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So You Can Fly

I first heard about African Families in the UK in 2018 after I stopped working, once I had my younger children. I had become a stay-at-home mum and childminder. Another childminder brought me to this group at the community centre. And it was so nice to get a chance to sit around with other ladies, all immigrants. We’d talk and laugh. You know, you stop thinking of yourself as a mum, you're just being girls. It was time just for me. We did lots of courses. Exercises, or courses that were more serious, we had one to do with the law, getting to know your rights. Then slowly but surely, I realised that some of the ladies came from a very traumatic background, and needed a little extra support. So I started to volunteer to try and help. Because I was very privileged, I had no trauma I was carrying with me. Then my youngest went to school, and Jacqui at AFiUK was like, ‘I could do with someone to help with admin.’ I started on just two days a week. And next it was, ‘You can also be a parent advocate.’ And that's how I found myself more and more immersed.  


At AFiUK, they see something in me that I don't see. They keep saying they see a leader in me, and after you've been told that many times, you start thinking, ‘I need to find this leader in me as well!’ The way AFiUK is run is, ‘We want to develop you so you can fly.’ It’s all about empowering. And so because of that culture, when I am supporting any family, my idea is not for them to be dependent on me, it's to empower them, to give them the tools so they can do it as well. Just like I'm learning, I want them to learn and fly.  


We have to go through the whole safeguarding training, because the families trust us. We have to be their safe space. We also do training in domestic abuse, so that you can pick up the signs. They did a course last year on mental first aid. We get all these skills so that whilst we are working with these families, we might not have all the answers, but we've got a bit of knowledge to point them where they need to go. Most of the ladies who are parent advocates have got lived experience, so they have that empathy. And we are always learning from each other. I enjoy it. When you start writing reports, you're like, ‘Okay, this is serious.’ But the rest of the time you’re just befriending somebody, showing them there’s this community, there’s people who care, people who believe in you.   


Sometimes we get a self-referral, somebody will just come and say, ‘I need help, I'm in this situation,’ with family law, or social services. And sometimes it's a referral from social services, they realise that maybe the problem in a family is a cultural issue, as opposed to them being neglectful to their children. Basically, we befriend them, we get to know them and their family life and the dynamics. How it is where they’re from, their cultures, all those things. Then we attend the meetings to hear what the different agencies are saying. We try and hear what they hear, then tell them what we understand by it. Because sometimes nobody's hearing anyone, you know. Social services know the UK law, and that's what they're following. And these people are coming from their culture.   


We have this course called BOMA Cross-Cultural Parenting, which runs over 10 weeks. Success with a parent comes when they start reflecting on how they're dealing with their children. We don't want them to lose their culture. Our cultures are rich, they’re what makes us who we are. I'm a Kenyan, and from a particular tribe. There's some things I want my children to learn. But I also have to remember they’re growing up in a different culture, and think how to bring the two together in a positive way. The way I was brought up is not 100% the way I am going to bring up my children. Everybody has to find their own way, at the end of it. But the most important bit is to know the laws in this country. The idea is at some point to get a short course going for the social workers, too, so that they are aware.   


We start the course by writing a list of all the things we want for our children. And then we have a list of all the things that frighten us, what might happen to the children. Like black boys, we fear them being looked at in a certain way, you know. Our fears are so controlling, and so we bring children up just looking at the fears, forgetting about everything else. And so for the parent, when they start reflecting on that, they start seeing, ‘Okay, I shouted at my son because he came home at 7.30. But it's because I’m afraid for him.’ I didn't grow up in a very traditional household, but there are still things I struggled with here. As children, we didn't talk where there were grownups around. You could sit there quietly and listen. But it’s very different here. Children talk all the time, they come and interrupt. They're in this culture where they almost see themselves as equals. I think there's a middle point. In my house we strive to make them aware of what's going on when there’s two grownups talking: we’re actually having a conversation. Can we finish our conversation, and then you can bring in yours? Teaching them how to be respectful and patient without being told, ‘You cannot talk in front of grownups.’ But if it was back home, it'd be like, ‘Out! Now!’ Or I'll just give you The Eyes, and you'll know you're not supposed to be in this room.  


Another important thing is coming-of-age ceremonies. Our boys go through circumcision around 14. Traditionally, all the villagers would strip you naked, put clay all over you. And then you'd run around the village to the river, where you'd find the traditional doctor who circumcised you. You’d be taken somewhere else to heal for two weeks, only amongst men. Most people here just get their children circumcised as babies. And then maybe they'll do a celebration when they're older. But my husband wanted to do the real thing. So my son and his friend here, who's also Kenyan, we took them to a doctor in London. Then they were taken to an uncle's house to heal. And we as the mums were not allowed to communicate with them. Oh, it was so difficult! But the dads would go with food and spend time with them and talk to them about the changes coming. And it was really good. I don't know whether it's just me imagining but I felt there was a big change in my son. Just a bit more responsible, a bit more helpful in the house. I think hearing all these men telling him, ‘You're moving to the next stage in your life, you're going towards being a man,’ he took that in. And then last summer, we went to Kenya, because doing it properly meant my brother had to give my son a cow. It was good for him to see the larger family, how much they love him, how much they're proud of him. And they recognise that he's one of them.   


One of the fears that’s a driving force for a lot of families is that our children will not know their culture. But the question is, is it a good cultural experience? If we talk about the cultures where they practice FGM, why do they do that? So it's educating the families on the history of some of these things. And asking, how is it benefiting my child? We have been brought up in a culture where you don't ask why. So asking that question at all, it’s a new concept. Sometimes families get very defensive, which is understandable. But we've planted the seed, and they will go and think about it, and see whether it's necessary.   

The idea is also to expose them to all the positive things going on in Oxford, all the different things they can get the children involved with. Homework club, coding, storytelling, we’re also working with the university exposing them to different aspects of science. We want them to know you can flourish in this county. You will find lots of people just keep themselves to themselves, hiding away, just raising their children to the minimum standard. We want to show them the sky's the limit. Just because maybe you live here in the Leys, the perception of what people in the Leys are doesn't have to be your reality. You can fly! And it's the same thing with being an immigrant. You can still fly. 


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