Ilford charity Ramfel providing a voice and a welcome for people fleeing persecution
- Credit: Archant
On Christmas Eve seven years ago, Rita Chadha was waiting for the result of a large grant application which would decide the future of her charity.
At stake were all her members of staff, anxiously waiting to find out whether they would still have a job in the new year.
More importantly, hundreds of the most vulnerable people in our society, who relied on Rita and her staff, waited to see if their lifeline would be taken away.
Today, the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London (Ramfel) helps those who have fled persecution and terrible conditions in their native countries to seek refuge in the UK.
There are few issues which divide people as strongly as immigration and asylum – Rita says she rarely discusses her work with her family and friends: “After a long day, the last thing I want is to be lectured on immigration and asylum seekers at 2am by a cab driver.
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“I don’t talk about it when I go out with my mates or outside of work. I’m not paid to be liked, I’m paid to do my job.”
When you are dealing with large numbers of asylum seekers, she says that it is possible to assess those who are making false claims.
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She said: “It’s quite easy to spot. In fact, a lot of people are saying they want to go home.
“People are deciding enough is enough and they want to have another go back home. There’s a real change emerging.”
After studying sociology and media at City University, Rita worked for HomeStart UK going up and down the country helping charities which were on the brink of closure.
Whether it was due to funding or staffing trouble, she would work with the charities to find ways to ensure they would survive.
“I did that for about four or five years and then I came to Ramfel because they were in trouble and I had either six months to turn it around or close it down.
“We were waiting for the result of a funding application for more than £70,000 which would keep us going for long enough.”
The grim reality was if the application was not granted, Rita would have to fire all the staff on Christmas Eve and withdraw support to hundreds of people who had nowhere else to go.
She said: “When we got a positive result I was really elated for the team. I knew this was an organisation worth fighting for.
“I had worked for lots of others where you would get carried away with people’s enthusiasm but here you can see the difference. We survived.”
When a person arrives in the UK and claims asylum they are not entitled to any state help or benefits until their case has been approved by the Home Office.
This process can take more than a decade and during this time they have to live off friends and charity.
Ramfel, in High Road, Ilford, has a food bank and offers legal help for those trying to navigate the complex legal system.
Reasons for becoming an asylum seeker are varied, such as fleeing political persecution in Zimbabwe or, as in the first case Rita dealt with, a young Afghan woman who had seen her father and husband murdered in front of her eyes and was told she was next.
Rita said: “I love my job. No two days are the same and there’s a crisis management element to it sometimes, which I like.”
One such instance was when a woman turned up at the centre after being referred for benefits advice.
Rita said: “It was late and I was getting ready to go home and watch Emmerdale, when a 60-year-old Polish woman turned up.
“We have an eastern European specialist and they were talking and the woman said she had witnessed a murder in Southall the night before.”
The woman said she was living in sheltered accommodation where other immigrants were also staying.
“We didn’t know if she was telling the truth, because she wanted accommodation, but she said someone in the house was also in danger.
“I decided that as someone was at risk we had to report it, and this is where we make a difference because we have connections within the police.”
An officer was sent to the centre and took a statement from the woman.
Rita said: “They showed her a picture of the man who had been murdered and then we knew she was telling the truth.”
By the time everything was completed it was 2am.
Rita said: “When we finally got out there was nowhere for her to go, so we put her up in a hotel.
“My job’s really different from anything else I’ve done before.”
She says applications for residency can take a decade and staff develop a strong relationship with some of the 2,500 clients who come through the door each year.
“The staff go through a lot – sometimes they’re in fits of laughter and other times crying. It means people really value their work here,” she added.
“Sometimes, after residency is given, people don’t want to remember us and don’t acknowledge us in the street as we remind them how hard it was.”