This interview is part of larger project called Mind The Gap that is being released later in the year. The project focuses on telling the stories and experiences of people working with societal challenges. All the contributors live in London and London and commuting go hand in hand. This is why I have conduct these interviews with each subject whilst on a train journey. To capture the feel of how being on the move affects our day to day life.
Life is a journey. At many stages in life we go through transitions where we change and maybe, just maybe, become a more well rounded person. Every so often it can feel like we step off at one station, learn, and step on again at the next one. Pauline is such a person and in this interview Pauline and I will go on a journey together where I will get to know Pauline better and at what stages in her life she transitioned and changed.
I met Pauline Hawkes a 15 minute stroll from Edmonton Green at her offices in Phoenix Community Centre. She was wearing a large green jumper and a big smile.
As soon as you meet Pauline you can feel her enormous sense of hospitality. The first thing she wanted to know was where I was from, I responded “Norway”. She got all fidgety and said “Oh, Ok! I won't ask too many questions then. As my husband has projects in Norway and he would also like the hear the answers to all the questions.”
Adrian, Pauline´s husband, drove us to the overground station in his red electric car and, just as she suspected, asked many questions about Norway with particular interest in Askim, The Place God Forgot. He inquisitively asked where I was from, where I grew up. He really enjoys Norway. Pauline not so much, as she is a Londoner and loves the big city life.
While waiting for the train in the sun Pauline told me that she and Adrian have been married for 45 years and for 20 of those fostered over 30 children and showed no signs of stopping. Until one day fifteen years ago that changed drastically when Pauline saw something on television that affected her deeply. “One day I was watching the television and I saw a boat of immigrants travelling to Australia, the boat was absolutely packed and when they
arrived the Australian President turned them away. The news was that many of them had drowned and been killed. I was just totally devastated. Because something like that pictorially was just so heart breaking. The whole incident did something in my brain. I started talking to Adrian saying that this is such an issue and he answered with “Pauline, they are all around us”.
Which I think I knew already but I didn't know to what extent. So after a while I thought I was going to something about this situation. I rang up Haringey and I asked for the asylum department. The person who answered the phone said “Can I help you”. I answered that my name was Pauline Hawkes and that I would like to do something about the asylum situation - “Can I help?”.
The person at the other end was from Afghanistan, one of the managers and he said “Is that Pauline?” I answered “Yeah? Who´s that?”. He gave me his name and I asked him what he was doing there because I knew him from a residential home that I had a foster child from. He said he was there manager here now and I said “That is amazing! - Can I help? Can I do something?”
Pauline was told that she needed to figure out what it was she wanted to do and he would get straight on board and make it possible.
Stepping onto the train she told me how during this process she had found out that housing of young immigrants in London was a huge problem and how her daughter got actively involved in the project. Her daughter told her that she would move out of her house and that Pauline could have it and use it to make this new project happen. The remodelling started and the ball was rolling. The project took months as they needed to meet the HMO requirements and that was expensive.
“The house was basically done on nothing. Mostly credit cards in the early days. We wanted to give the people that come here a wow factor when they arrived. We wanted to give them the feeling that they wanted to stay here. Thankfully in the end Haringey became a partner and funded parts of the project.”
“The first call came a cold January night” After a brief pause Pauline continued “They called me and said “Would you come and collect her?”. I went to the asylum offices and there was a girl, she was very forlorn and had hardly anything in a carrier bag. Her head was down, her hair was knotted, she had been raped in a war situation in Congo. She had been brought from Congo to London by a guide and then taken to Tottenham Hale. She was tired and had been through a traumatic experience. Her guide had said that they were going to go and get her some food and they just left her at the tube station.
She had been found by a good man, god only help us if he had been a bad man. He took her home, fed her and said “I need to do something”. He thankfully took her to Social Services.”
Pauline teared up a bit, but still smiled, she was always smiling. “I find it very emotional even talking about it years later. It breaks your heart and mine has never mended. I walked over to the poor girl and I stroked her back as we were walking down the road. She could not speak much english. What I wanted to do was to take her into the house and let her choose a room. So I sort of mimed “You can choose this room or that room”. I opened the front door and she just went into the first room, smiled, and with all her clothes on got into the bed, pulled the duvet over her head and went to sleep. I have never seen anything like it. I told her that I would come back later.
I got into the car, drove around the corner, phoned my husband - and sobbed. I wanted to be very professional while being with her, but when I met Adrian I cried. He asked me “Are you alright?” I answered him with “No! Get me another house now! This is what we are doing with our lives.”
The woman on the speaker said - Next stop Bethnal Green.
