We caught up with one of our London Quest hosts, Anna Jones from RefuAid. Here she explains how this NGO is helping refugees fulfil their potential – and the importance of spotlighting the human side of the crisis.
Today, more than 70 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict or oppression.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, and the sheer human suffering involved. Yet tenacious individuals and organisations are making a difference.
One of these is RefuAid, a London-based non-profit that is helping refugees in the UK get back on their feet. We caught up with Co-Founder Anna Jones to learn about its commitment to practical long-term solutions, and find out what drove her to take action.
Leaders’ Quest [LQ]: Tell us about your background. How did you get into working with refugees?
Anna Jones [AJ]: It started when I was doing my BA in International Relations. A lady in my seminar group was a Rwandan refugee. Meeting her was eye-opening, as I had never encountered anything to do with the asylum process, and I had no idea what it was like to be a refugee. My interest grew so much that I wrote my dissertation on Darfur. Later I started working with charities, which led me to travel to Australia, where I worked with refugees.
I returned to the UK on the cusp of the 2015 migrant crises in Calais and the Mediterranean. The headline images were harrowing, and I felt like I needed to do more. I joined a Facebook group, where I saw a post by Tasmyn Brewster asking for people to help. Although we hadn’t met before, we joined forces with a friend of mine to source medical aid for refugees in Lesbos.
The response was overwhelming – we got 12 of our local doctors and nurses to volunteer at Calais and an organisation called International Health Partners gave us about £60,000 worth of medication for only £4,000, all in the space of two weeks.
We went to Lesbos to deliver the aid ourselves and, unable to let go of what we had witnessed, returned several times. We wondered what the prospects could be for people who had fled their homes and were now starting from scratch in a foreign land. That’s when we founded RefuAid.
LQ: What challenges do refugees face once they’ve settled in the UK?
AJ: A refugee’s journey is far from over when they arrive in a host country. Like any of us, they want to be able to provide for themselves and their families and get back on their feet, but bureaucracy and restrictive systems make this very difficult.
When RefuAid had just started, we worked with a group of four refugees from Syria and Iran. Two of them were university students who had suspended their studies to flee their home countries, and the other two were a surgeon and a dentist. To go back to university or requalify for their jobs, they needed an English language qualification.
Their conversational English was very good, but not sufficient to comply with the high standards for foreign students and professionals, which require them to have far superior language capabilities than native speakers.
It’s similar with professional validation, where perfectly qualified people will have to sit exams worth thousands of pounds each, just to confirm that their work is up to the local standard. This is made even more difficult by the fact that they have no access to bank loans to finance the most basic requirement to be able to apply for a job.
LQ: What makes RefuAid’s approach different?
At RefuAid we want to help people reach their highest potential, instead of simply ticking boxes.
We don’t take government funding, because we don’t want to have the pressure to meet targets by getting people into just any job, whether it makes use of their skills or not. Instead, we engage with people at a human level, giving them the practical tools and confidence they need to integrate into their host communities.
For example, we started granting interest-free loans for refugees to fund education and professional requalification at the end of 2017. We haven’t had a single default and we’ve allowed more than 70 people to get the education and qualifications they need. We also have partnerships with 78 language schools throughout the UK, which are teaching 234 refugees English at a significantly reduced cost.
Above: A RefuAid client
LQ: You’ve been very generous in hosting a number of Quest visits from business leaders. Could you tell us a bit more about how those experiences were for you?
Seeing the interaction between the people that we work with, and leaders from a range of corporate backgrounds, has been very impactful. For example, it’s been fascinating to have bank leaders share open conversations about how banking operations are meant to be rolled out, as compared to the actual experiences of some of our RefuAid clients, who are struggling to set up accounts or get loans.
The space for dialogue and understanding that LQ has provided is particularly powerful, because it allows for a first-hand understanding of the role of individuals within the system. It provides real-life examples of the need for change and the ways in which said change can take place.
LQ: What can businesses do to help?
AJ: One of the biggest things they can do is offer good quality internships and jobs. What we find is that perfectly qualified individuals, with a breadth of knowledge, experience and networks, are denied opportunities – simply because they were forced to flee their homes.
LQ: Do you think the way the media portrays refugees has an impact?
AJ: Absolutely. In the case of refugees, they are perceived to be a risk, which doesn’t do them justice. It deters host communities and businesses from welcoming them as ordinary people and acknowledging what they have to offer.
Anybody can see refugees as alien if that is what they are constantly being shown in the public domain. That’s where I think RefuAid’s work with Leaders’ Quest has been so important. It shatters these preconceptions, to show business leaders the human side of the refugee crisis.
LQ: How has this impacted you personally as a leader?
AJ: My first encounter with LQ was, as corny as it may sound, life changing. I was invited to go on a Quest in Bradford, where I was introduced to a diverse group of people, with whom I thought I would have absolutely nothing in common. Much to my surprise, I found that we could disagree fundamentally on some things, but have parallel ideas and shared values about others.
Working with LQ has helped me understand that leaders from all walks of life can come together with ordinary people – with extraordinary life stories – and share frank discussions about their perspectives on life.
LQ: Your work sounds extremely demanding. How you avoid getting burnt out?
Managing the shock of witnessing so many heart-wrenching human situations is never easy. I find it difficult sometimes to come back to the comforts of my reality and enjoy them, knowing that there are so many people in need, every ticking second. But I also find that surrounding myself with others with similar experiences to mine is comforting, and there is a healthy space for relief.
At RefuAid we’re conscious of the importance of taking time off for ourselves. After all, if we’re not at the top of our game, we’re not able to function properly for those who need our help.
That’s why, although I struggle to practice what I preach to the rest of the team, we’re very strict about having our own space to ourselves and switching off when we are on annual leave, or during out of office hours.
Above: Anna Jones, second from left, with RefuAid clients
LQ: Finally, we are seeing a rising number of refugees globally. How do you see the crisis evolving?
AJ: A big issue is the impact of climate change.By 2050, more than 140 million people could be forcibly displaced due to climate change alone. This is not an apocalyptic prediction; in fact, there are already climate refugee communities in China.
A problematic issue is that while a lot of countries don’t adhere to the protection of refugee rights, at least there’s international legislation set in place and political actors can be held accountable for its violation. However, if you’re forced to leave your home due to climate change, there is nothing to protect you. Systemic change is necessary.
Read RefuAid’s latest impact report to find out more about how it helps refugees realise their education and employment dreams.