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Interview: Pauline Hawkes, foster carer

22 May 2015

'Sometimes, I don't quite know what to do with my feelings'

I've just been given the Champion Award by Women on the Move. It's for women who make a difference in society, especially for vulnerable people, migrants, and refugees.

We run our own agency for Unaccompanied Minors
[UAMs]. They're young people - aged 16 and 17 - in the country without parents or guardians, often from war areas. We place them in accommodation, then work with them in all sorts of areas, such as sorting out their legal status, education, health, social inclusion, and so on.

We can usually take around 30 such young people at a time.
We also facilitate an independent foster-care agency. Here we employ social workers, train foster carers, and then place young people from the local-authority care system with foster carers, and we then monitor and look after them.

How it all began is a long story.
My husband and I were, at that time, caring for a local church. Then a young lady on a school holiday phoned to say her 14-year-old friend was being sexually abused by her foster carer; she asked, if she ran away, could we look after her? We checked and, legally, we couldn't do this.

The story had a good end,
as we phoned the local authority, who moved the girl in two hours. After that, we thought: let's try and get some training in case this happens again. So we trained as foster carers with the local authority, and fostered for that borough for many years . . . some 35 children. 

I was watching the news when the Norwegian boat picked up refugees in the sea,
and tried to land them in Australia, and the PM turned them away. Some died. I was so angry, I wanted to smash the TV. Or go and smash the PM there.

But my husband told me that there are many similar situations in London;
so why not phone the local authority here in London, and see if we could help? I phoned, and the manager of the department turned out to be a friend I had attended a course with in the local authority. He then said: "If you can help, we need help." That's when we started Phoenix Community Care, and began to take vulnerable young asylum-seekers and place them.

I have three children,
ten grandchildren, and two great- grandchildren. I'm not sure that there is much sibling rivalry these days - they are too old for that - but maybe you should ask them. 

My youngest daughter works with us,
and actually I think she's a Mother Teresa. She's hands-on with the young people and working with the key workers. She's the one who puts her hand down the toilet when it's blocked, and does lots of other dirty jobs like that. It's not really in her job description, but she cares. 

My youngest son also works with us.
He handles all the IT side of the operation. There's a lot to do there, and the need for understanding. He also works part-time with his wife, who's really the housing manager and makes sure that we maintain a high standard of accommodation for the refugees that we house. One of my closest friends, who used to live with us in our house when she was growing up, also works with us. 

Keeping up with the bureaucracy of the housing can be very expensive.
And also there are a lot of mental-health issues when the young people have been trafficked, or had bad experiences en route to the UK. 

There is a lot of red tape,
but in terms of the fact that you're caring for young people, that probably is not bad, though sometimes it misses out the common-sense factor.

The house where our UAMs are takes 28 young people,
and it's full. The foster care is growing: Sri Lanka's growing well, and so is Kenya. We could also take up to 20 foster children at this time, but that will continue to expand. In foster care they can stay until the child is 18, but every situation is different. UAMs are with us usually two years, but it can be longer.

Foster children can go back to their birth family,
or could be in their own accommodation. With UAMs, they often move on to their own accommodation if they get permission to stay. In some ways, we never really say goodbye to them, although some have grown up, and have grown-up children of their own, and some still are part of our community. 

That's what makes me happiest
- when we place a UAM or a foster child. 

What's surprised me most
is how grateful the UAMs are, and how great the need is. There are more displaced people today than at the end of World War II.

Sometimes, I don't quite know what to do with my feelings.
When I've been in Kenya or Sri Lanka, the last thing I want to do when I come home is go to a supermarket, if that makes sense? You're often surrounded by people who have First World issues. 

The most difficult thing is coping with the stress of people's lives,
and also dealing with the lack of common sense in the departments that monitor you. Financial strain is hard. In terms of the basic cost, such as housing and staffing, we probably just scrape by. We want to put TVs in their rooms, as it's good for them to have company, and it's a way of learning English, but there isn't really enough money to do extra things like that. We fund-raise for things. We're not expensive in terms of the amount of hours we put in to serve those placed with us. We're paid for so many hours, but we put in many, many more for free. 

Has the local church helped in any way?
That's a hard one. . . But in a sense I'd say we are the Church in action. We have a really good team of people working with us, and many who work with us - not all, but many - would say that they are also followers of Jesus. I would say that, without knowing God, and his care for me, I could not do what I do. In the end it's his work, caring for the stranger. 

I was born and brought up in Birmingham.
My family were part of a Brethren movement, and my father was a church elder. 

I found God when I was very young,
at around seven years old. I can honestly say that I had a real conversion experience very young, and I've never looked back. I really have a strong faith. 

I have become less religious over the years,
and more "I am church." I have changed my thinking in many ways. Life is a journey, and I seek to follow the teachings of Jesus more - understanding the grace of God in the work that we do is a very important part of faith to me. 

We get the privilege to go to countries like Sri Lanka and Kenya,
because of the orphanage school, and we work there. I love city-breaks both in Europe and in the States.

I like music:
reggae, ska, classical, the Beatles, Jimmy Cliff, and Leonard Cohen.

The drowning of fleeing refugees from Libya was the thing that last made me angry.

The people who've most influenced me in my life
areGeorge Verwer, Martin Scott, Malala Yousafzai, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa. 

I pray most for vulnerable people.

If I was locked in a church for a few hours,
I'd choose my husband as my companion. 

Pauline Hawkes was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. 

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