Originally from the Philippines, Rosario GuimbaStewart describes how she first became involved in political and community activism after graduating. “I grew up in Manila. I started my activism right after university. I worked for an NGO (National Government Organisation) working for local fishermen. I was organising activities to help them improve their economic life, as well as also fighting the then dictator, the President1. We had so many community activities, attending rallies, demonstrations, and making sure that we are expressing the voice of the minorities.”
“I have no idea why I got into community organising, but I think it started as a political activist.”
At the end of the 1980s, Lewisham College and Community Education Lewisham were running English Language classes for the increasing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers in the borough. By November 1991, students, their teachers and members of the Blackheath United Nations Association, formed an advice committee to address the needs of newly arrived communities.
The committee included representatives of each country (Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Kurdistan, Liberia and Uganda) and 7 representatives from the UK. Small groups were set up, including a research group that worked with Goldsmiths Centre for Inner City Studies. By 1992, with financial help from Lewisham Council, they opened an office on Lewisham High Street. It was through this work that Lewisham Refugee Network (LRN) was formed.2
Rosario came to England in 1995 and began volunteering at the Philippine Resource Centre. She worked for various charity organisations until starting work in 2010 with Lewisham Refugee Network as Chief Executive Officer. In 2011 the organisation changed its name to Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network (LRMN), due to increasing demands from migrant communities.
While the majority of people using the organisation’s services are from Lewisham, where they are based, LRMN now works with refugees and migrants in neighbouring boroughs and sees over 1000 people, including those from Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria and Eastern Europe. The organisation gives advice on a range of issues such as immigration, housing and welfare, training and employment and offers counselling and services for women experiencing gender-based violence. Their work is supported by a team of volunteers “all contributing immensely to the organisation.”
Rosario outlines many of the issues facing refugees today, including poor mental health, isolation, language barriers and unemployment. “Asylum seekers are still not allowed to work, which adds to poverty and destitution.” To alleviate this, the organisation provides food parcels and a small amount of money to destitute clients.
Classes in English, literacy, sewing, knitting, and gardening enable people to come together to learn in a supportive environment and meet other people. The organisation’s philosophy focuses on the way in which the social and practical help given to one person, can have a positive impact on the family, and in turn, the entire community.
Rosario describes the circumstances of the people arriving at the organisation’s offices in Lewisham. “They come to our office with different issues…a mother coming with a suitcase with children saying ‘I’m homeless’; or ‘Help me find accommodation’; ‘I will be evicted tonight’ ‘I don’t have food’.”
“That one individual who has improved her or his life, will improve the family life, and the family will be able to contribute in the community. If they get a job, if they learn English, once they are integrated in the community, the community will be able to understand who they are, where they’re coming from, what their issues are.”
Rosario believes that despite the negative impact of BREXIT3 on some people’s attitudes, that generally “more people are getting aware, more sympathetic, more empathetic” and that “more people are understanding what refugees are going through.”
“When I started…I had 3 staff members. I now have 10 staff members, volunteers, and trustees who all want one thing for our clients, to be able to improve their life.”
She hopes for “a more tolerant society” and “a more positive borough – helping each other, celebrating and accepting each others’ differences” and remains positive about the organisation’s work and its future. “I think we are getting there. We are creating an impact. We are helping change people’s lives.”
1 Ferdinand Emmanuel Edralin Marcos Sr. was President of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986 and ruled as a dictator under martial law from 1972 until 1981.
3 British Exit from the European Union. In 2016 the United Kingdom European membership referendum resulted in a majority vote in favour of a withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (EU)