By Abby Gilchrist
During the first national lockdown, while I, like many, passed the time attempting to complete the whole of Netflix and dyeing my hair various shades of ginger, some of my friends put their business hats on and got creative. Many have also combined their creative side with their charitable side, which is exactly what Niluka Perera has done with the creation of FUSE - a charity fundraising society created by herself and other students at the University of Law in Guildford, Surrey. This is a wonderful new cause I found out about through one of my close friends back home, and so I had a chat with Niluka to find out more and find out what inspired her to start FUSE.
After returning home from university up in Durham at the start of lockdown, Niluka got in contact with Woking Borough Council, who are helping with the resettlement of around fifty Syrian refugees. She became involved with their English tutoring scheme in order to help the refugees improve their English since many arrive in the UK with little to no understanding of the language. For Niluka, who is currently tutoring a mother of two named Yasmeen, she has found it a wonderful way to get to know her and understand the difficulties she faces as a refugee in the UK. She explains how "it’s interesting the hear how they’re finding it and how cultural different life in the UK is for them." At the end of September, Niluka met Hina from Woking Borough Council to find out more about what the council was doing to help the refugees and what more she could do to help, bearing in mind she was about to start at the University of Law in Guildford, where she was sure many people would be interested in volunteering.
"Since the council is well funded, the main issue, in general, was their English, and Hina said that some of them would potentially be interested in opening up their own businesses. When it comes to the bureaucracy side and the paperwork, however, many of them would struggle, and so a lot of them don’t take that leap to start their own businesses and would rather rely on the state – this is a much safer option in their minds." For Niluka, this is where the focus on integration into the local community and the improvement of their English skills came from. "Even from speaking to Yasmeen, they are so segregated from the rest of the community, that it’s no wonder that their development in spoken English was so poor. Realistically, they were just speaking Arabic to one another most of the time."
After starting at the University of Law, Niluka soon recruited fellow students to help her kick-start the charity. She started by messaging her University of Law Whatsapp group chat, and soon found volunteers to create their now thirteen-strong committee, from Liaison Officers who work with the groups of refugees, to fashion designers who are redesigning the denim donations they have received. The idea for the clothing was to first ask for vintage clothes donations to then sell on Depop, but soon the idea turned towards redesigning denim pieces easily and cheaply into one-of-a-kind pieces to then sell and raise money.
"From working with Woking Borough Council, it’s amazing to see how much support is being given to these Syrian families", Niluka says. Yasmeen, Niluka’s tutee, cares for her two children while also suffering from MS, and so she is also supported by the Vulnerable Person Reassessment Programme. "The moral responsibility we have towards refugees means that we, as a country, could do more so that refugees, in their desperation, don’t turn towards people smuggling, which as we have seen time and time again in the news can have fatal results. Everyone wants a better life, and so we forget just how lucky we are to be born citizens of this country." Due to the fear-mongering we see in politics and the media, we forget the backstories these people have. Just a couple of weeks ago, Yasmeen messaged Niluka to say that she couldn’t make that day’s session because her brother had just been killed back in Syria. "It’s comments like that which make us forget what these people have gone through. Even now, Yasmeen has another brother in Germany who she hasn’t seen for eight years." And yet Niluka always finds Yasmeen happy and smiling, despite everything she has and is currently going through. "If someone saw her on the street, they wouldn’t even remotely know what she has lived through." Her husband is a chef, and so is the perfect example of someone who would want to open their own business, but it doesn’t seem possible at the moment due to his current level of English, as well as the current COVID crisis and its ruthless targeting of the hospitality sector.
I am personally so excited to see what the fashion team has come up with when they do their drop in early December. Once the denim donations have been collected, they’re delivered to the fashion team who then have full reign to revamp the pieces. The differentiation in styles is leading to a wide variety of designs, from bleaching to embroidery. This has obviously been made harder due to the new COVID restrictions in England and so they are currently trying to work around them.
FUSE are hoping to do their Depop drop around 11th December (COVID depending) – follow them on Instagram to keep updated with news on their work (@fuse_ulaw).