Oasis, a refugee centre

Oasis, a refugee centre in Cardiff’s Splott neighbourhood, has won funding to record the stories of refugees and asylum seekers living in the capital city.

The sound of colliding billiard balls is the first to greet visitors to the café at Oasis.

The second is a cacophony of languages.

From the tinkering of pots and pans in the small kitchen to the grunting and cheering of volleyball matches in the recreation hall, at Oasis there is never a quiet moment.

Oasis is a gathering space for refugees and asylum seekers to socialise, relax, and partake of free English classes before possibly being relocated elsewhere within the UK.

Here they are no longer an outsider in a foreign land, but a visitor who has come to learn and play and forget their troubles for an hour or two.

Reynette Roberts, co-founder of Oasis, opened the centre because in her volunteer work she found there was no communal space for refugees and asylum seekers to meet each other or interact with British people.

Oasis was established in a small room with no money. Seven years on Roberts estimates the monthly cost of running the centre is close to £10,000, which is covered by a variety of grants awarded to the charity.

Now Oasis occupies the old Splott Methodist Church. The chapel was converted into a café with computers and couches and former offices are now classrooms. Administrators, community volunteers and visitors alike are employed by the charity.

Born in Sudan, nineteen-year-old Wadhwadh came to the UK five years ago as part of a family reunification programme. Six months ago he began as a volunteer at Oasis and now is an employee. His mother also volunteers in the kitchen cooking the free lunch served to visitors five days a week.

“It’s really good to help other people and put a smile on their face,” he said.

Wadhwadh wants to study web developing and game design at university. Last term an administrator took him to an Open Day at the University of South Wales, where he was delighted to find other people shared his interests.

“This guy chatting here and another guy chatting there in the same subject and we know what we’re doing. It’s not a random person who when you ask him something is like, ‘What’re you on about?’ They understand you,” he said.

Fellow staff member Simon, who was born and bred in Cardiff, was sent to Oasis from the job centre.

Simon spends five days a week at Oasis and is a jack-of-all trades. In the morning he helps visitors on the computers and in the afternoon he is often drafted into an impromptu football or volleyball match.

“I make sure the café area is clean, I pop in the kitchen and just generally help out,” he said.

Most important to Simon, however, is the communication fostered at Oasis. “You see lots and lots of nationalities from all over the world, Chinese, Eritreans, Iranians, Sudanese,” he said.

Wales, to him, is boring and he is keen to learn more about the visitors’ lives and cultures. So far he can count to 15 and greet someone in Farsi.

“The community, the friendship, helping people be together,” that is at the heart of Oasis said Simon.

The free English classes provided by Oasis are taught at both beginner and advanced levels.

Bryony Wood, one of the instructors, has taught at Oasis for two years since she graduated with her Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (Tesol) qualification.

“It’s such an interesting place, you get sucked in, and feel very attached to the people,” she said.

English classes funded by the UK government are offered to refugees and asylum seekers at local colleges, but there is more often than not a yearlong waiting list.

For most of Wood’s students Oasis is the first place where they can learn English in a classroom environment. Yet there are pros and cons to the charity’s open door policy. Because it allows students to drop in without signing up or paying a fee it cannot be an accredited institution, but at the same time this allows a greater number of students to benefit.

“At peak times we’ve had 48 and it’s difficult to turn people away. I really struggle with it. Today I said, ‘Oh guys just come in, just squeeze’,” said Wood.

Running a lively, interactive classroom, Wood pairs hand gestures with her speech to signify past tense, present tense, speaking and listening so that those who are new can still follow.

Once Wood developed a basic method of communication she moved on to designing a curriculum built around requests. Most ask to cover topics like asking for directions, buying food and clothing, going to hospital and a basic introduction to life in Cardiff.

After two years Wood has boiled her lesson plan down to a 12-week repeating course of, as she calls it, ‘Skills for Life’ English.

“Incidentally three months is the longest people tend to stay because they are dispersed from their temporary housing then,” said Wood.

Wood also ties in questions similar to those students will be asked during their Home Office interviews. Asking them about their day-to-day activities allows students to practise past and future tenses, but also share more about their personal lives.

