In part three of the Our Shared Future blog series, Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Faith Gakanje, fashion entrepreneur and founder of a forum supporting refugee women
Faith Gakanje was challenging oppression even as a child. The daughter of Chief Nemangwe, she was involved in Zimbabwe’s liberation movement as a chimbwido (junior fighter) from the young age of nine. Zimbabwe won its independence in 1980. But amidst ongoing conflict and instability, Faith would ultimately find herself trapped between warring sides. Being a business woman who worked with the white community as well as a vocal opponent of the government made her situation particularly dangerous. In 2002 she was forced to flee.
To ensure their freedom, Faith was forced to leave her five children behind and go alone to claim asylum in the UK. Little did she know she would be travelling that road for almost a decade. “All the time I would think: it will just be a little longer, then they will see the truth of my case and my family will come together again… Nine years. Nine long years, it took them. All the while I lived in limbo, becoming destitute, forced to live on the streets with nothing and nobody.”
While forced to leave her family, Faith could not leave behind the principles that had driven her activism back home. In 2006, she founded the African Women’s Empowerment Forum, for asylum seekers, as she stoically puts it, “going through tough times.” Through the forum, women support each other via arts, leadership and other training programmes as well as providing a social network, mental health and childcare support. Faith highlights the importance of these social networks to battle the isolation refugee women are so often trapped in. “It’s easy to isolate yourself and give up hope when you’re so used to being discriminated against, when you feel so alone. The forum was meant to help us connect with other women who understand what we’re going through and the many good people in our host communities and the refugee movement who are working hard to reach out and support us. We all just need to find each other,” she says with conviction.
Finding the courage and energy for this work while battling her own legal case and living under constant threat of destitution, detention and deportation, was an enormous challenge. But Faith never let go her defence of the women and mothers around her. “It is so difficult coming alone to a foreign country and a foreign language, not knowing who to trust, how to express ourselves – especially for black women, because we face double discrimination, for our skin colour and our gender. There is very little support for us to integrate, while we wait for our papers we cannot work or study so the isolation can drive you crazy. But we supported each other and found strength that way.”
Faith’s asylum claim was approved in 2010; the same year her husband fell terminally ill. “By then, my sons were big boys, my daughters were mothers. But I flew to South Africa to care for him in hospital in Johannesburg and for 3 months I could be with him and my two youngest children, taking care of their dad. But I wasn’t earning enough for the UK to let them come back with me. The others had grown up without me. I couldn’t be there for them.” But Faith resolved to be there for all the women and children who had come to depend on her, here. Later that year she appeared before the Rayne Foundation to tell them her story of ‘the tough times’ and her dream of building a business that could help fund the forum and build infrastructure to protect and empower women like her.
Faith was granted an refugee entrepreneurship award by The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN) and set about realising that dream. Based on her experience in textiles back home, she developed a new line of women’s clothing. She found young Brits with African heritage wanted modern fashions that still feel proudly connected to their roots, so up sprang Fagee Fashions & Enterprise. Bringing traditional African and modern urban fashion together, the brand represents Faith’s vision of our shared future: different cultures and traditions coming together to create something new and beautiful. Still operating on a small scale and staffed by ten refugee workers, the business is now looking to expand.
Meanwhile, the forum has grown, bringing together women from across the African continent. That’s challenging sometimes, but Faith has worked to create a culture in the forum which values diversity. “It’s all about giving people the space and respect they’ve been denied,” she says. “That helps us cross the language barriers, learn together, build our confidence together as we try to navigate all the barriers of the asylum process.”
Faith has even seen the forum expand beyond the African community. In Nottingham they have worked with British and European women throughout the community to host conferences and establish a domestic violence support program. “This actually helps tackle racism as well because women who have endured the pain of domestic violence can connect through that experience, across difference and bond as we work together to find shared solutions. Once you’re allies, the prejudice and ignorance start to fall away and we meet each other as sisters.”
Faith describes her greatest achievement as watching the women she works with become confident in their own skin again. Women, she believes, have a vital role to play in leading us towards our shared future. “That’s what I want to see in the future, our women in the lead, finding their voices!” Her voice resonates with pride. “I want to see women building stronger families, stronger communities and a stronger economy for Britain. We need support to do that. We need equal opportunity, not borders in every aspect of community life. But once we have it make no mistake, we will build a climate of such positivity, unity and strength, we will win a good future for everybody.”