History 2004 - 2012: A Stream To A River
The Cumbria Multicultural Women's Network was founded in 2004 by Donika Celina Begaj, a Kosovar-Albanian by origin, who was evacuated to the UK in the spring of 1999 when the war escalated in her home country of Kosovo. Donika was seven months pregnant when she was airlifted to Ulverston in South Cumbria with her husband and a group of fellow Albanians. Her journey in the UK began as a lonely young mother who was fortunate enough to speak English but who knew no-one and nothing about the life around her. She went on to work as an interpreter for the local authority when her firstborn was three months old, became an advocate for Cumbria Multicultural Service afterwards and has stayed on with this service to date.
In the years following her arrival, after having learnt to live with no prospect of seeing a familiar face when she walked the streets and after having read almost all small prints of every leaflet that was put through her door, Donika was thankful that she was being given a second chance and was striving to rebuild her life from scratch - she had moved into a town house with her family, she had a paid job, she took up new training and more advanced English language courses and was slowly creating new friendships; but she was aware that most of the other women from the Kosovan group, who she was in touch with through her interpreting job, were still living in a state of dependency and with no social life.
Some appeared to accept this to be their new life but others were frustrated and trapped within the walls of their new homes. Unable to speak the language, understand the lifestyle, have their qualifications translated or approved or even have a place to go to, most women remained detached from their new environment. The language and the differences between the new culture and that of their home culture had become too great a mountain to walk over as individuals.
This Network has never had a founding meeting; it began when Donika felt that her friends, Kosovar-Albanian women who, like her, had come to the UK as war refugees, were going to become shadows of who they once were. They were struggling to embrace their new life and she felt that she could help. During 2003 when she invited a small group to meet up, share laughter and tears, talk about who they’d left behind, about missed celebrations and funerals, about what was before… she was not starting a county wide network. She was helping out her fellow country women whose obstacles and difficulties she could relate to only too well.
The, then Kosovar Support Team’s office, on Barrow’s Cavendish Street, where Donika worked as an interpreter, became a meeting place for the emerging Network. As time passed, supported by her manager Irene Troughton, Donika went on to organise outings such as group visits to local cafés, cooking demonstrations, trips to other towns; women were bonding together and practising ordinary English phrases in the safety of their familiar group. All those informal meetings brought about a slow but a phenomenal change - after some time discussions were no longer just about the past, there was a shared history within the group and women were opening up to new opportunities.
Many of the group were intimidated by formal English language classes so the Furness College was invited to run outreach classes for the Women’s Network at the Barrow centre. Jan Parkin, an English teacher came from Furness college to tutor the group. Jan stayed for years, welcoming newcomers as the Network welcomed women from other nationalities and grew.
Aerobics classes were offered to the group next as a further point of social contact as well as fitness and wellbeing. These were organised in partnership with the Barrow’s Sports Council and the NHS. Donika remembers during the consultation one of the women to have said ‘We’ve only got the Fridays free now as she keeps us busy.’
A large group went on a day trip to Manchester in March 2004. For many of the women this outing was the very first day away from their close family in all the years they’d been here in the UK. It all rolled on from there.
‘The Manchester trip was fun and a great leap forward. That day, the Cumbria Multicultural Women’s Network reaped its first success; we were no longer frozen in our past, we were going to be better women for this’ Donika, May 2012.
Rapid growth across South Cumbria
In her work as an advocate for Cumbria Multicultural Service, Donika offered advocacy support to members of all minority ethnic groups. She met women from many nationalities who presented with the same circumstances, speaking little English, staying at home most of the day, relying on husbands or children to deal with the outside world, stuck and unable to apply their skills and knowledge for a variety of reasons. The small women’s group expanded to include any women who needed help in this way and so Cumbria Multicultural Women’s Network grew rapidly and is still growing.
In 2007, Wendy Rowe, a local artist, approached the Network and invited members of CMWN to take part in the exhibition she curated at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal. The photo albums, using personal photos which were put together and displayed as part of the exhibition ‘Migration/Migracija’ generated a lot of interest locally. The ‘Migracija’ exhibition was to become the start of a new page in the history of CMWN, as members learned and experienced the power of art as a mean of expression and of finding their own voice, for themselves in the first instance and for others around. An important message from the Brewery Arts Centre Exhibition, to the participants and the entire Network, was that people around cared and wanted to know more and understand. This remains an ongoing project. Wendy became on of us and has stayed active with the Network; selflessly investing herself in the initiatives that followed and in supporting individual members in harvesting the rich rewards each project has brought to us since.
