Content warning: mentions of sexual abuse
Three years ago, Loriane Masiya Mponela had an unsettling conversation with an editor of a national paper about a pitch concerning refugees sleeping rough. She was left puzzled after the editor’s request to find another angle. The editor suggested her story was not fit for the “British audience”.
“What do you mean by British audience?” the 47-year-old queries. “Are we not part of that British public? Are there not people who would be interested in how there are people sleeping in our streets?”
Loraine has since answered the question, having placed pieces about the experience of homeless asylum seekers in Coventry in national newspapers such as The Guardian. But the overwhelming issue of how to get the voices of migrants – in their own words – into the mainstream media is one many publishers are still grappling with.
Enter Media Labs, a journalism programme run by Mifriendly Cities and Migrant Voice for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Operating in the West Midlands, Scotland and London, Migrant Voice is a media organisation delivering training to give migrants in the UK the tools to speak for themselves in the media and public life. Loraine is one of their – very enthusiastic – students in the West Midlands chapter.
Although usually delivered face-to-face, Covid-19 has necessitated the weekly newsroom meetings to move online. These sessions are where media skills are taught to 12 regular participants, with additional monthly media labs held for around 50 attendees from across the West Midlands. Sessions focus on everything from how to pitch and write articles, to creating and handling social media accounts. Media Labs students also have the opportunity to work alongside the Migrant Voice national office, giving them the chance to pitch story ideas to national journalists.
Midland cities like Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton are home to one of the biggest migrant communities in the UK. An estimated 13.9% of the population living in the West Midlands were born abroad, migrating from countries like India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Poland and Romania. Many of the newsroom members are first generation migrants, mostly Black African and Caribbean women between the ages of 40 to 60.
“Operating in the West Midlands, Scotland and London, Migrant Voice is a media organisation delivering training to give migrants in the UK the tools to speak for themselves in the media and public life”
After London, the West Midlands is the second most ethnically diverse region in Britain. Despite this, anecdotally, we don’t often hear the voices of Midlanders of colour in mainstream media outlets or London-centric national newspapers. For those that were not born in Britain, but arrived in the county at a later date, it means they are doubly invisible. When the spotlight does fall on them, it’s not usually positive; the media often uses divisive and scaremongering language to describe migrants.
A hostile political climate also has an impact – since 2019, there’s been a 163% increase in the number of hate crimes against migrants, refugees and asylum seekers reported to West Midlands Police. It’s within this context that Media Labs wants to equip its participants with the skills to write their personal narratives and become community journalists in their own right.
Farisai Dezemwa, 38, has been part of the Media Labs project since 2019. She came to the Midlands in 2004 after leaving Zimbabwe. Farisai was sexually abused at the age of 16, she tells me, and had to leave after being victim-blamed by relatives.
Farisai remembers landing in the UK, recounting that she “felt like a princess, wearing a pretty dress and a light coat”. The distinct feeling of British cold hitting her face as she walked out of the airport made her laugh. “I was thinking, what’s worse? What I’m running away from, or this kind of cold? I didn’t think I would last a week,” she says, grinning at the memory.
Farisai, now a live-in carer, stayed with relatives while beginning a nursing degree but later frequently shifted between homes. At the same time she was applying for asylum. The extensive and brutal process continued through Farisai’s studies, which saw her balance the final months of her degree programme with going to court. She was also exploited at the hands of the relatives she lodged with.
“After telling my story to everyone, it felt like I was holding my breath for a long time and all of a sudden I could breathe”
“I was mistreated by my own people,” she says. “When people know you don’t have documents, they take advantage.” A diagnosis of depression in early 2018 motivated her to start taking part in more community gatherings. Through word of mouth and a flyer, she was inspired to attend her first Media Labs meeting.
Her first newsroom session made her feel like there was “hope,”. “After telling my story to everyone, it felt like I was holding my breath for a long time and all of a sudden I could breathe,” Farisai recalls. “The knowledge that I was not the only one who had been mistreated made me feel like there was some hope somewhere.”
Farisai has struggled to find housing as a Black migrant woman – often facing racism at house viewings. “After telling the people my name, their tone of voice suddenly changes,” she notes. But slowly she is gaining confidence in her right to belong, through building a relationship with her local community in Wolverhampton. “I have crossed many bridges in my life alone, so exploring my community and nature has taken me through some really tough times,” she says.
