Zim Assoc to the rescue of despairing exiles in UK

vigil_uk_londonLONDON - As Zimbabwe has lurched from crisis to crisis, over the past eight years a small London-based charity has worked tirelessly to
(Pictured: Exiles in London meet regularly to demonstrate against human rights abuses in their homeland)

alleviate the fallout among members of the Diaspora in the UK.

Sitting in a shoebox of an east London office, on a day when the cold outside cuts through even the thickest layers of clothing, Zimbabwe Association (ZA) co-ordinator Sarah Harland is speaking passionately about the depth of need she encounters every day among the exiled community. There is any amount of despair still going on, she says. There are people destitute. People homeless or living in sub-standard housing. Some are isolated and cut off from friends and relatives, or living in fear on estates where theyre racially abused.

Harland, who was born and grew up in Zimbabwe, helped found the ZA in 2001 to support asylum seekers and refugees from her homeland. A few of us used to meet at The George pub [in the Strand] and we became increasingly aware that large numbers of Zimbabweans were stranded in detention centres and that no-one seemed to be doing anything to help them. It was a scandal.

Their solution was to form a non-partisan organisation to reach out to them. Harland was soon joined by the dynamic Patson Muzuwa, still a central figure at the ZA. Muzuwa had been detained when he first arrived in the UK despite compelling evidence of being tortured in Zimbabwe, and he rapidly established contacts within the detention centres and among Zimbabwean asylum seekers and refugees across the country.

Successful campaign

Two problems were immediately evident. The Home Office was using flawed country assessment guidance a basis for deciding the merit of asylum claims – to reject virtually all Zimbabweans’ applications out of hand while locking them up indefinitely in vast numbers.

So the ZA started a successful campaign for their release, and with the help of expert academic evidence the Home Office altered its assessment of the situation in Zimbabwe.

What’s more, ignorant of the complexities of UK immigration law, many asylum seekers were falling prey to bogus immigration advisers, who promised legal advice at a cost, and then vanished. Again, it was the ZA which helped expose the scammers and get their victims decent lawyers. Since then, the charity has been a lifeline to literally thousands of the approximate 300,000 Zimbabweans now residing in the UK.

Volunteers

Its list of achievements is lengthy. When Zimbabweans were being forcibly returned home, it was a small band of ZA volunteers and supporters who were up all hours working the phones, rallying MPs, fighting to stop their deportations up to the wire. And when the British government continued removing Zimbabweans in the midst of Operation Murambatsvina, the slum clearances of May 2005 which rendered hundreds of thousands homeless, it was three ZA members who told their stories on the front page of the usually anti-immigration Daily Mail in a remarkable piece, headlined For Pitys Sake Let Them Stay, demanding that the removals be halted.

In 2005, it was the ZA which gathered testimony about the situation of deportees on their return to Zimbabwe which helped pave the way for landmark legal cases that enabled more than 10,000 Zimbabweans to have their immigration cases re-considered.

Important research

The charity also produced important research in 2009 on the untapped skills of Zimbabweans in the UK, as well as on the enduring effects of detention on asylum seekers, while providing practical help, a traditional meal and friendship to many with its weekly drop-ins.

But with funds so tight that the ZA cannot afford to pay even one full-time worker, it is stories like those of one desperate young Zimbabwean woman that keeps the ZA team motivated. Discharged from a psychiatric hospital, destitute and living on the streets of Luton, the young woman met the redoubtable Mary, one of the ZA’s stalwarts, who took her under wing and helped her back on her feet.

Now she’s radiant and revitalised and going to college. The transformation is incredible, says Harland.

Come home

With Zimbabwe’s ravaged economy showing signs of life under the new inclusive government and commentators such as John Makumbe stating that the country is well on the way to the transition to democracy, the debate over whether those in the Diaspora should heed Morgan Tsvangirai’s call to come home is gathering pace. Harland though, is unequivocal. If people felt safe they would return. Who wouldn’t want to be with their families, their friends, in a beautiful country with a beautiful climate? People can see the election coming in Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans can sense the war machine being dragged out again. They know how quickly it can be turned on and off.

Whether the inclusive government heralds a new era of tranquillity in Zimbabwe, or is merely the calm before the next storm, one thing is certain: the need for the ZA among the exiled community isnt going to change any time soon. – Can you help the ZA? The ZA needs Champions to keep its crucial work going. Can you be a Champion and make a real difference today? Email: [email protected] or call 020 7549 0355 (Tuesdays and Thursdays).

Post published in: Analysis

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