The founders of the London Welcome Project. From left to right: Myrto Kougievetopoulos, Madeleine Cowley and Johnny Biles.
"I can’t wait to come here every Sunday – I feel free," says Bo, a 39-year-old Algerian refugee, as we sit down to chat outside Papa’s Community Cafe. Located down a quiet Brixton side street, Papa's has managed to add something new to the area that isn't catering for Brixton's coming waves of gentrifiers.
Every Sunday, the cafe opens its doors to the London Welcome Project (LWP), an innovative social space that brings together refugees and asylum seekers who've landed in the city from all over the world. Set up by friends Johnny Biles, Myrto Kougievetopoulos and Madeleine Cowley in May, the LWP aims to "break the isolation that many refugees and asylum seekers experience" in London.
While Theresa May plans to make Britain a "hostile environment" for illegal immigrants under the proposed new Immigration Bill, the LWP provides exactly the opposite kind of environment for London's newcomers. By fostering an atmosphere free of the bureaucracy usually experienced by displaced persons in the capital, the scheme allows otherwise solitary refugees and asylum seekers to become part of a community.
Johnny, 26, says, "People who come here aren't expected to have anything with them or to be asked about their immigration status, and they don’t necessarily want to talk about their whole life history – it's a place where they can just come and relax."
And relax they do. Games of dominoes and cards are being played inside, the cafe garden provides an arena for animated conversation and others help to prepare food in the kitchen. On today’s menu is vegetable curry, home-made naan bread and baked peaches – all freshly made with produce donated from stalls in Borough Market.
Johnny and visitors at the London Welcome Project
There are people from Albania, Sudan, Belarus, a young family from Syria and several other nationalities all sitting down for lunch this Sunday. For many, it is perhaps the only occasion each week where they're not eating alone, and it's this idea of camaraderie that Johnny feels is so attractive to visitors.
"Many refugees are very isolated," he says, "and after moving from city to city once the government has told them where they need to live, they don’t have a strong community to connect with a lot of the time. We can help change that."
The creation of a community base feels ever more necessary given the government’s alarming rhetoric on the subject of immigration. The sight of those pointlessly divisive "Go home or face arrest" vans roaming the capital in the summer was bad enough, but sadly looks to be just a sign of things to come.
May's new bill would implement random paper checks, award landlords and doctors the power to check immigration status and introduce a "deport now, appeal later" policy. Which, as some have pointed out, seems wildly short-sighted; the Home Office is hardly going to save money by throwing cash at airfares every time it has to fly migrants who've been successful in their appeal back to the country. The bill, according to human rights group Liberty, is also "a race relations nightmare waiting to happen". In response, the LWP has developed its own manifesto, one that avoids random racial profiling and the demonisation of asylum seekers.
Bo, the Algerian refugee, fled Algiers for London when his brother was killed by government security forces. "[I enjoy] meeting people [here], talking with different people," he tells me. "It's just a great place to come and spend some time." Bo arrived in London seeking asylum last December and managed to obtain refugee status shortly after. It can be difficult acclimatising to life in a new city, and Bo's afternoons at LWP don't only give him the chance to socialise, but also to learn new skills.
Abdeen, a Sudanese refugee, Johnny and other visitors working on a bike
A scheme called The Bike Project is at the heart of the LWP. Abandoned bicycles are a common sight in London – more often than not because they've been discarded after someone has stolen the wheels, handlebars or seat – but Johnny and his team want to bring that number down. With bikes also donated from Imperial University, council estates in the local area and 56a, a bike shop in Camberwell, visitors can learn how to fix up the one they like and peddle away with them once the repair job is complete. It might not sound like much, but Johnny is adamant that bikes can be of immense benefit to the people who come to LWP. "Refugees can rarely afford public transport, and when they need to get to lawyers meetings, advice centres, doctors – which can be maybe ten miles away – it is very hard if you have to walk the whole time," he explains, also stressing the possibility that the skills LWP's visitors acquire when fixing the bikes could come in handy when they're seeking future employment.
He's not quite ready for a technician job at Evans yet, but Bo says he is "pretty good with some of the tools and learning all the time". Next to him, Abdeen, a trainee teacher from Sudan, is asking after a crank; Djibril from Sierra Leone is helping with another fix-up; and a Syrian lady picks out a pink-framed mountain bike she likes the look of. Over 30 bikes have been restored since the project started, and hopes in the future are to provide all visitors with a tool kit, as well as laying on language-sharing sessions and other workshops.
Efforts to create a sense of community extend beyond refugees and asylum seekers; anyone is welcome to fix their bikes and help out on a Sunday afternoon, and Johnny believes this openness is crucial to the project: "We’re inviting people from other estates to come and fix their bikes, too," he says. "We want to be more open here and to create something of a hub. We want to have a place that we're not necessarily running as much as the people who constitute it."
While it's a great cause, there shouldn't be such a need for spaces like this. As Johnny says, "The solution shouldn’t be more charities; the solution should be an actual policy that works." But as the politicking continues, the LWP will carry on peddling towards a more cohesive capital.
Since the time of writing, the London Welcome Project has relocated to Stockwell Community Centre. For more information, visit the LWP website.
More on the UK's "hostile environment":
Isa Muazu Told Us He'll Die Soon if the Home Office Gets Its Way
Britain's Immigration Nightmare is Really Just a Nightmare for These Immigrants