Life in London can be stressful and impersonal at the best of times. But for recent migrants it can be a deeply daunting and isolating experience: from housing and employment worries, to developing a fulfilling social life.
But for Latin Americans settling in Brixton, they are entering a thriving and dynamic community, with a strong support network. At the heart of this community is an amazing organisation called IRMO (Indoamerican Refugee and Migrant Organisation). Their mission is the empowerment of the Latin American community in the UK – and the breadth of their work, and the changes they have made to people’s lives is incredible.
Based on Overton Road (just off Brixton Road), IRMO has acted as a hub of information, advice, workshops and events to support, inform and entertain their clientele since 1985. The team consists of over 60 volunteers who provide bilingual support and advice to over 3,500 people a year. Kim Lomax of IRMO tells me that ‘community thinking’ is the bedrock of the institution: ‘we aspire to build and be part of a network which supports all of our community members, rather than merely being a ‘charity organization’.’
And the results are all around us. Lalo, the eponymous proprietor of the Colombian restaurant ‘El Rancho de Lalo’ in Brixton Village is a former client and now a champion of IRMO’s work. Kim tells me that his restaurant has become a hub for the community, and that many Latin Americans often come to him for advice: if Lalo can’t resolve it informally he refers them to IRMO. Needless to say ‘Lalo’s is also the lunch venue of choice for IRMO staff and volunteers!’
Hearing the testimonies of those who have been assisted by IRMO is inspiring.
Lina, a Colombian who was living in Spain, says that she enjoyed life there and had a good job, but that when she became unemployed she decided to move to the UK. ‘I have a four year old son who came with me, together with a cousin who helped me out. After a month, my cousin left, and things started to go wrong because I didn’t have anyone to help me look after my son.’
‘A neighbour told me about IRMO. They started to help me to apply for benefits, and they also provide classes every day for two hours that I could attend. Once I started to apply for benefits, everything started to get better. I applied for full time childcare and received it, and, thank god, I also applied to go to college and was accepted.’
Another Colombian, Maria, even ended up volunteering at IRMO after the support she received: ‘We had a housing problem and came to IRMO and they helped us to resolve it. And then I realised that I could come here to volunteer, using my professional skills. And here I am, loving life!’
The problem, Kim explains, is not usually unemployment but underemployment. ‘It’s interesting to note that London’s Latin American community are predominantly young, highly educated and highly skilled individuals, but who often face a dramatic drop in occupational status when they arrive in London. Employment rates within this community are very high, at 85%, but this is concentrated in low paid, low skilled jobs, in contrast to back home, where more than a third of the community worked in professional and managerial positions.’
IRMO has a number of initiatives to counter this trend, including their ‘English for Work’ project which seeks to improve language skills, IT classes, job-hunting advice (including one-on-one CV assistance) and their volunteer programme: all of which help to prepare users for London’s labour market.
On top of these essential services, IRMO also puts on a whole host of social and recreational activities, including yoga classes and ‘El Costurero’ (The Sewing Circle) which is an artistic and educational discussion platform aimed at empowering women. Be sure to check out El Costurero’s ‘second-hand clothes stall every first Saturday of the month at Brixton Market’.
Youth services include ‘LAYF’ – the Latin American Youth Forum – which offers workshops and activities for teenagers, including photography, cinema, painting, music, and dancing.
IRMO’s work is a finely-tuned mix of simultaneously promoting and integrating the Latin American community – and perhaps this is its greatest strength. ‘While the promotion and preservation of Latin American culture and identity is an essential part of IRMO’s objectives,’ Kim says, ‘we equally encourage cultural exchange and integration’.
The precious harmony of Brixton’s diversity is something to be cherished. And with the roots of organisations like IRMO spread deep throughout the fabric of our community, it gives me reason to be hopeful about an inclusive and multicultural future for Brixton.