Roses and childcare: refugee women prepare for tough UK world of work

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In a small London workshop on a hot summer’s day, Reem goes back and forth between caring for her crying son and assembling purple campanulas, pink peonies and blue nigellas in a bouquet.

Among the discarded stems that litter the floor, refugee women rush to ready the flowers for delivery to London homes before the heat wilts all their work.

“I find myself surrounded by refugees, and I feel we are being valued - I love the initiative,” Marie, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in her native French.

Marie and Reem, a 28-year-old from Syria, are among some 50 refugee women who have trained as florists in the British capital in a bid to overcome the many challenges they face on their way to meaningful employment.

While most are still waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, some of the women are now working as nursery teachers, elderly carers or volunteering in shops.

The women interviewed in the workshop declined to reveal their real names to avoid repercussions back home.

The training aims to give them a grounding in their adopted homeland, as well as teaching the artistry of flower arranging.

“It’s about learning the skills of floristry but also about speaking English more and interacting with different people,” said Olivia Wilson, head florist at their new place of work, Bread and Roses.


Bread and Roses is a social enterprise based in the east London borough of Hackney, which aims to help female refugees get ready for work, be it with flowers or not. Their mantra: helping refugee women to flourish through employment.

The company, founded in 2016, runs training programs where women learn how to make bouquets and care for a range of flowers, as well as how to write CVs. During workshops, they practice speaking English and make new friends in the capital.

There were about 117,000 refugees and 35,000 asylum seekers in Britain in June 2016, according to the United Nations.

Even if migrants are granted refugee status in Britain and given access to regular benefits and the right to work, limited job opportunities and growing anti-immigration sentiment mean they are not always able to find work.

For women, the path to employment is paved with further obstacles: many lack the skills or confidence of their male peers, while others struggle to find jobs that would cover the high cost of childcare.

Reem used to teach in Syria but could not find education or work opportunities in London that would take into account her two children - until she started training with Bread and Roses.

She can now bring them along while she gains workplace experience and achieves a level of English that will allow her to train to become a nurse - her ultimate goal.

“Because of childcare and health issues, it’s very difficult for even part-time work - 15 to 20 hours a week is quite a big ask,” said Sneh Jani, co-founder of Bread and Roses.


Many refugee women come from countries such as Syria, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where education and work opportunities are more limited for women than for men.

“They are less skilled and haven’t had the career or employment history that their male counterparts have,” Matthew Powell, director of employment charity Breaking Barriers, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

“They have transferable skills that they can apply but don’t know how to articulate them,” he added.

For example, women might have cared for elderly relatives back home, but do not recognize this experience as relevant to a next step in healthcare, Powell said.

The Middle East and North Africa have the lowest rates of women in paid work and most jobs were confined to education, social work and agriculture, a United Nations report said last week.


Some of the obstacles the women face lie deep within: the emotional and physical scars left by the violence they fled at home, which can prevent them taking on full-time work. Many women attending the Hackney workshops were survivors of female genital mutilation, sexual abuse or trafficking.

“Refugees often have to overcome the mental scars of torture or persecution, of losing loved ones, or of arduous journeys,” said Laura Padoan, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. “Refugee women in particular are more vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and abuse at every stage of their journeys.”


Without a job, migrants can’t earn an income, improve their English or meet people - key factors for integration. And migrant women often face a disproportionate degree of isolation.

“Women don’t get access to the same social networks that men do, within or outside their ethnic community,” Powell said.

“They’re not getting this moral support, not able to chat with friends,” he added.

Back in the workshop, Marie sweeps up the last petals and stalks while Reem feeds her 9-month-old son, who falls silent.

“Refugees are people we should not underestimate,” Marie said. “They might have emotional baggage because they have been through bad things, but they have a lot of skills.”