Supporting Refugees in Wandsworth: Interview with CARAS

23 June 2023

Tara Theatre have been partnered with CARAS for over a year and in celebration of Refugee Week 2023, we spoke with Maria Wardale to talk about their work, the impact of working with Tara Theatre and their hopes for the future.

Maria Wardale, Head of Adult Inclusion at CARAS

What is CARAS?


CARAS is a community organisation based in Tooting, working with people from all over the world who are seeking asylum in the UK or have refugee backgrounds in and around Southwest London. We centre the voices of our community in everything we do, and work collaboratively to offer a holistic provision person-centred support including English language and digital skills classes, social activities and case work support as well.


Where did CARAS’ story start?


Its origins were around 2008-2009 starting as a voluntary organisation with a lot of student volunteers who were living in the area and responding to the need that they saw with refugee families moving into the area. So it started on an informal basis, but we’ve really grown and developed since then. Now we have a team of 16 staff members, all with real expertise in their field, as well as a fantastic team of volunteers that allows us to deliver a comprehensive service to over 600 young people and adults across south London every year. As the asylum policy environment is constantly changing, so is our community and their needs, so we are always trying to make sure we evolve as we respond to this!


What are your goals as an organisation?


We want everyone who is seeking safety in this country to feel welcomed, listened to, and valued in their community, and this is what we aim for across all our work with our community. We support people to build meaningful social connections, to have the information that they need to access the support that they need and want, and to recognise and develop their skills in order to pursue their futures and build strong foundations here in the UK. Going forward, we really want to be sharing the knowledge that we have developed through working with our community – whether that’s the experience of new arrivals, or about our participatory methods of co-production. A key area we want to grow is our policy and campaigns work, so that we have the capacity and resources to push for change, both at the local and national level.


What’s involved in your collaboration with Tara Theatre?


Our partnership with Tara Theatre started just over a year ago. It started as an informal space for people to come together and have a chat and meet new people over a coffee and a snack. It was a really valuable space for people to build confidence in their English language skills, and in meeting new people. Since then it’s evolved according to what our community members want, and we’re now very excited to have two creative practitioners coming in twice a month to coffee afternoon to work alongside community members to explore writing, art, photography, all co-created with our community members together. Tara Theatre have also very generously welcomed our community members to lots of their fantastic performances throughout the year, breaking down the barriers people face in accessing arts and cultural spaces too.


Can you tell us about the artist practitioners who are working on Creative Sessions at Tara Theatre and the kind of work they’ve been making?


We have two creative practitioners on board: Niroshini Somasundaram and Charon Scerra. They both have a really interesting and diverse range of practices – literature, poetry, puppetry, yoga, dance – as well as experience working with community organisations and migrant communities specifically. We were looking for multidisciplinary artists specifically so we can respond to the huge range of artistic skills and interest that our community members bring with them. It’s been fantastic to be able to collaborate between the practitioners and our community to see what we can make together!


How have the participants described these events?


The coffee afternoon at Tara Theatre has been one of the most popular groups that we run – I think it’s reached almost 100 people since it started! It’s been a really warm, welcoming, vibrant space for people to come to, and our community members have told us how much they’ve valued that – a lot of other places people encounter might not feel like that, so being somewhere they can relax, be themselves, learn about each other and have fun is really important. In the creative sessions, it’s been so beautiful seeing people rediscover their creativity. I think a lot of people have so many creative skills but haven’t used them in a while, or some people don’t feel they are creative or it’s not for them, but through the sessions they’ve learnt “actually I’m pretty good at writing!” or “I’m pretty good at drawing” and they have been building their confidence through that, and sharing about themselves through their creativity as well.


Have you seen any changes come about from this collaboration?


I would say confidence as the biggest thing. Some people started without knowing many people in the UK, or were worrying about their English language being a barrier, but being here and seeing that they can communicate and can connect with people has been a real boost. I think people have been learning what type of creative outlets they enjoy, what their skills are and through these sessions, they’re finding out about themselves. Participants share stories with each other and remember parts of their lives that maybe don’t otherwise get much space to be spoken about. It’s really, really valuable.


How does Refugee Week intersect with CARAS?


Every week for CARAS is refugee week. It doesn’t stop here! Each year we do something slightly different and this year set up a working group of community members to come together to talk about what Refugee Week is and how they would like us to speak about it, particularly online and with our social media presence. They’ve had so many brilliant ideas that we’ve responded to. They wanted to share music that is in line with the Refugee Week theme so we’ve created a playlist of songs that our community members say remind them of Compassion. It’s a varied playlist – do have a listen, share it, and add your choices too!

We’re also collaborating with different organisations around the area, for example some of our community members have been involved in planning the Merton Citizens Refugee Week celebrations.

At the same time, we’re going to continue sharing what we already do, because in everything that we do – whether it’s social activities, English classes, or casework – we’re always highlighting and celebrating the strengths of our community members. I think that’s compassion in action really, so we want to share that more widely.


How can people contribute to CARAS’ mission?


There are a few different ways. Directly we’re always welcoming volunteers with loads of different roles you can get involved in. If you have something in particular you would like to do you can always get in touch. Volunteers are a really important part of our community, how we connect with the wider area and continue our work, so please do have a look on our website if you are interested in giving some of your time.

Alternatively, you can donate. We’re always open to donations and as you might imagine, it is a pretty difficult funding environment at the moment so we will always welcome donations! You can donate here:

If you can’t support CARAS directly or if you’re living somewhere else, you can also get involved with so many other great migrant support organisations out there. The more solidarity that’s built between all the different projects on the ground, the better! Whether that’s done through volunteering, donating or campaigning.

There are also so many campaigning networks out there. One example is Lift The Ban which is about removing the ban on work for people seeking asylum. You can see what’s going on in the policy environment and give your voice to strengthen those campaigns.

If you’re a local business or a local organisation and you can welcome refugees and asylum seekers into your team – whether that’s through volunteering or through employment opportunities. If you’re thinking through those questions and how to make that possible, then you can get in touch and we’d love to work with you on that.

Finally, there’s a lot of fake news, myths and negative misconceptions about people who are here in the UK seeking safety. I think one to one conversations can make a real difference. It opens up the dialogue, deconstructs those myths and emphasises that these are people like all of us, who bring so much. They are brilliant people to have in our community. We should lead with empathy and compassion.


How would you describe CARAS in three words?


Kind, Open and Responsive.


Where do you hope to see CARAS in the coming years?


In an ideal world CARAS wouldn’t need to exist as it does now as refugees and asylum seekers would have their immediate needs met. Instead, we would be able to focus on supporting people to thrive in the UK so that they can fulfil their potential and pursue their dreams, prioritise things that are important to them, and make meaningful lives here.

For now, we’re really going to focus on bringing our community members even more into how we work, into decision making, into driving forward what CARAS will look like in the coming years through volunteering and through leadership roles. We also want to partner across our wider community to share what we’re learning to ensure that other organisations and other services are welcoming and accessible for people seeking safety.