Living the life Pauline has chosen for herself is not an easy one. I was interested to know how she has sustained herself. “I think what drove me and I'm not exaggerating, was a completely broken heart. Seeing the need and thinking ´my life is so fortunate.´ You realise how much you have when you meet someone who has absolutely nothing. They have left their homes and the trauma that comes with everything they have been through. You know, we are so rich”
Pauline said something that really struck me.
“I have a passport. I had taken that for granted for so many years. When we started this I would look at my passport and thank God for my passport. Because that´s freedom.
We have a project in Sri Lanka that we go and visit quite often. I have a good friend from there and we have traveled with her - we just sail through passport control. She often gets detained because she is not travelling on a British Passport though she is like a Mother Teresa. I can't tell you how much that angers me.”
I could see the anger bubbling inside Pauline and I wanted to know what a woman like this fears. “If I´m really honest my biggest fear is that I get too old and I can't do it anymore.
I have no intention of stopping. I have just turned 65 and I had “non retiring” drinks in the middle of London. We even hired a basement bar! I think for me thats the worst, because I just want to keep on going. I also don't like failing, because it often means that someone who shouldn't get sent home does.
There was one person (we have lost more than one) who went to the detention centre to be sent home and actually tried to hang himself. He was picked up from the detention centre and miraculously sent back to us. We were over the moon. Not about the incident of course, but it took him that much to be able to stay. We have now got him another solicitor and he´s here.”
Eager to keep on sharing her story
“There is one thing I have to say, I love getting up in the morning and going to work. I wake up and I want to go. Weekends, rest, get your strength back, lick your wounds. But I want to go to work on Monday morning. I have felt like this for the last 15 years. There are one or two moments when you think “What am I doing?” We are only making a little bit of difference in this vast ocean. There are times when I have failed and I usually have a cry and a class of red wine. I get really down but I get through it all by talking it out. I shake my head and I carry on. That´s all you can do. That is the mindset that you need to be able to do this work.”
Pauline tells me that she has faith, but she says “not the faith were they hit you over the head with the bible.” That´s not who she is. She told me she read Mother Teresas writing “I read her letters, I have looked up to her. She says that she never actually found God until when she went to Calcutta. Where she was able to be with the people. I also follow Jesus and how he was. He was not in great big auditoriums spouting religious stuff. He was with the prostitutes, he was with the poor, he was with the people and I understand that. And I think the people that I work with can feel that. Though I do say to people, God and red wine keep me sane.”
A lot of the people that Pauline houses also have strong faith, we discussed if this was perhaps why they are able to leave their homes, make that journey and survive.
With faith and their background also comes great respect she tells me. “They are so much more respectful of their elders. If an older person comes to them and says “I want your bed”. They give them their bed. We have had one or two of those situations from Afghanistan. We say “You can't”, but their response is “But they are older than me, I need to respect them”.
There are a lot of cultural things you have to help sort through and break down. We are friends and their equals. It´s an constant learning experience.”
Pauline gazes out of the window.
“People say to me ´Oh I wish I could do what you do. I have just got a normal job.´ However, you can! People always ask “What can I do?” I always answer with “Well, the first thing you can do if you are on a tube and you see a family from another country that are really struggling, just smile or speak to the children. You will see the strain in their face begin to disappear when they recognize that you are friendly, you will see them light up. Just be friendly, point number one. And point number two, you can give, you can buy a coffee, you can buy some food.”
Pauline and I continued our conversation discussing the fact that for her age group she isn´t considered “the norm”. “Oh, I feel that. When I'm out with husband in a nightclub, (she has a friend that´s a DJ). I will suddenly be really enjoying it and say “Adrian, there is nobody our age here. Where are they?” He shouts back at me ´ín bed!´".
Given that the work she does is all consuming I ask Pauline what she does to take a step back. Apart from that class of red wine and occasionally finding herself in nightclub?
“About ten years ago I got quite ill, I had really high blood pressure amongst other things, probably stress. I do find it stressful. If you care, you take it all in and it does affect you. I live in a community house in London, Adrian and I have always done that. We don't take a high wage at all, because thats not us. Friends of ours said that they would help us financially to find a house just for us. Somewhere to go and relax and take time out. I knew at once where I would want to go”
Inspired by the conversation with her friends Pauline left her house and drove down to the coast that she and her mum used to go to. At a young age she had told her mum that one day she would have a house there.
Pauline stops “Do you want this story?
I smile gently “Yes”
She continues her story, her face lighting up “The house that I showed my mom, was for sale! I got a hold of the estate agent and I asked if I could see it. She said she could show me lots of houses. “No I said, I only want to see that one house”. We went and saw it and to cut a long story short, now its ours. It almost wasn´t but it was meant to be so it eventually happened for us. My friends tell me when I come back from there that my face just changes and the strain leaves and I smile. I still smile after 15 years doing this work.”
