I’m certainly as excited as I have ever been starting a new job. Leading Asylum Welcome, a small, local charity, focussed on people in the Oxford area where I live, and nearly all of whose workforce are volunteers might not seem the most obvious step after a career spent in larger, mostly international organisations, but it feels so right, for me, now.
After leaving Oxfam last year I knew I wanted to use what I’ve learnt in a very different way. For a long time I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. I’ve spent the last year supporting leaders of charities of many shapes and sizes as they attempt to adapt and improve their own organisations. I’ve enjoyed that, learnt from it and will endeavour to keep some of it going. But deep down I gradually realised that I prefer be the person trying, if not always successfully, to get things right, rather than the one telling others how they should do so
So why a local refugee charity?
Like others of my generation I vividly remember the arrival of Ugandan Asians in England in the ‘seventies and the Vietnamese ”boat people” a few years later. I volunteered, teaching some new arrivals English in my local community and watched how they tried to adjust to life in the U.K. But what really brought alive the reality and humanity of those who have to flee their homes to me was working in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan in the ‘eighties. For all it’s image as a Himalayan Shangrila, Bhutan’s rulers were threatened by a growing Hindu population and drove more than a hundred thousand people out of the country. I’d known many of them as active and loyal citizens, farmers in their home villages or working in the public service across the country. I then met them again, stranded in overcrowded camps in Nepal to which they’d fled when driven out, struggling with twenty years of uncertainty and an uncomfortable dependence on others. I then followed their lives again as some were eventually resettled across the world. When eventually allowed to work, those in the U.K. became active and productive citizens, rebuilding their lives and contributing to our society, while never losing their dreams of home and of reuniting with their families.
As, over the decades, I’ve met and worked with refugees fleeing Afghanistan, Syria, Myanmar, Iraq and so many other countries, I’ve seen them in the way I saw the Bhutanese I knew:- as people, as friends driven out of their homes but unable to prove why to a disbelieving world; met with indifference and even hostility while only wanting to be given a chance, an opportunity to rebuild the lives so cruelly torn from them. Behind the statistics bandied about by nervous governments, everyone has such a story..
I value the way Asylum Welcome engages with refugees and asylum seekers in and around Oxford as individuals, all with their own stories. They are, first and foremost, people living in and among us, people struggling with what can be a harsh, even cruel, system and needing our help. We certainly have to work on tackling the issues that drive people out of their homes and their countries, and indeed on those laws, rules and behaviours that make it so hard for them even if they are among the tiny minority of displaced people who do make it to Britain. But we also have to respect individuals’ rights and dignity, help them rebuild their lives in a society to which they can and do contribute so much. Help them belong; help them thrive. I look forward to playing my part in that.
I began my working career as a volunteer, teaching in Borneo, and have valued volunteering ever since. Leading VSO, the international volunteering organisation, I saw the power of shared endeavour; volunteers and the people they live and work with together doing what they can to improve lives and offer opportunity. Oxfam and Mencap, which I also worked for, both have many times more volunteers than they have paid staff, -many of the local Mencaps across the country are staffed entirely by volunteers and do amazing work with and for disabled people in their local communities. So I’m excited by working for an organisation whose workforce is over 90% volunteer; a workforce so real to the people it serves, so clearly an expression of our values of shared humanity, and yet an effort uncaptured in the financial statements either of organisations or indeed, on a grander scale, of our country.
And so, in many ways this next move is daunting, I’m going to have to learn, to adapt, to work in very different ways and with a different scale or resources. The people whose lives my work and decisions will affect are all around me, not across continents. But in other ways working with Asylum Welcome will be familiar; an extension of the values, work and worldview of other fine organisations that tackle exclusion and the lack of opportunity in their own ways. It really is thinking global and acting local.
Mark joins Asylum Welcome as Director on 20th April, having previously led Oxfam, Mencap and VSO.
Asylum Welcome is an Oxford-based charity supporting refugees and asylum seekers, continuing to offer all possible support during the Covid restrictions.