I remember very clearly how one elderly woman who lived near to us would send her dog after me when I passed her house as I walked my children to school. She would also stop me at the local shop and pour out her anger at me. Back then, I could not speak English, nor could I understand her behaviour towards me, especially as we did not know each other at all.
I started working with migrants in a community centre, and I realised that my experiences – which I had assumed were isolated – were shared by others. Asylum seekers seemed to be coming in for much of the hostility. I remember one asylum seeker telling me that while he was living in accommodation provided by the Home Office, which was clearly known in the neighbourhood as a hostel for refugees, people used to throw bottles and stones at him as he came and went. When he was evicted from the hostel after failing in his asylum claim he became homeless, but he told me that in a way it was easier sleeping on the streets.
After a while we got some support to set up a group to discuss the role of the media in driving this hostility. One of the migrants who came to the first meeting told me, “When I hear the negative news about us, I get angry. But what can we do? I just go home and shut my door, feeling upset and helpless.” There was enormous demand among migrants and refugees to open the door at last and try to work with journalists and broadcasters.
Our sense of urgency was sharpened at the last election, when we were very concerned about the way the immigration debate was going. We knew that lots of claims would be made against migrants and refugees, and would be rarely challenged. Everyone was talking about migrants – except migrants themselves.
I could no longer afford to sit back and watch in horror. I had to do something to stop the situation from deteriorating further. So I set up Migrant Voice to mobilise and engage migrants with the media, the public and in the debate on migration. It was up to us now to initiate the missing dialogue. We produced the Migrant Voice newspaper so we could tell our own stories and reach out to the public and start a conversation with them.
I feel that this new award, the Migrant and Refugee Woman of the Year award, which in this first year is celebrating the work that migrants and refugee women do at the grassroots in London, will help us in this conversation. It will help us to show that we also want to contribute to building a more tolerant and decent society.
I know that this is possible. One Christmas, the elderly woman who had been setting her dog on me came up to ask my forgiveness. So I know that change can happen, whether in an individual or in a country.
One of our members once said to me: “How can they hate us so much when they don’t even know us?”
“You have answered your question; because they don’t know us, and it is up to us to tell them who we are,” I told her.
• Nazek Ramadan is the director of Migrant Voice. The Migrant and Refugee Woman of the Year award will be launched today, International Women’s Day, at the Royal Festival Hall, London, at a ceremony with Juliet Stevenson and Natasha Walter. For more information, go to mrcf.org.uk/award.