In typical Pauline style, the house isn´t just for her. She has made it available for others that need a rest.
Pauline was only 16 when she met Adrian. “Adrian was a character who stood for what was right. We are very fortunate with that fact and it doesn't work for everybody. We were fortunate that we both wanted to make a change. It can be pretty lively at times if you don't agree. But I wouldn't want anybody that is a yes person anyway. I would eat them. Even now he will say “You are not handling that right” and vice versa. I need a strong person who has my back. Who doesn't always tell you what you want to hear."
I was surprised to hear that Pauline grew up in a strict household. Her father was an elder in the sect that they were a part of. That the woman's role was to “make the sandwiches and the tea”, their clothing was conservative and women were expected to wear headscarves. Pauline went on to tell me a story about one of her first battles as a 13 year old.
“My friend who was about 15 had got pregnant. I didn't know at the time with the tradition of the church that she would be thrown out. Can you imagine? I know it was a long while ago, but I was furious. My parents kept on telling me “That´s how it is”. To me that was an outrage. I actually wanted to see The Elders of the church and ask for a meeting. I went in and I said “This is so outrageous!”. They only answered that “this is what we believe.” I argued back “Forget what you believe because that young girl needs your help more than ever. She needs our love and support.” Today, I would have told them to sod it. They were archaic times. Though it really helped my strength.”
Some of her drive came from the feeling of wanting to be different to her upbringing (where women were almost second class citizens). “My mom loves the role of being a woman in the kitchen. I thought to myself “I have got more than that.”
I loved her of course, but she loved being kept and looked after. We used to do mission work, some people didn't like to go into the poor areas, whereas I actually asked to go into the poor areas. Maybe I was dropped on the head, but I just loved doing this type of work from an early age.”
Stepping of the train at Liverpool Street Pauline starts to tell me about The project that PCC supports in Kenya. She says with cheeky smile that she takes businessmen out there to get their money and show them that all you need is a field. With just a field miracles can happen. Her eyes widen and she says “Thank god for business men or I wouldn't be able to do this."
"Fifteen years ago some friends and I got together and bought a field in Kenya. We met a man, who´s now in his forties, previously he was a homeless street boy, sniffing glue and in really bad shape. His life has been changed. He wanted to help young people in Kenya who were living on the streets and caught up in drugs etc much like he had been. We were able to give him that opportunity. We said that we would help him help the young people there to make a better life for themselves.
In the beginning there was no water source. They would have to carry their water from a well far away. To cut a long story short, now they have bottled water provided by a project by a friend of mine, Andy Smith called Sure24 and they get fed by a different project of his called The Feel Good Bakery. Every sandwich sold in London feeds a child in Kenya. That project now has a school of around 250, an orphanage for Street Boys and an orphanage for girls along with a garage that can train young people and give them a job”
In her 20 years as a foster carer Pauline didn't just fostered over 30 children, she also had three children of her own, plus ten grandchildren and two great grandchildren. She tells me openly how her own children also embraced foster care and how it affected them.
“It has made them richer. They have got more extended family. If we all got together, just the immediate family it would be about 28 people. Though let me tell you, there is a lot going on there. There are a lot of hard times. Although its so very special and I love my kids they are very hospitable.”
Paulines ambition is the same as it ever was. “To change the world, I still want to change the world. My ambitions for that are even stronger now. Stronger then ever. I have something that I want to say and leave with you. Because sometimes you think it´s just a drop in the ocean. The first thing is if everybody does a little bit than a big bit is done. If you feel like you want to change the world. I think you have got to realise that there are a lot of people out there that want to do the same. That we are not on our own and that we keep on connecting. To me, you don't have to be the most amazing person, with the most amazing project. It´s your day to day life. You're attitude to the person sitting next to you, how you view the world and your response to it. You don´t have to be a mug, but to be somebody that can offer hope."
Next stop Edmonton Green (we almost missed it)
Pauline emphasises how important is to take care of yourself when you do this kind of work. “I think I´m an extremely privileged person. Sometimes when I go away or if I enjoy myself I can stop in the middle of it and think “Should I be doing this”. I struggle with that all the time. But you have to look after yourself and take time out. Otherwise you will just be a miserable cow.”
Leaving Pauline and heading of onwards to my next destination I reflected on the stories that I had just heard and the person I had just met. Pauline´s effort to be a part of the change is remarkable, but how do you measure up to that? Is it even possible and should you really compare yourself to her? I dont think so, because that would only lead to despair, hopelessness and you would end up doing nothing. What Pauline is doing is unique and I think it´s important to remember what she said herself, “A smile is enough. Then you are already doing something”.