Stories through objects

Every Xenia session has a theme, which guides us through three hours of conversations, activities and sharing. The themes may be simple or abstract, but they are always equally relatable for both British and migrant participants. This makes sure that everyone can understand and connect to the discussions, and each other.

The theme for last week’s session was ‘Telling Stories With Objects’. Objects have an important place in language learning; you do not have to rely on words to understand or express yourself. At Xenia we use a lot of objects from the Hackney Museum to bring out themes and discussions, and participants have loved looking into life in Hackney over the years through the items left to the Museum by residents past and present. This  workshop was a great example of this approach, and so we thought you might like to hear a bit more about how the session went!

All Xenia sessions begin with participants sitting in a circle, reminding everyone of a few vital guidelines:

  • English speakers, speak slowly and clearly, and make sure that the learners in your group understand
  • If you do not understand, just ask – we are all here to help
  • We are all from very different backgrounds, so listen openly with respect

Ioanna then invited everyone to say their name and an object they never leave home without, and why. It was really interesting to hear how many people chose a piece of jewellery – many because of memories, or gifts from loved ones (nobody chose a wedding ring though!).

We then broke out into small groups for a few activities helping us to think about describing ourselves – what are three positive things about you? What is the story behind your name? With a group of 10-15 women from almost as many countries, these conversations are always fascinating! Everyone listens carefully to stories which can be both joyful and very difficult to hear. Participants can always ask their neighbour if they don’t understand anything – our mini whiteboards are useful here, as they aid explanations while someone is talking.

Taking a break halfway through the workshop is important, to give women a chance to talk to others not in their groups, and have some lovely homemade food. No matter what the theme is, a session never passes without at least one participant bringing something to feed the rest of the group! This week we had Italian spinach bread, Polish sausage rolls and Iraqi chocolate cookies – plus some delicious biscuits.

It was then time to look in the suitcases at the Museum, with each one created to tell the story of a Hackney resident. After taking the time to explore the items inside, read letters and look at photos, we returned to a circle where groups shared the stories they had learned from the objects in the suitcases – from Nigeria, Vietnam, Lithuania, and Yorkshire. There is always space left in the session to let the discussions take their own turn, and as a result of some stories told, participants started suggesting writing to MPs to lobby problematic issues in other countries. This was a perfect moment to share the letter we had received from Diane Abbott MP in response to letters participants had written her last year – click here for a link to our session with her, and her response below.

The stories we hear and tell at Xenia are very diverse – they can include family tragedy, political turmoil, war, and separation. What is always impressive is the respect and love in the way participants listen to each other, support each other, and help each other to find humour and joy. For many of our British participants, it is a rare opportunity to really understand what is going on in other countries, through personal stories; for migrant women it is a vital chance to practise their English in an open, welcoming environment where they can share their experiences and find friends.

We finished the session by thinking about what objects we would all put in a suitcase if we could tell our story through objects – an idea that could certainly become a reality, as Hackney Museum has invited Xenia women to contribute their suitcases to add to their collection. We can’t wait to see others learning from the stories of Xenia women soon!

DA letter
Diane Abbott MP’s response to Xenia participants

Our highlights from 2017

2017 was a busy year for Xenia and as we enter 2018 we thought we’d take some time to reflect on our highlights and achievements of the year, and there have been some BIG ones.

Here just some of the things that have made 2017 a special year for Xenia!

We were featured in a British Academy Study 

Several months ago, nine of our participants attended a focus group as part of a British Academy study which examined groups across the UK that are helping to improve social integration.
The published report found that “Xenia has a tangible impact on reducing isolation amongst migrant women and increases these women’s independence.”
You can read the report here and also read about our trip to parliament for the launch in this blog post.

BearMotherHouse exhibition with Fourthland

Throughout the summer our participants took part in art-making, performative workshops with the creative collective, Fourthland. The outcome of these workshops is an interactive installation exploring motherhood, materiality and womanhood. The exhibition is running until Saturday 6th January at SPACE on Mare Street, make sure you check it out before then!

