Basingstoke-born Catherine Gladwell is in her thirties and is the founder and CEO of London-based charity the ‘Refugee Support Network’ – supporting young lone refugees and asylum seekers through mentoring. She lives in North West London.
J: You do quite an amazing job. Can you tell us a bit of your story, and what’s led you up to starting the Refugee Support Network?
C: I think my passion for getting involved in this line of work came from hearing stories from my dad when he worked for Tearfund. He would come back from his travels and tell us the stories of the things he’d seen and people he’d met. I grew up thinking that being involved in social justice was totally normal.
At 18, I went away to Argentina with YWAM and that year was instrumental in shaping me as a person and how I viewed the world. At that stage, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do in life, but I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference in the lives of people who hadn’t had the same kinds of opportunities I’d had. I grew up knowing what it meant to feel safety and security and have opportunities and resources to make choices.
J: The Refugee Support Network works with young people through educational mentoring – why this focus?
C: After studying French and Spanish at Oxford, I decided to train as a teacher as I felt that young people could have more opportunities through access to education. I ended up working as a Further Education teacher, and many of the young people I worked with were refugees. I realised that we don’t have to go abroad to help people in need – they are right here at home! That time really solidified my desire to work in education and help young people progress in life and have options. I also realised education wasn’t just academic – it was about helping young people deal with the other issues in their lives too.
J: So you moved into more holistic support work then?
C: Yes I started working with the Bridging Project in Oxford – There I was involved in one to ones with young people seeking asylum or who’ve been trafficked and helping them get into education and stay in it. I really loved working with them. At the same time, I was involved in youth work with my now husband, Pete. After that, I worked in Jordan doing evaluations of educational programmes for Iraqi young people and moved into a job with Save the Children developing education policy in emergencies and conflict situations. This led me to work in Haiti and South Sudan around the referendum with Unicef and ministry for education.
J: What do you think are some of the main misconceptions people generally have about refugees and asylum seekers?
C: I think firstly many people mistakenly believe that they want to come to the UK. The reality is that most would prefer to be at home in their own country. Having to leave their life and loved ones is not their first choice. They would prefer to be at home, living in peace and looking forward to a future that was once ahead of them. Fleeing everything that is familiar and seeking asylum is traumatic and no one would choose it if they had any other option.
Another common misconception is the fear that refugees and asylum seekers might be connected to terrorism. But these people are fleeing the horrors of war, violence, terror and rape. We often hear the idea that refugees are coming here to scrounge benefits. But this is simply not true. The majority of young people we work with didn’t even know benefits had existed before they came here. They just wanted to be somewhere safe, and many of them had heard human rights are respected here.
J: What gave you the idea to start RSN?
C: When I was working at Save the Children I had a day a week free and had an idea – I saw the potential for a project to support the many young people in our area (NW London) who were lone asylum seekers who were in the care of our Local Authority. I had friends in my church who had the skills to help, so we did a needs assessment on existing services and the gaps – we found that educational support for older teenagers was a real need.
J: And things have grown quickly from those small beginnings?
C: Yes! In 2010, we built one relationship with a local Further Education college to support young people. We were able to demonstrate how educational mentoring would benefit every aspect of a young person’s life, and this led to us being able to start a project where we trained ten mentors to meet with young people weekly.
Other Local Authorities, colleges and young people heard about what we were doing and got in touch to ask for help and things just grew from there. We were fortunate to have the benefit of creative, knowledgeable people in areas like mental health and specialist immigration knowledge from the very start, which made an enormous difference to our development.
J: From these small beginnings you have grown quite a bit?
C: We have! We now work with over 400 young people from 44 countries including Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan, in educational mentoring hubs across London with specialist support workers who liaise with social workers.
We have a national ‘Access to Higher Education Advice Line’ to help our young people with university applications and some of the difficulties they run into while applying.
We also have a scholarship programme funded by a private foundation to help our young people go to university when they don’t have access to fees.
A big part of our work is advocacy – Young people who turn 18 are no longer eligible for asylum as they’re no longer considered a child and many of them get told to go back home regardless of what awaits them there. Many we work with, particularly from Afghanistan get sent back to Kabul and end up homeless with no access to education. Because of this, we now have a staff member based in Kabul who meets up with each of these young people and strives to help them on the ground there.
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Want to get involved in changing the lives of refugees? Find out more about the Refugee Support Network: refugeesupportnetwork.org and their partners ‘For Refugee’s’ forrefugees.uk