minority of a minority of a minority. It’s so important that women have a group that is theirs. The members call it a family. So everyone at LISG has that shared identity and safe place to let those barriers down and be who they are.

What has been the biggest lesson or take away from dealing with the pandemic?
To be flexible. Our members used to be in the same room generating all that energy and now we have to continue giving practical and emotional support without being in one place. Also we’ve had to find other ways of getting funding including local groups doing fundraisers for us.

Then there’s the fact that asylum seekers are uniquely affected by COVID. Everyone is told to stay at home but that means a different thing when you are in one small room in a shared house where you have no control over who else lives there. We’ve learnt to think of creative ways to keep women safe and connected. With one grant we were able to give some women small fridges that they could have in their room so they didn’t need to use the shared kitchen as often.

What is the best way for the public to support LISG?
It’s always helpful when people know about the issues with the asylum process and how dehumanising it is. You can have a look at our Facebook page and there’s a new website coming soon. You can also setup a standing order to help us. Just £2 or £3 a month would make such a difference.

We are also selling a book ‘Free To Be Me’ written by Jane Traies who worked with 12-13 LISG members to put together their life stories. These stories reveal how they ended up in Manchester as women seeking asylum and it gives a voice to members who have had such little control over their lives.

It can be bought via our Facebook page, with all the profits going to LISG.

One of the spin-offs I’d love to see from the book would be for other LISG groups to be set up. There’s such a huge need for them in other parts of the country.

You can also email us if you want to ask anything: lisg.manchester@yahoo.co.uk

Are there any other messages you’d like to make?
I want to thank all the women, grant-providers and supporter groups who have been a part of LISG in some way over the past 13 years and I look forward to a day when there is no need for us anymore.

For more information about LISG visit: https://www.facebook.com/Lesbian-Immigration-Support-Group-LISG-265343636867848/

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