Diane Abbott came to visit Xenia

It started with a tweet… the next thing we know, Shadow Home Secretary and MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington, Diane Abbott visited us to take part in one of our workshops.
The session’s theme was political dissent and making our voices heard, the perfect discussion to have with your local MP present!  Read about Diane’s visit in this blog post.

Working with the Loneliness Commission and Refugee Action.

Throughout October, the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission and Refugee Action put a spotlight on the loneliness and isolation felt by refugees and asylum seekers.
With the support of Refugee Action, Xenia held a focus group to discuss loneliness with our English learners. At the session, participants shared their experiences of isolation and loneliness and the impact that Xenia had in their lives. For some, our sessions gave them a reason to get out of the house every week, for others, it was their only support network. Find out more about the study in this blog post.

Xenia’s first birthday at Antiuniversity Now

Xenia started as an experiment at Antiuniversity Now 2016. Our idea was to bring migrant, refugee, asylum-seeking and British women together for workshops that encourage English language practice & fun, meaningful two-way social integration.
This year we were back at Antiuniversity Now to celebrate our first birthday with many of the women who are now regular Xenia attendees. Take a look at some videos from our birthday celebration here.

Some kind words from our supporters

“Congratulations on all your amazing work this year. I keep hearing such good feedback from the women who come.” –  Hackney Community College 

“Xenia women is a young, ambitious initiative driven by the feminist vision of a peaceful productive multi-ethnic community, where women play a leading role in shaping its future. As a young network of migrant women organisations, we are delighted to have Xenia women on board with us.” –  Anna Zobnina, European Network of Migrant Women 

“On behalf of HOPE not hate I have the real honour to work with Xenia. You don’t get much more HOPEful than the community engagement that takes place as part of the outcome of Xenia’s work with women who are helped with their English skills and the women that help them.” – Dawn Livingston, London Community Organiser for HOPE Not Hate

“What Xenia aims to do is extremely important. Their ability to bring women together in a safe, informal and creative space to develop their English skills and to meet other members of their community, including access to childcare, is hugely welcome.” – Mariam Kemple Hardy, Head of Campaigns at Refugee Action 

“Xenia is a valuable voluntary group in Hackney, run by dedicated young women volunteers, committed in offering marginalised migrant women a real opportunity to learn English in a safe and friendly environment. Their success has been down to a strong belief in making language learning accessible for all women, many whom are often excluded from mainstream ESOL classes, so they can build their confidence and take part in their local community.” –  Sofia Roupakia, London Projects Manager at Migrants’ Rights Network

Thank you to all our supporters, volunteers, and especially to all the women who come to our sessions and create such an amazing and unique space every Saturday. We can’t wait to see what 2018 will bring!

Xenia visits the Houses of Parliament for launch of British Academy report on local integration projects.

Back in August, we were approached by researcher Madeleine Mosse asking if she could come and talk to us about what we do, and observe a session. As Xenia is all about engaging and learning, we suggested that the best way for her to understand Xenia would be to come to a workshop and participate – and we’re so glad she did.

Five months later and Xenia attended the parliamentary launch of the British Academy report on ‘If you could do one thing… Local actions to promote social integration’ – a report containing recommendations to inform the government’s national integration strategy. These recommendations are formulated using learning from eight case studies of local best practice in social integration across the UK – of which Xenia is one. Chair of the British Academy project, Professor Anthony Heath CBE FBA said:

“It is often said that we live in a divided society, yet our research shows how small, local projects are already making difference to the lives of established and newly-arrived migrant communities across the UK.

“But it is clear that integration does not happen on its own. Social integration must be supported and planned, taking into account the diverse needs of specific communities and places.

“The Government’s forthcoming Integration Strategy must take account of the good work that is already going on. Only then can we build sustainable and cohesive communities, where people of all backgrounds are welcomed and supported.”

