I begin work as the Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) UK from January 2016. This new phase of my life is in some ways the culmination of a lengthy period of reorientation in which Ignatian Spirituality has been a guiding aid.
I join JRS UK following a short contract with the Rome office of JRS International – work which has taken me all over the world, including the Middle East, East Africa and the Western Balkans, visiting projects in field and meeting refugees, staff and volunteers. Prior to that, I served for 12 years as a Member of Parliament in inner London, including for a while as a Government Minister. My constituency was poor and had very high levels of need, including large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers. My first constituency advice surgery as a young MP brought me face-to-face with a long line of people without immigration status who had been waiting in uncertainty and destitution for many years. As they began to share with me their personal stories, I caught glimpses of the journeys they had made, and learnt that the most painful and testing times often began when they thought they had arrived where they were going and would be safe – here in the UK. I don't think I have ever forgotten that night. It made a profound impact on my own sense of vocation to work to improve the system for those who are seeking sanctuary.
Politics exposed me to many areas of public policy and to people from all backgrounds and walks of life. I was the Children’s Minister from 2010-2012, where I had responsibility for special educational needs, child poverty, early years and family policy. Human rights issues were a thread of other work: I ran a campaign to get a constituent released from Guantanamo Bay and also later served on a select committee on human rights. But across the whole of my parliamentary career I kept returning to issues of migration and housing and specifically to work for refugees. When in Government, I led the negotiations to stop the detention of children in the immigration system and set up a new way to work with families whose applications to remain in the UK had been turned down. In my final two and half years in Parliament I chaired a group focusing on support for refugees, and led two cross party inquiries – one on asylum support rates (financial support) and the other on the use of immigration detention.
My faith has always been a core part of who I am. Like many others, I have had periods when I have drifted away and then returned. Ironically, it was the dawning sense of responsibility the night I was elected that drew me back to the Catholic Church after one such period of being away. Each subsequent dilemma of public life seemed to call me deeper then as I sought to understand how to respond. But although politics drew me back to faith, faith gradually drew me away from politics. I made the decision to change direction and to leave Parliament while doing the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius in a month long silent retreat in the summer of 2013 – an experience which was deeply formative on many levels. I left the retreat with no idea about what would come next, but trusting the certain sense I had been given in prayer that I was being invited to walk away now and do something else.
Still unsure of what my long term future would hold, but drawn to working with JRS in some capacity, two years later I took a short term contract with the International (Rome) office of JRS. It felt like a slightly crazy risk for all sorts of reasons; certainly I couldn’t see where it would lead. But it has been fantastic preparation for my new role at JRS UK. I have been to places I would never otherwise have visited and I have seen projects where Jesuits are really living and working at the edges of the world. The work has given me a solid grounding in the wider organisation of JRS and allowed me to see with my own eyes the countries and conditions many refugees journey from. But most importantly of all, it also confirmed my sense that working with refugees and working with JRS is really how I want to serve God.
I feel incredibly blessed to have the opportunity now to work for JRS UK and to bring the leadership skills I have gained elsewhere to an organisation that I admire and care about deeply. I dare say that there will be many challenges ahead, but I have a sense that I am where I am called to be next, and that gives me some joy.
Explore the recent 31 days with Ignatius campaign that highlights some of the work of JRS UK.