In October 2020, Farisai was appointed as sub-editor of the Beyond magazine, an e-magazine produced by the Media Labs participants in celebration of Black History Month. It was the first major project edited by the newsroom members and was made up of over 100 pages, filled with personal essays and poems, photographs, features and interviews with West Midlands personalities. “It showcased all the skills we have learnt and put them into practice,” she says.
A range of stories
Loraine migrated to the UK from Malawi in 2008, claiming asylum in 2015. She eventually settled in Coventry in 2016. For Loraine, it was a cultural shock, with even the experience of travelling on public transport proving jarring. “If you get on a bus in Malawi, the first thing you say is ‘hello’,” she says.
Loriane’s passion and conviction is clear in her willingness to shine a light on issues she cares about. But she often becomes frustrated with sharing her own trauma again and again; politely saying she’s not going to recount the ins and outs of her asylum process. “It becomes draining to constantly talk about my story, which is what I have to tell the Home Office day in and day out,” she says. “The journalist will be gone, and I will be left crying. I don’t want to put myself through that again.”
Since becoming involved with Media Labs, and parallel journalism programme, the Refugee Journalism Project, Loraine has started working with mainstream media organisations, including an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and now writes voluntarily for platforms like Women for Refugee Women. During the creation of Beyond magazine, Loraine served as a sub-editor.
“More of us are gaining the confidence to speak, write and share our realities and mainstream media will see this,” she tells me. Inspiring others to speak their truth has been an emphasis of Loraine’s work and she continues to turn the spotlight onto community issues she cares about like experiencing homelessness whilst seeking asylum – something she is familiar with.
“The migrant experience is not a monolith. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to the UK experience different journeys – and they are not always tales of struggle.”
“I never thought I would be writing or doing journalism,” Loraine confesses. “My background is in public health. But I saw there was a need for our stories to be voiced after being told these stories are not appealing to the British public.”
However, the migrant experience is not a monolith. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to the UK experience different journeys – and they are not always tales of struggle.
Althia Barnett, 58, arrived in the UK in 2002, travelling from Jamaica with her brother and sister, without a penny in her pocket. She is now a carer and has lived in Birmingham since 2004.
Althia came across the Media Labs project after a support worker and participant recommended it to her. But having little negativity in settling here she often felt like a “fraud” when it came to sharing her story of migration. “People were very nice to me,” she admits. “So, when I hear people’s stories of hardship, I feel guilty.”
In conversation, Althia is bubbly, funny, and at turns self-deprecating. She laughs, remembering memories from her old life in Jamaica, like eloping from her childhood home, but she feels her past has, at times, held her back in her new life in the UK.
Having not finished her education in Jamaica, Althia lost her self-confidence growing up. “I would always be beating myself up,” she says. “To speak up and volunteer myself, is something I wouldn’t typically do.”
Participating in the Media Labs newsroom has helped Althia gain confidence, alongside writing and leadership skills that have resulted in her producing community reporting work she is “truly proud of”. Her dedication to the weekly sessions saw Althia elected by her peers as the editor-in-chief for Beyond. She was responsible for commissioning pitches from fellow newsroom members, editing articles and general production process of the magazine.
“The process was a mixture of fear and excitement,” she recalls of her editorship. “It was a collective effort as we made decisions as a team to get everything together and it has been well received.”
Local news by the people who live it
Migrant Voice hope to expand their connections with similar newsroom projects over the next year. Pandemic uncertainty means the women of the West Midlands newsroom have no set plans for what 2021 will bring. They simply wish to continue writing about their experiences. Althia plans to “not just write about migrants, but about topics that concern the [wider] community”. Similarly, Loraine intends to “create more awareness about injustices in our society”. Farsai wants to encourage migrants to involve themselves in events, activities, workshops and courses, where people share their stories.
The government’s hostile attitude towards migrants persists, recently culminating in the mass deportation of 13 Black British people to Jamaica in December 2020. The support and adult education opportunities offered to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK by the British government are scarce. Their efforts to seemingly eradicate immigration altogether has clouded their ability to help migrants find their feet in British society, leaving them to fight for themselves. But grassroots community organisations like Migrant Voice and Refugee and Migrant Centre, are attempting to overcome that, with projects that hand the agency back to the people we need to hear from most.
Migrant women like Loraine, Farisai and Althia have made a home in Britain as well as in the journalism industry- voicing their stories in the hope people hear and understand the relentless journey they took to settle in the UK. And they will continue to tell them.