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Interview: Domenica Pecoraro, Kent Refugee Project Officer

24 June 2016

‘My family lived 18 years in an empty hospital. I don’t want anyone to feel like this’

Working for stigmatised minorities has always been my professional call. The drive. . . I can’t explain it rationally, but I always felt guided towards the improvement of life for people who are regarded as hope­less, that no one wants to work for.

Working for the diocese is a great honour,
and because my post is paid for by people in churches, this makes me feel an instrument for the Anglican Church.

My post has been largely funded by donations from churches within the diocese of Canterbury,
and beyond. The Bishop of Dover’s Advent Justice Appeal has so far raised more than £61,000. It’s still possible to donate to the appeal via the Just Giving page [www.justgiving.com/bishopsadventappeal2015].

It’s fantastic, working with really good people. It’s a big commitment for me — a big opportunity to learn. I hope to be doing a great job.

I’ve extensive experience as a senior projects officer at an educational resource centre for Bangladeshi female migrants in London, and I’m currently completing a Master’s degree in social-research methods at the University of Kent.


I’ve been working for Muslim organisations as well. It doesn’t matter who I’m working for profes­sionally, because what I’m looking for is the cause. The diocese of Canterbury wants to work tangibly for refugees, and I’m privileged to work with them in a lovely environ­ment, to learn a great deal from them, and from the bene­ficiaries of the projects.

Maybe my drive to help comes from my upbringing. When I was grow­ing up, we felt as a community a bit stigmatised.

In November 1980, my community in Salerno, in the Campania [Italy], was shattered by an earthquake. Lots of people lost their houses, and it took 20 years to rebuild the com­munity; so there were lots of people in temporary accommoda­tion, or occupying illegally some empty build­­ings. They were some­how re­­garded as something less than human.

I felt a lack of social engagement with this:
children left without social workers, people without electricity in winter, rents going up because of a shortage of houses, and a spark came into me. My family ended up living 18 years in an empty hospital. I don’t want anyone to feel like this.

I applied to this post driven by the opportunity to make a difference in the life of newly arrived asylum-seekers and refugees. I’ve been appointed, but my job is starting in September. For now, I’ve written a blog for Refugees’ Week, and I’m attending a conference on migration and refugees, looking at the legal support available.

My role will be to help maintain the relationships that have already been made by the diocese, with local and national organisations working with refugees, as well as seek out and develop new partnerships. I’ll also help source and connect vol­unteers from within the parishes to refugee projects, and identify venues where partners can deliver hospit­ality and training to refugees.

I love networking, and bridging people together for a good cause. And I highly value grass-roots work, because it has the potential to en­­hance the quality of life of everyone involved in the process. This results in strengthened communities.

Every diocese is responding to the situation as best they can. As the Bishop of Dover, Trevor Willmott, has said, the Kent Refugee Project Officer post affords us with the opportunity to move beyond well-meaning short-term fixes, towards something more intentional and sustained. I am sure that, in future, more initiatives such as this will follow where the need arises.

As Kent is a main gateway into the UK, Kent’s council services have been particularly stretched since the start of the migrant crisis last summer. This is due, in part, to the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who have entered the country here and remain in the care of Kent County Council. The Kent Refugee Action Network and Migrant Help UK are two leading organisations, among others, offer­ing practical help locally. They’ve also been integral to developing this new post.

Refugees arrive in lorries illegally, and find themselves in assessment centres. Young refugees are put in foster care and wait for their application for refugee status to be processed. Then they have to go through the process again when they are adults. That makes their life unsettled, because they are not sure if they are going to stay. This also puts a toll on services, accommoda­tion, foster families. Kent is looking after these people the best they can, but there’s a need for more funding, and more help at local level.

The diocese is exploring how it can further support the migrants and volunteers based on the northern French coast through the churches there. Discussions are currently taking place with the diocese in Europe and the Roman Catholic diocese of Arras, with which Canter­bury diocese has had a long friendship.

Christian communities have been very engaged in offering support to refugees, in both Kent and else­where. This has included prov­iding donations when needed, work­­ing with local organisations to offer welcome and mentoring, and, of course, through their prayers.

The Communities and Partnerships Framework has compiled five ways in which Christians in the diocese of Canterbury can respond to the con­tinuing crisis: act, serve, get informed, campaign and advocate, and pray. Everyone can contribute the best they can. Everything counts as important.

Refugees from poverty need different kinds of support, but not less support. Poverty is a mode through which violence is exercised. Being forced to leave everything behind and to start a new life in a different country is painful and scarring. People who have exper­ienced any manifestation of violence need targeted support to overcome what happened to them. Addition­ally, they need support in learning a new language and in adjusting to the fabric of our society.

We can all do better and do more. The Government’s work with local authorities is crucial to ensure that they are properly resourced to offer asylum-seekers and refugees the accommodation and care they need.

My first experience of God was a feeling of being protected and guided, and I still have it now.

I grew up in a working-class family in Salerno, and I have two older brothers. We are all very close.

Much to my parents’ and friends’ surprise, I married a doctor. We moved to the UK in 2002, and we now have two beautiful daughters. My husband graduated from the University of Naples, but wanted to train as a surgeon here. Italy is a beautiful place to live in — and Britain is a land of meritocracy: we believe that if we work hard, we will ultimately succeed. And there are good flights back. . .

There is this blaming game on migrants, but I believe that in­­formed people know that Britain gains a lot from skilled and un­­skilled labour migration. When times are tough, it’s always tempting to blame other people; but statistics show that migrants cost very little in comparison with the average British citizen.

There is anxiety, definitely. There is also the part played by the media, which can accentuate fear.

I believe Islam is a religion of peace, and that all extremism is harmful, in any shape. We have an opportunity to develop a global solidarity, be­­cause it’s a problem that needs to be seen as a global responsibility. We’ve seen the Pope recently meet­ing with Islamic leaders to promote inter-religious dialogue, saying that religion should unite us, not divide.

My daughters’ laughter is defin­itively the best sound in the world.

My family’s values of acceptance,
and their acts of giving without expecting anything in return, have shaped the way I am today. My father-in-law has been to me an example of Christian spirituality embedded in everyday life.

I can’t recall a single book that has not given me food for thought. Works by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and intellectuals such as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, among others, have guided my under­standing of society.

I try not to get angry: there is so much blessing in my life.

I’m happiest when I am surrounded by the love of my family and friends.

I pray to God for guidance
on how to be a better person every day of my life.

If I was locked in a church for a few hours, I’d choose to be with Mary Magdalene. I always felt bonded with her because, on a personal level, she has been one of the women who has been closest to Jesus; and it would be a good occasion to share our life experience as women as well. She has also embodied the cause of us women in society, es­­pecially when you feel rejected by some parts of society, but welcomed by God in Jesus.

Domenica Pecoraro was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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