Last summer, my children’s school in Highgate, north London hosted the launch event of a new organisation called Highgate Has Heart. We couldn’t have known walking in that our heartstrings would be pulled into what became an incredibly meaningful pro bono project.
Highgate Has Heart was set up by local people, including the actor Juliet Stevenson. The group seeks to support refugees, and that evening, I met Jo, a fundraiser at the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants. Of the three charities represented on the evening, the Islington Refugee Centre (as it is known for short) was by far the smallest.
Jo told me that financial support from another borough had been suspended, and so the Centre was open only one and a half days each week, and serving only about 60 people. Clearly, the growing refugee crisis needs more in response. So Jo shared with me the Centre’s plan to engage local volunteers to support refugees into work.
Her story so moved us that I quickly decided Junxion’s London office should help.
My colleagues unanimously agreed—not merely because this is the biggest social issue of the day, but because it’s an issue to which we’re all personally connected. Jane runs her own small charity supporting refugees and has been to Calais helping people in the camps there. As Canadians living abroad, Andrea and Shayla both felt that the migrant experience was one they shared, though of course without the hardships refugees endure. And my dad, his brother and parents were refugees from Nazi Germany, who came to the UK in 1936, when my dad was just three years old.
After meeting with the team at the Centre, we quickly agreed to help design a careers service.
At Junxion, when we take on a pro bono project, we run it through the same rigorous consulting process we deliver for all our clients. We started by looking at peers and benchmark organisations that do similar work. Next, we interviewed staff, Centre users and external stakeholders…. Nothing could have prepared us for the conversations we had.
We heard horrifying stories of people seeing loved ones murdered, and of their own suicide attempts. We were chilled to hear of the palpable loneliness and sense of despair carried by so many refugees. And we heard about the deep frustration people feel because of tortuous legal processes—lives on hold even after arrival on our safe shores.
“With the Islington Refugee Centre, I’m not just a lonely soul”.
— Refugee & Interviewee
Stories like these aren’t news to people who work regularly with refugees and migrants, but they broke our hearts.
Perhaps most remarkable, though, was that what came shining through from these interviews was immense gratitude for the people working at the Centre. We were told, “They make me feel human again”, “they show me, despite everything, there is hope” and “you can’t pay them enough for what they are doing for people”.
My interviews with Centre CEO Andy Ruiz Palma and Stephen Spencer, who leads support work at the Centre, helped me understand how users of the Centre could be so effusively supportive. “People are people” is trite, but Andy knows this to be true and acts on it, always seeing the person behind the story. His ability to see through the heartache and the horror of the refugee experience to the person beneath it all is the embodiment of non-judgemental love.
Stephen helped us understand the strong community around the Centre. People share values and muck in to help; that’s how the centre has survived the loss of some core funding. Stephen looks at the whole person he is supporting—at a range of needs, physical, emotional and spiritual. It’s this essential humanity that is the heart of the Centre’s work. It’s imperative that we see more of this in our state policies, in our communities, and in the front-line agencies—like the Centre—that support individual people and their families.
The Centre now has a new and ambitious plan to launch an education and training service to help refugees into work.
This is how humanity progresses. We see what’s right and what’s wrong. We connect with one another, based on shared values and emotion. We see people as they are, and recognize a piece of ourselves in them. And we take action, because we’re in the privileged position to be able to help.