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Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants celebrates turning 20 – and helping 2,000 people

PUBLISHED: 18:22 21 March 2017 | UPDATED: 18:58 21 March 2017

Andy Ruiz Palma and volunteers at the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants anniversary at Islington Assembly Hall last night. Picture: Polly Hancock

Andy Ruiz Palma and volunteers at the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants anniversary at Islington Assembly Hall last night. Picture: Polly Hancock

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The Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants has turned 20. The Gazette hears how it has helped people on the brink – as well as surviving the brink itself.

One of the messages at the Assembly Hall lobby last night. Picture: Polly HancockOne of the messages at the Assembly Hall lobby last night. Picture: Polly Hancock

Signed by Phyllis and Paul, a letter Blu-Tacked to a board reads: “My family are so lucky to live in a beautiful, peaceful country. It is so important to us to welcome those from other countries who are not so lucky and have suffered great hardship in fleeing war and seeking a better life. May you find this and a welcoming community.”

It was one of many heartfelt messages left in the Assembly Hall lobby last night, as Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants celebrated its 20th anniversary.

The charity started as a “very small” drop-in centre in a converted crypt at St Mary Magdalene Church, Holloway Road. Sessions would run twice a week. Now running in Cross Street, off Essex Road, it has helped 2,000 people integrate over two decades.

“There was no other provision like this in Islington at the time,” chief executive Andy Ruiz Palma says. “There was no place for refugees to study English, or build confidence, or meet people in similar situations.

“We have always helped people in situations where they may be in a downward spiral. We help them look forward.

Volunteers at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants.Volunteers at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants.

“We recognise the simple, basic things than can often go forgotten – such as a warm welcome, and listening to what people have to say. Also, people don’t have to jump through hoops to use our service. We just want to try and help.”

The centre offers everything from English classes to asylum support to hot meals. Many clients have suffered trauma in their native countries.

Over the years, one particular example of the centre’s good work has stuck in Andy’s mind: “We had one girl from a war-torn country who came to us. She was on buses. As in, literally sleeping on buses because she had nowhere else to go. She was bedraggled, and depressed.

“Luckily, she found us and started on one of our courses. She started to volunteer her time. Eventually, she was able to enrol at a further education college for a beauty therapy course.

“After a while, her husband was able to join her from their home country. She started a business which has now been running for six or seven years, and is still going from strength to strength. There’s no way she would have been able to do all that without this centre.”

Andy Ruiz Palma, chief executive of Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants.Andy Ruiz Palma, chief executive of Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants.

While the centre is proud of its work, it is also humbled to have even reached its 20th birthday. Just over two years ago, closure seemed inevitable when 80 per cent of its statutory funding was slashed.

“I think one of our biggest achievements was recovering from that,” says Andy. “At first, we had to reduce to one day a week [from five]. It basically meant we had to rebuild all over again.”

After a successful fundraising campaign, led by actress Juliet Stevenson, it was able to remain open. And this month, it announced it will be able to open its doors three times a week. About 160 clients are currently on its books.

Andy adds: “Hitting 20 years is as much a celebration of our future as it is our past. We are indebted to our volunteers for their time and curiosity, and to the people who donated to our cause.

“But our work is more important than the activities and services we deliver – it’s a family.”

For more information about the charity’s work and to get involved, visit islingtoncentre.co.uk


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