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County Durham Community Foundation spends Friday night with the Purple Rose project in Stockton. Photos by Carl Joyce. 

“We’re going to eat, make friends, relax and dance.”

If ever Friday night was in safe hands, it would be Yeama Susan Mansaray’s.

The former journalist, forced to flee persecution in Sierra Leone, now leads a dinner for 60 every Friday night in Stockton.

People, often women refugees or asylum seekers, gather at a large community centre where a warm welcome is guaranteed at the Purple Rose weekly drop-in.

As well as food (chicken stew, rice, salad and doughnut balls on the night we visited) guests are encouraged to make friends, dance to the music that reminds them of their culture, and take good quality second-hand items like bed linen, toys and cooking equipment.

Visitors to the drop-in come from all over the world: Syria, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan and Africa, fleeing war zones and natural disasters. Some do not speak English, but Purple Rose has several multilingual volunteers who can bridge the language gap and help people get what they need until they find their feet.

Purple Rose is Stockton Lifeline

It is a lifeline for many. But despite the serious circumstances that bring people here, the atmosphere is bright and happy, and for Yeama that is key.

She said: “I chose the name Purple Rose because every other project had refugee or asylum seeker in the title. I wanted people to be able to say they were coming here and have a name without a label.

“When I first came to Stockton I felt frightened and alone. I didn’t have my husband or children with me. But there was one woman, Kath Sainsbury [Kath, now retired, was manager for Justice First, a charity in Stockton that supports destitute asylum seekers] who I could talk to and she would take me somewhere quiet and sit with me and ask me what was going on.

“I could tell her anything and she showed me such care. I just want to do that for others.”

Yeama wakes at 5am each Friday to cook beautiful, nutritious food for the project, and is backed by her husband and team of dedicated volunteers. They all support the drop-in on top of their day jobs.

‘You cannot know what it is like’

Volunteer Reine Diboundje said: “Yeama is a wonderful mother to all of us. Some of us have been in this country for several years, and we have made a good life. That gives people hope that things can get better. We encourage them and support them and they know we have been through the same thing. Until you have fled a war zone, you cannot know what it is like.”

The project is so successful that many have flocked to support it. After National Lottery funding came to an end, County Durham Community Foundation awarded a £2,000 to help with costs for the Friday night drop-in: while local organisations like the Middlesbrough Soroptimists have held fundraisers to support what Yeama and her team are doing. Donations flood in every Friday night, to be shared out amongst visitors, and the atmosphere must be felt to be believed. It is noisy, friendly and thriving.

“There is only one rule. Everyone who comes here has to eat,” says Yeama, with a wink. And everyone does, feeling a clear sense of togetherness to carry them through the week ahead and whatever it might hold.

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