Barnardo’s 150th anniversary

Barnardo's will help to re-settle 2,000 Syrian refugees in Northern Ireland over the next four years
Barnardo's will help to re-settle 2,000 Syrian refugees in Northern Ireland over the next four years

During Northern Ireland’s 30-year conflict children’s charity Barnardo’s was actively working on the ground to keep children safe, often acting as a go-between with paramilitaries.

During Northern Ireland’s 30-year conflict children’s charity Barnardo’s was actively working on the ground to keep children safe, often acting as a go-between with paramilitaries.

‘‘Young people got into trouble over being recruited, they were involved in criminality, in drugs and alcohol,’’ says Barnardo’s Northern Ireland director Lynda Wilson CBE, who has been with the charity, in one capacity or another, for 38 years.

‘‘We did lose children and young people over the years who were shot, and we did negotiate for children and young people when they were threatened or faced punishments. We would have tried to intervene and negotiate with the paramilitaries, through the proper channels obviously.’’

In those dark days of the troubles, the charity’s staff worked in some very compromising, high-risk situations.

‘‘At times when things would have kicked off, what we found was that communities protected staff - would have looked out for them,’’ says Lynda.

The charity was also actively involved during the 2001/2002 Holy Cross dispute in Ardoyne when children went to school under police protection against a backdrop of loyalist protests.

Barnardo’s is a very different service to the ragged school set up by Dublin-born Dr Thomas Barnardo in London’s East End in 1867, or the homes for destitute boys he went on to found, moved by the plight of children sleeping on roofs and in gutters. Its first project in Northern Ireland was a soup kitchen in Great Victoria Street, Belfast, in 1899.

Although the charity has gone through many changes over the years, it’s work is still firmly based on the philosophy of its founder, that every child deserves the best possible start in life whatever their background.

It’s range of work today is still all about children, it includes counselling, fostering and respite care. It works with: young carers, children of prisoners, young people vulnerable to sexual exploitation, ethnic minority families, families where there is domestic violence, addiction or mental health issues and children who have been bereaved - and that is just some of its work.

It also champions children’s rights bringing vital issues to the attention of the public and the Northern Ireland Executive.

Today, Barnardo’s is the largest children’s charity in the province. It runs more than 60 services and programmes for children here, working with more than 8,000 vulnerable children, young people and their families every year. It campaigns and speak out on children’s issues including: child sexual exploitation, early intervention, child poverty and a call for a community schools strategy.

The charity works in over 250 schools here and has 500 staff and 500 volunteers.

It has 36 shops dotted across the province and promises that every penny raised in Northern Ireland stays here, helping to support local children who are less-advantaged.

‘‘There is a phrase that people will use ‘the Barnardo’s family’,’’ says Lynda, ‘‘we have to twin that with being an effective, contemporary children’s charity and not just rely on what we did 50 or 100 years ago.’’

Lynda is speaking to me from Barnardo’s headquarters building on Belfast’s Upper Newtownards Rd, the charity’s ‘nerve centre’.

Barnardo’s is a big brand, but like all charities fundraising can be a challenge.

‘‘Barnardos spends in the region of £14 million every year, with around £2 million donated from a whole range of sources including retail, legacies, corporates and fundraising,’’ says Lynda.

It does not take any direct grant aid from government.

‘‘Our income is generated through commissioned services, so for example, schools, health trusts,the Public Health Authority and we’ve had really good income from the Atlantic Philanthropies, which has enabled us to be very innovative

We’ve also had really good income from the Big Lottery, who are a fabulous funder because they always want you to do things that are going to work.’’

Recently Barnardo’s and fellow children’s charity NSPCC NI launched a joint Children’s Charter with a series of policy recommendations aimed at the new Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.

The Charter calls for a renewed focus on children and their welfare.

It has also recently been involved in the UK Government’s Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, helping to resettle around 20,000 Syrian refugees across the UK by 2020.

Northern Ireland will take 2,000 refugees over four years, and Barnardo’s has been working on the scheme alongside Bryson House, Extern, British Red Cross, Save the Children Fund, and others.

‘‘For us it’s not a refugee issue, it’s a child issue. These are children and families seeking refuge from combat and from life-threatening situations - life-threatening in real terms, life and limb, but also life-threatening in that they are not getting an education, they are not getting medical treatment, they are not getting normality in their lives. They are coming from extreme adversity, so it’s trying to give them the chance to rebuild their lives and have normal stuff like every other child has,’’ says Lynda.

The first group of refugees arrived in December, there was a second tranche in May and a third group arrived last month. To date Northern Ireland has taken in 165 refugees, who have been resettled in Belfast, Londonderry and the Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon supercouncil area.

The refugees have residency from the moment they arrive, are able to work, claim benefits and are supported to integrate into communities.

‘‘The families that are coming in on this scheme, especially the first group, are the ones who have had the greatest difficulties - who have had torture, or injury or there’s disability or illness, or they are under threat - they are the ones that are at highest risk at this point,’’ says Lynda.

When the first group arrived in December a Welcome Centre was set up in West Belfast, 13 interpreters recruited, and all agencies involved had three days to work with the refugees.

‘‘We had mums arriving who were pregnant, one of our arrivals was a six-week old baby, and we had three days to get all the medical tests done and all their medical appointments, dental treatment that had been seriously neglected and medical conditions that had been seriously neglected.

‘‘Some of them had been in camps for three years, some of the children had been out of school for three years.’’

The agencies helped the refugees sort out their papers, money, housing, and Barnardo’s was responsible for assigning a key worker to each family, to help them with the practicalities of life in a new country, as well as their emotional needs.

Lynda explains: ‘‘The key worker stays with them for at least 16 weeks and that person is their navigator. They will get the children into school and will make sure they get to a GP, they’ll make sure that the house is fit to live in, they’ll make sure that they don’t let inappropriate people into the house, where to do their shopping, how to get on a bus, they’ll teach them how to get across the road - because our whole system is different.’’

By the time the second batch of refugees arrived in May, the agencies had persuaded the Home Office to give them five days.

‘‘Because we are now getting the dossiers weeks in advance we are able to assess all the medical needs, so we had appropriate beds in, we had paediatric nurses on site, we were able to get a child into hospital straight away. We were able to deal with a much higher medically traumatised group than were on the other site.’’

That group of refugees moved to Londonderry; Barnardo’s staff moved there with them.

‘‘That’s part of the deal,’’ says Lynda, ‘‘if you work for that particular service you will move or be within travelling distance to be able to support those families.’’

She says families are anxious to get the practical side of their new lives sorted out, then after a while they start to open up about the horrific experiences they have been through.

‘‘Children have seen cousins blown up, they have lived with parents in bombed buildings for years, they are scared of the sky - because of their experience with bombs.’’

Lynda says the response of local people to the refugees has been overwhelmingly supportive.

‘‘The outpouring of support has been unbelievable. I think people here understand that these are people coming from a war-torn country and there is an empathy and a sympathy for them.

‘‘They have almost been overwhelmed by kindness when they have moved into communities.

‘‘It’s strange - if you have been without and living in a carpark or a camp or a derelict building for a long time, it’s quite difficult dealing with receiving things. It’s quite a big thing for them to accept that they are safe now.’’

Lynda has been with the charity nearly four decades, and is clearly devoted to its ethos.

She says: ‘‘I know other people say this, but it’s not like one job. If you want to work for children, and you want to make things happen, I think it is the best place to be.’’