This research ‘highlights practical, evidence-based interventions which could be replicated in other parts of the country to improve relationships between communities of different ethnic backgrounds and to help new arrivals feel welcome.’ For us, it has been an important process of understanding our impact, connecting us to other projects, and delving into ideas about how we could share and influence. Here are a few highlights of this report for Xenia:

Evidencing impact. As part of the focus groups and questionnaires undertaken through this research, we have been able to evidence some of the impact we are having on women’s lives. For example, there is a correlation between the number of Xenia sessions a woman attends and her confidence speaking English in her everyday life. As a project driven by social interaction, it has been difficult for us to know how to measure our work – with Madeleine’s help we are now developing monitoring & evaluation tools to better evidence all the confidence, friendship and learning that goes on in our sessions.

Showcasing positive stories. Having the government take notice of positive projects and local actions is crucial to counteract the rhetoric of hatred and division in the UK as a result of political turmoil and the disastrous effects of austerity. All of the case studies and interventions featured in the reports are driven by local people feeling the need to take action, and we need the government to recognise that this is a key support for people falling through the gaps – and that these local projects need support.

Informing government integration strategy. Evidence-based approaches and recommendations are key to strategy, and we are proud to be able to inform the British Academy’s recommendations. One of the key lessons identified by the report, which we fully support and hope the government will take note of, is that social integration must be a two-way process, and that involvement of all members of the community regardless of birthplace or immigration status is crucial and can bring immeasurable positivity into local areas.

Case for replication. This report recommends that many organisers of projects in the case studies should be called upon to share their knowledge. We are in the beginning stages of developing strategies for Xenia to share our learning and our model, so that others around the country can use our resources and create communities with similar values to Xenia that are locally relevant. If you see a need for this in your community, please do get in touch.

Yesterday was special for many reasons, but the reason most special to us was that we were invited to bring a Xenia woman to the launch. Aysha arrived in the UK a year ago, and she has experienced depression and isolation as a result of family circumstances, how she feels people react to her wearing a niqab, as well as being unable to work due to not having adequate English language certifications and NVQs. You can read about Aysha’s story in the case study, but you will not see her in any of the publicity pictures as her Muslim faith means she does not like being photographed. Aysha has become a close friend to many at Xenia, and having the opportunity to bring her to the Houses of Parliament, to sit with her discussing democratic processes, talking about why all of the statues are of old white men, wondering how the mosaics, stained glass windows and stone carvings are upkept, and encouraging her to share her experiences with the academics and professionals in the room at the launch – that was the best part of it all.

You can read the full report and the case study about Xenia here: 

Diane Abbot MP takes part in a special Xenia session

In October, Xenia welcomed a special guest to our Saturday morning session at the Hackney Museum; Diane Abbott, Shadow Home Secretary and MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington joined us for the first hour of the workshop. Coincidentally, the theme for the session was political dissonance and making our voices heard, the perfect discussion to have with your local MP present!

As it was coming up to Bonfire Night, we discussed the relevance of the Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot and how this was a way to speak out against the government. We then spoke about the ways in which the women of Xenia could make their voices heard, including peacefully protesting, voting, and writing to your MP. The participants shared stories of what governments in different countries are like and how those in power can sometimes limit our abilities to influence how a country is run.

Having Diane Abbott listen to what the women had to say, many of whom experience isolation and hostility, was really special, and the participants were very appreciative of her taking the time to come to a session and see how we are creating an integrated community together. Before Diane left, she explained to the group what her job as an MP involves and told us that, 30 years ago, she became the first black female MP, which at the time coincided with the 180th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. Diane saw this as a symbol of change, which gave her hope for the future of the country. At Xenia, we create a space in which women from all backgrounds can share their experiences, for that reason it was brilliant to have Diane, herself the daughter of Jamaican migrants, tell us her inspiring story.

At the end of the session, participants each wrote a letter to their local MP, explaining what things they would like to change in the UK. The concerns that the women wrote about included how difficult they found living in London on the minimum wage, living too far away from free ESOL classes, and struggling to find a job because they wear a face covering. The session was a great way to show participants that they do have a voice, and that they should use it loud and clear to help make a change for the better. We will deliver the letters to Diane Abbott and other MPs before the end of the year.

