Walking through the doors of Oasis Cardiff, a drop in day centre for refugees and asylum seekers, the feeling of warmth and good energy instantly overrides the gloomy, drizzly day outside. I arrive about 12pm and can hear (and smell) the hustle and bustle of people getting the dining hall ready for lunch.
Reynette, my host and the CEO of Oasis Cardiff, meets and leads me to her office where I also meet with Richard, one of the centre’s Project Managers and former English teachers. We sit down and dive straight into the history and ethos of the centre.
‘Our aim is to reduce isolation within the refugee and asylum seeker community and provide a safe space for integration and a platform to hear their stories’ Reynette, who was awarded an MBE in December 2018, informs me. ‘We have few basic rules around housekeeping but we are quite organic and relaxed with everything else, we want our clients to feel like this is their home when they are here’.
Oasis Cardiff has been going for 10 years but started off much smaller and was completely volunteer led. They have since grown to become a registered charity, with few paid staff, volunteers and now occupy a large space that was once a church. They offer a wide variety of actives and services such as English, music, sports, integration support, CV advice, field trips, art sessions, movement therapy, free haircuts, bike maintenance and massage.
A gentle knock on the door brings with it some lentil soup cooked by one of the clients, I am so touched by this gesture and appreciate the warmth in my belly on this cold January day. Food is one of the most unifying aspects of human existence, so i’m not surprised to hear that lunchtime is their busiest time of the day and that they serve, on average, 130 people, for free, every day.
Aware of the unifying power food has, Oasis host monthly supper clubs which are open to all. This dining experience not only celebrates foods that herald from all over the globe, they provide the opportunity for the local community to get past the reductionist labels and statistics we all too often read about in the papers and get to know the humans behind them.
Tapping into our love of food even more, Oasis have started their Refugee Mobile Kitchen project ‘it’s a chance for our clients to attend events and feel proud of their heritage’ Reynette tells me. As well as celebrating culture through food they use it as an opportunity to skill up their clients in the catering and service industry through their Plate Project program.
Along side the practical services that provide their clients a hand up in their new homeland, Oasis are also keen to provide a platform for their clients to share their stories. ‘Storytelling is a big part of what we do’ says Reynette ‘we have worked with Cath Little, a professional storyteller, who volunteered to showcase the compelling, unique stories of our clients’. Storytelling not only helps to facilitate the integration process by strengthening connections and bonds with local communities, it also helps further the healing process most refugees and asylum seekers need. From these stories, the centre’s ‘Refugee Wales’ exhibition was born and has toured events like Green Man Festival and was St Fagans National History Museum’s most visited exhibition.
After lunch, Richard takes me on a tour of the building and as we make our way round, I am met with more warmth, a rich tapestry of different languages and one unifying sense of community.
We head to the dining area where people are now busy with the post-lunch pack down. ‘The clients always help clean and pack away after lunch’ Richard says. Next to the dining area, a modest sized kitchen which the centre are rapidly outgrowing. We pass a small group of entertained children watching two men play ping-pong and head into the classroom. ‘The English teacher has done an amazing job at making this room so welcoming. Its the most popular class we have and people used to pack in and sit on window ledges and the floor, we needed proper furniture!’. We then walk into the free clothing boutique, brimming with donations, which is open a few times a week. Everything is clean, hung and displayed in a dignifying manner. Heading back downstairs we enter the women’s room with a creche and play area, then to the food donation room which is stocked high with donated tinned goods.
After our tour, I am keen to hear the highs (and lows) faced at the centre. ‘For me’ Reynette begins ‘the highlight is seeing someone develop. They often arrive in total shock. Seeing them become fully independent, get a driving license, a job, becoming free, that’s by far the best bit for me’. Reynette stops to consider the lows and relays a story of a young man who was brought to the centre just as it was about to close. ‘He had no accommodation, no connections, nothing, but we couldn’t turn our backs on him. This happens a lot, sometimes right at the end of the day…we could easily tell people to come back when we are open, but of course we don’t. We will always work to make sure our clients are safe and we have done our best for them’.
It is clear, from the passion in both Reynette and Richard’s voice, the homeliness and warmth felt in the centre, the bright smiles and soft eyes of those you meet, that Oasis Cardiff is much more than just a drop-in day centre for those that visit it. It’s a safe space for people with different, yet similar stories and experiences to unite, heal and grow – it is a place to call home.