Wood must tread very carefully when it comes to covering personal topics as many of her students have experienced very traumatic situations.

“I’ve learned the hard way, don’t talk about family,” she said.

Oasis does not have the money to order textbooks, but if it did none of them would be applicable anyway said Wood. “They’re all about happy families or going on holiday, it doesn’t really relate.”

In addition to the safe space of her classroom, Wood wants to help reverse the stigma experienced by Oasis visitors.

“A lot of what they face is people being antagonist towards them and it’s a case of [the community] not knowing anything about them. It’s more ignorance than actual hostility,” she said.

The more people learn about refugees and asylum seekers who live in their community the more these newcomers will feel welcome.

“I wish everyone could come here and speak to them one on one because it’s so easy to say ‘refugees’ and group them into this crazy big bunch. If people talked to them they would realise how similar they are,” said Wood.

Oasis is working to reverse such stigma and one of their more brilliant methods is digital storytelling.

The charity provides that safe environment for visitors, if they so choose, to share their stories. Mari Lowe, projects coordinator, teaches a digital storytelling class in which visitors do just that.

Participants hail from Iran, Eritrea, Cameroon and Jamaica.

A trained digital storytelling curator, Lowe walks each person through the process of making their video from writing the script to mastering the software. Lowe said she is often surprised by the hidden skills that emerge during her classes.

For example, a script written by a woman named Rosita particularly impressed Lowe. Originally from Jamaica, Rosita fled because of domestic violence. Before coming to Cardiff, however, she spent a week on the streets of London, all of which her video covers.

“It wasn’t hard because it’s reality, it’s something that you’ve been through. It might be sad, but it’s not hard to tell what you know,” said Rosita.

Her video will be paired with others to make a collection of stories as the groundwork for the Heritage Lottery Fund-sponsored (HLF) exhibit in partnership with National Museum of Wales.

The exhibit will premiere in Cardiff during summer 2016 and then travel throughout Wales.

Owain Rhys, community engagement and participation manager at the National Museum Wales, said the intention of the exhibit was to raise awareness and challenge stereotypes.

Previously the museum held an exhibit focusing on Italian Welsh migrants, but with the help of Oasis it has been able to widen its scope.

“We thought it was important to expand the stories and history we were representing to include all people of Wales,” said Rhys.

The current exhibit was borne from a prior installation at St Fagan’s National History Museum, which Rhys and Roberts worked on together. With the help of Oasis visitors and an HLF grant, a residence similar to one where refugees and asylum seekers would be assigned upon their arrival to the UK was built in the grounds.

This time Rhys and the museum wanted to hand over the reigns to the refugees and asylum seekers.

“We wanted to empower them to hold an exhibition themselves rather than have the museum tell their stories,” he said.

The exhibit will hopefully create debate and inform people about why refugees and asylum seekers have fled and how they are received in the UK.

Rhys admits it was a political decision when the museum became involved. “But I think museums should be safe spaces for dangerous things,” he said.

Once the second exhibit was conceived Rhys and Roberts submitted a new bid for an HLF grant and Lowe was hired to coordinate the project.

By partnering with these two bodies Oasis has procured a national audience for its exhibit. Lowe believes this move is paramount.

“Oasis, as an organisation is quite brave. We’re bold in teaming up with different organisations and that’s really important because you’ve got to push things a little bit,” she said.

Lowe believes one of the most challenging aspects of being a refugee or asylum seeker is the segregation. Refugees and asylum seekers are often assigned their residence and given vouchers instead of cash to spend on food and clothing, further isolating them within society.

“These are barriers to full participation in your local community and only exacerbate the difficulties people are facing,” she added.

The exhibit is first and foremost a platform for storytelling, but one of Lowe’s goals is for audience members to ask how they can become involved.

“I hope if people realise this is happening on their doorstep they reach out. We can’t change the asylum process overnight, but we can allow people to participate in community life,” said Lowe.

Roberts believes the centre will continue to thrive. She hopes those who live in other parts of Wales will be inspired to find out more.

Oasis has always been about more than providing a safe space for refugees and asylum seekers to integrate into the local community. Oasis, as the name denotes, is a place of understanding surrounded by a nation of fear and loathing.

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