Xenia works with Refugee Action and the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission to put spotlight on loneliness and refugees

In September, Xenia took part in the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission, which looks to investigate the impact of loneliness in our society and focus on the positive action we can all take to recognise it and alleviate the problem. The Jo Cox Loneliness Commission was set up by MP Jo Cox before she was murdered in June 2016. She decided to set up such a commission after witnessing the extent of the loneliness crisis in her constituency. The various “Spotlight months” put the focus on groups of people who are most vulnerable to loneliness, including the elderly, carers, men and disabled people. This month, the spotlight is on the refugee and asylum seeking community.

At Xenia, addressing social isolation is as much a part of our work as giving migrant women the opportunity to practice English. Every Saturday, participants can look forward to meeting new people, as well as seeing familiar faces, and having a chat in a friendly and welcoming environment. The sessions also provide an opportunity for women to have cross-cultural discussions about experiences they may have shared; this could be about being a mother, being unable to work due to their status or cultural barriers that they have faced in the UK. By providing a women-only space, participants can feel more comfortable in sharing their experiences, thoughts and feelings with others.

With the support of Refugee Action, Xenia held a focus group on loneliness with English learners at one of our workshops. It was very different to our usual sessions, which use positive and engaging themes to provide social relief and help alleviate stress and anxiety. The facilitators from Refugee Action created a safe space in which the participants only shared what they were comfortable with, enabling participants to find support in each other as many had common experiences of isolation and loneliness. These are difficult and important conversations to have, and it was striking and encouraging to hear participants speak about the positive effect of Xenia in their lives. For some, it gave them a reason to get out of the house every week, for others, it was their only support network.

Despite the intensity of the session, many of the women were enthusiastic in sharing their experiences with the group, and one participant said that she was glad to have had the opportunity to open up to others about something that she wouldn’t usually talk about.

Xenia is glad to have been able to participate in the Loneliness Commission and help raise awareness of this important issue, and we are grateful to our wonderful participants for allowing us to gain an insight into their experiences so that we can help combat loneliness for migrant women in London.

Click here to read more about Refugee Action’s research for the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission.

Artwork: Anna jay

Belated Birthday!

Welcomes, coffee, tea and biscuits greeted women from all over the world at our 1st birthday celebrations this summer. Every fortnight Hackney Museum is host to Xenia workshops, a space for women of all ages and backgrounds to come together – migrant women learning English and English speakers – to talk, learn and share our stories. What on the surface appears to be a group of English learners practicing a new language with English speakers, is in fact the beginning of so much more. Through language learning we build relationships, connections and stories; empowering women (both English learners and speakers) with conversation and friendship.

Unlike other Saturdays where tea and biscuits are there to warm up conversations, this week they were right at the core of our chatter as we shared the peculiarities and tricks to our perfect cup of tea – not as British as you think! As we shared the little rituals that go with our 11:00 am cup of coffee or the very precise techniques to get your tea just right, we realised there is much more to the feeling, taste and experience of a hot drink than we’d expect.

After the first cup we headed to Groundwork’s garden and were greeted by Fourthland’s Louise and Eva, artists we have been collaborating with all summer. With music, mystery herbs and great company we experienced infusions in a whole new, interesting way; participants told stories of connecting the aromas not only to different body parts but also reminiscing what that scent brought to life. A grandmother’s perfume, a healing lotion a mother used, warm summer mornings or simply a deep sense of peace. It was a doorway to childhood stories from all over the world, healing tips and a few Xenia original tea blends!

Overall, the cloudy sky wasn’t able to dampen our summer celebration, which ended with food, conversation and laughter around the table. Thank you everyone who brought and shared a dish, a cake, a story, and a cup of tea!




Contribution to ESOL for women

“What Xenia aims to do is extremely important. At Refugee Action we know that refugees and asylum seekers are desperate to learn English but often face huge barriers due to limited provision. Women can be particularly disadvantaged for a range of reasons, including lack of access to childcare for ESOL classes. This can lead them to be socially isolated, unable to integrate effectively and rebuild their lives.
Therefore, Xenia’s ability to bring women together in a safe, informal and creative space to develop their English skills and to meet other members of their community, including access to childcare, is hugely welcome.”
– Mariam Kemple Hardy, Head of Campaigns at Refugee Action