Founder, Women for Refugee Women, UK
It is little wonder, perhaps, that Natasha Walter founded Women for Refugee Women; born, as she was, to a humanist writer father and a social worker mother, herself the daughter of refugees from Nazi Germany. A former journalist and author of the influential feminist books, The New Feminism and Living Dolls, Natasha has long felt a connection with refugee women and a desire to share their stories. She founded Women For Refugee Women in 2006 with a vision of a society in which women’s human rights are respected and in which they are safe from persecution. Women for Refugee Women challenges the injustices experienced by women who seek asylum in the UK by empowering them to speak out about their own experiences to the media, to policy-makers and at public events.
Our founder, Caroline Diehl, asked Natasha about her experience as a social founder.
C: Is the topic of refugees easier or more difficult to address?
N: It's very important I listen to refugee women and try to ensure that they are participating in and leading the work as equals. Refugee women are often so traumatised and vulnerable due to their experiences in their home country, on the journey and in the UK asylum process, and often need a great deal of support in order to be able to participate freely in the work we do.
C: Does the refugee cause rule out getting certain kinds of support like corporate support? Or the opposite- does it strike a chord at the current time?
N: The current, divided climate means that a lot of people want to stand up and support refugees, to resist this rise of nationalism and xenophobia. So I have often been pleasantly surprised by the generosity of donors.
C: Was there any pressure you felt, or received, not to set up a new charity but instead to join an existing one? Either an existing refugee charity or a women's charity or another?
N: I was inspired to do this work because as a journalist I could see that refugee women's voices were not being heard widely. My initial idea was to start working with an existing refugee or women's charity in order to try to raise these issues in the media, and it was only after the idea was rejected by existing NGOs that I set up a project of my own, which became Women for Refugee Women.
C: What are you most proud of as Founder of Women for Refugee Women?
N: As founder of Women for Refugee Women, I feel proud every Monday when I come into our building and see refugee women gathering in a safe and supportive place where they will find opportunities to rebuild their lives. I am particularly proud of the fact that we have carved out space for the voices of refugee women to be heard. Through building the confidence and skills of refugee women, and creating opportunities for them to speak out - including research projects, arts projects, events and media connections - their stories are being heard more widely and in a way that builds empathy and hopefully lays the ground for genuine change.
C: What was the turning point when you knew that your vision was going to take off and succeed?
N: There have been many moments of energy and hope when I have felt thrilled by the reaction to this vision. One was in 2010 when the coalition government announced the intention to end child detention, which was the first issue that Women for Refugee Women tackled. The most recent was on International Women's Day 2018 when over 40 organisations and over 100 refugee women came to Parliament to lobby for safety, dignity and liberty for refugee women at an event where every single speaker was a refugee or migrant woman. I felt so proud and so full of joy to hear their courageous voices.
C: What, for you, are the three main strengths, skills and characteristics that a good social founder needs in order to succeed?
N: I don't know what others need. For me, it has been humility - listening to others. I had never done this before so I had to learn from others, from refugee women particularly. Also, persistence.
C: What, or who, kept you going at the toughest times in your founder journey?
N: My colleague Marchu Girma, grassroots director of WRW, has been a truly inspiring partner in this work; she is not afraid to tell me where she thinks we could do better and she shows me by example how to work well with vulnerable women.
C: What has it been like to have a co-founder, and how does your partnership work?
N: My co-founder, Sarah Cutler, was very active at the beginning but then gradually took a step into other work and family commitments, so while she remained supportive I knew that it was really my responsibility to make it work.
C: What differentiates a social founder from a founder of a business - if anything?
N: I can't imagine founding a business, so it's hard for me to answer. Our values are not about sales or profits, our values are about solidarity and justice, so it's a very different journey.
C: What have you found most inspirational and fulfilling about being a social founder?
N: Seeing the change - the changes in individual women's lives and the changes in wider understanding of their experiences, and the changes in the asylum process that we have won. Feeling the solidarity - from the volunteers who turn up every week to help out to the Parliamentarians or celebrities who use their influence to amplify refugee women's voices.
C: What key advice would you give to other social founders either at the start of their founder journey, or at other stage?
N: It really depends who I am speaking to. For people like me - white, middle class educated people - I'd say, take a step back and give the platform to those you are working with and for. They will tell the story better than you, it's their story to tell.
C: What are your plans now?
N: WRW has plans to grow and to build a stronger movement among refugee women throughout the UK, in order to try to build a fairer world for women crossing borders.