Rise Glasgow's founder, Helen Russell, talks about the events that led to the birth of the social enterprise.
I can still remember the horror and sense of despair I felt as I watched footage and read articles about the hundreds of people crossing the Mediterranean in boats that were barely seaworthy, heavily laden with precious cargo. The refugee crisis which started in 2015 brought a new awareness about the desperation that people were facing that would make them do something as drastic as put their lives, and those of their loved ones, in such jeopardy. As Warsan Shire writes in her very moving poem ‘Home’ “no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land”. The numbers of people making this journey and losing their lives was colossal, unimaginable. How could we begin to humanise such a horrendous loss of life? To distill this number to individual stories of people who were loved and cherished by someone, who made a treacherous journey in the hope of finding something safer, something better on the other side?
When I had the opportunity to travel to Sicily in 2015 to work with an organisation who were supporting asylum seekers and migrants accommodated in camps in Mineo and Caltanissetta, I took it. The time I spent there showed me that every individual had very differing reasons for making that dangerous journey - some didn’t even have a choice. Stories of imprisonment and enslavement in Libya for some, others who watched their child’s wheelchair flung into the ocean by people traffickers after paying thousands of pounds, before their journey even began. I listened to stories of survival, and rescue by the Italian navy, of others who lost loved ones travelling across deserts or in the dark sea.
This experience changed my life and triggered a career change, from educator to advocate. My work with refugees over the past 5 years has taken me to the Middle East, opened my eyes to the lived experience of people who have been forcibly displaced from their country of origin. I have been enlightened to the experience of those who have come through the asylum process and the challenges and barriers they face, to begin thriving in our city. Working closely with women who are both still in the asylum process and who have been granted Leave to Remain has shown me that a change in status does not automatically mean that routes to employment are straightforward. Many of these women face barriers to employment such as low self-esteem, self-worth and low confidence in spoken English and in interacting with local Glaswegians. The asylum process can be brutal, leaving some of those who go through it dehumanised, disbelieved and de-skilled. With ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) classes often oversubscribed, many who wish to improve their English can struggle to access accredited courses. Other barriers such as experience and qualifications not being recognised, or in some cases valued, means that some of these women can lose their sense of identity and even their sense of ambition. Entering full-time education to gain UK qualifications can mean that access to permanent housing can be put in jeopardy. Doors that seem so promising, can be all too easily closed.
The idea for Rise, creating a training program in parallel with hands-on experience opportunities, came from a trend of need that we identified. The women we work with are not weak. Quite the opposite. The women we work with are resilient, determined, dignified, talented and ambitious, but sometimes they need opportunities to show this, and in some cases, to remember this. We create opportunities for the women we work with to showcase their culinary talents and heritage with native Glaswegians. We provide opportunities for the women we work with to gain new qualifications, skills and experience in the food industry in a safe, nurturing environment. Our training program provides holistic high quality training in food, wellbeing and employability to ensure that when the training program ends, the women we work with graduate feeling more confident and equipped to enter employment. We want to see these women truly thrive, not just survive.