Projects such as the production of film documentaries ‘Migrant Stories’ (Visible Voice, 2008 – ongoing), Women seeing Women with Lanternhouse and the No Nonsense Theatre Group (2009), Welcoming the World with Lakes Alive (2009), a published book ‘New Voices in Cumbria’ (2009), Radio drama ‘The Veil (2010/11 – ongoing), ‘In Translation’ exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery (2012 – 2013) are a few that captured members’ interest, imagination and hearts. Many friendships for life were born between members and non-members through the Network activities, be those projects, trip, talks or training and the much important and valued human interactions in between.
In early 2009, Donika was assigned to run an outreach of Cumbria Multicultural Service in Windermere and soon after she set up a new CMWN group there. This group is now successfully and energetically run by Hanna Burke with an always interesting programme, with kind support from the town’s Methodist Church where the group meets.
In 2010, the Network membership had grown over a 150 and there was lots of activity. The success of the Network and its benefits as a unique organisation of its kind in Cumbria was acknowledged by Cumbria County Council and Donika was sponsored to implement a county wide CMWN development plan.
During 2010 -11, Jo Ann Saltiga, Maha Ismail, Omnia Mossadd, Pat Edwards, Pat Jaehnig, Pat Williams, Rosi Jordal, Sol Gray and Wendy Rowe, who had already been very active and supporting members, joined Donika, and committed to ensure further growth of what has become to many a much loved and cherished CMWN, in Furness and throughout Cumbria; each of them adding greatly to a wide spectrum of knowledge, experience and contacts.
Expansion of Network across Cumbria 2011 - 12
CMWN bloomed in this period. A mapping exercise carried out by Jo Ann Saltiga, as part of the County Council’s sponsorship of CMWN development, identified existing groups in Carlisle and Penrith and a number of individuals around the county with interest in leading organised activity within the umbrella of CMWN.
Andrea Aldridge became a member in early 2011; as a development worker for AWAZ she brought the support of her organisation and the Cumbria Equality Resource Centre to CMWN along with masses of experience in the third sector. Andrea jelled in the spirit of the Network instantly and brought together a vibrant Kendal group of CMWN during 2011, which is growing beautifully and becoming known in the area contributing already to the South Lakeland Equality Partnership. The Kendal group have great supporters in Kinga Cichowska, a fellow member of CMWN and a development worker at the Kendal library as well as Sinead McCann from CVS.
Members from the Furness group met up with the Kendal group and the Wellbeing of Women group (Wow) in Carlisle, to talk about their own experience of the Network and its value to women who are isolated or struggling in a new cultural environment. The Wow group in Carlisle, guided and supported by Karen Dexter of Barnardo’s, joined in with planning and celebrating International Women’s Day in 2012 across Cumbria.
Emilia Zbikowska from Penrith Multicultural Forum welcomed the CMWN initiative and with support from Impact Housing where she works, organised a successful celebration of International Women’s Day in Penrith’s Eden Foyer.
8th March 2012: Four synchronised celebration events took place on the International Women’s Day – Furness, Kendal, Carlisle and Penrith groups celebrated together and greeted one another via web-links, marking the beginnings of CMWN visibility and activity all over the county, including the launch of this website as part of the celebratory events.
In March and April, joint activity started when members from Furness and Kendal took up training with Oxfam’s Routes to Solidarity in preparation for the Domestic Violence Campaign which is in the planning stage.
Future ventures and exchanges amongst CMWN members are being planned, whilst ensuring that each group is independently organised and follows the wishes, interests and the development pace which suits its own membership.
Currently, there are over 200 members from more than 38 nationalities, spread across Cumbria. The Network, although a widespread, bigger organisation, nurtures and maintains a friendly and informal approach; respecting each and every member as the individual that they are and the wealth of experience that they bring with them.
At the heart of what we continue to do is being there for one another and finding ways to improve and enrich our lives and those of the ones around us.
Donika Celina Begaj