Claire Harmer has been teaching as an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) instructor for over 6 years at Newcastle College, and has just finished a month-long sponsored Ramadan Fast for three local refugee charities, including Action Foundation. She’s raised over £1,000!

We caught up with Claire to find out what prompted her to take on this challenge. Read on below, or watch the fantastic video blog she also recorded for us!

My students have come from all over the world to live in the UK on a permanent basis. Many of them are asylum seekers and refugees who have fled their home countries due to conflict or oppressive regimes.
A lot of my students are Muslim and every year they encourage me to try fasting. My answer has always been “I love food too much! I’ll try next year!”

Originally, I had only planned to try and fast for one day! When I woke up for Suhoor (the meal before beginning your fast for the day) on the first day, I changed my mind and decided that I was going to try and fast the whole month as an act of solidarity with my students.

A different kind of Ramadan

I gave myself the incentive that I would donate some money to three charities that offer support to asylum seekers and refugees in the city – Action Foundation, the West End Refugee Service and the North of England Refugee Service. After receiving requests from family, friends and colleagues to set up a charity donation page, so they could show support by donating, it turned into a sponsored fast.

Due to the current situation with the Coronavirus outbreak, Ramadan has been very different for my students and other Muslims celebrating. It would usually be a time to share with family, friends and neighbours.
Unfortunately, some of them have spent this special time alone.

Many asylum seekers and refugees already live quite isolated lives. Without the safe environment of college, charities and other community groups, things have become even tougher to ensure they receive the support they need and are able to integrate into society.

Dispelling the myths

In my job role, I see how difficult it can be for asylum seekers and refugees to find their way and lay the solid foundations of a new life in the UK. The charities I have chosen do amazing work, despite receiving little funding and being in such high demand.

I hope to raise awareness of the struggles that asylum seekers and refugees can face, about the wonderful work that the charities I have chosen do and to raise as much money as I can. The media (and often the government) in the UK, use immigrants as scapegoats for issues not actually caused by them, I hope to try and dispel some of the myths. We are all human and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, no matter what our background, culture or religion.

I was disgusted, but not shocked to see that far-right groups have been using the Coronavirus crisis to further spread their anti-Islamic rhetoric. I don’t follow any particular religion, but there are so many aspects of Islam that I admire.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me questions about what I’m doing, so it’s great that I’m helping other people learn about Ramadan and Islam. I think education is definitely key to breaking down stereotypes and inaccurate information about the Muslim community, asylum seekers and refugees.

Thirsty challenge!

The first day of fasting was easier than I expected, but I think I was lulled into a false sense of security! The second day was a lot tougher as the weather was warm and I was more active that day. I have really enjoyed Ramadan. It has made me appreciate what I have. I might feel hungry and thirsty, but it’s only a temporary state for me. For people all over the world, that’s how they feel on a daily basis. I’m so lucky that at Iftar I get to eat whatever I feel like, many people don’t have that luxury.

I usually drink a lot of water throughout the day, so being thirsty has definitely been the main challenge! I’m working from home at the moment and I’ve found that I keep standing up to walk to the kitchen to get water, then remembering and sitting back down again! I currently start my fast just after 3am and break it at around 9pm, so that means no food or drink for around 18 hours. I think the only time I’ve ever eaten at 3am before is when I’ve had a kebab after a night out! I have also abstained from drinking alcohol, swearing and any other activities which are prohibited during this time.

Kindness and strength

To push through the challenges, I have just tried to focus on the reasons why I’m doing this. My family, friends and colleagues have been extremely supportive, and my students have been sending me tips and words of encouragement. They’ve been sending me recipes and suggesting traditional food from their home countries to try for Iftar.

Working with them has completely changed my outlook on life, so I feel by doing this I am helping to repay them for that. Their kindness and strength, despite the horrendous traumas many of them have faced, never ceases to amaze and inspire me. I’ve also been using my Instagram account @claireellenharmer to document my journey over the month. I’ve had some really kind messages and donations from complete strangers, which I never expected.

Since the lockdown restrictions were put in place, our lives in the UK have become a lot more difficult. Fasting has given me focus to be grateful for what I have and not think so much about what I am missing. Overall, the experience has been extremely rewarding and I am a little sad that Ramadan will end this weekend.

I’m looking forward to celebrating my first Eid with family and friends online. One of my students told me that I need to dress in my best clothes. They are used to seeing me in jeans and trainers everyday at the college! I will be making cakes and traditional Eid sweets to deliver to friends in my area. I will also be eating lots of food!

Eid Mubarak! Kul ‘am wa tantum bi-khair!

Claire's Instagram Account

Claire’s Instagram Account

It’s not too late to sponsor Claire, head on over to her fundraising page to find out how. Action Foundation are so grateful to Claire for taking on this challenge to support refugees and asylum seekers in our community.