Secretarial: I Work For...: 'Anger motivates me'

Sheena MacDonald is PA to Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council
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Originally I trained as a physiotherapist, but decided it would be fairer all round if I didn't practice. Instead, I joined an action group which campaigned against asbestos use and went on to work in a woman's centre in Paisley as a clerical bookkeeper and information and advice worker. It was when I moved to London to spend four and a half years working as a branch administrator for Unison in Tower Hamlets that I first got involved with immigration and refugee cases and understood the issues at stake.

I have only been here for two and a half months; I experienced a vertical learning curve on arrival because there is so much that Nick is involved in. For example, my first task was to call the Home Secretary's office to try to get a meeting between him and Nick extended. I quaked but Nick said to me: "People who don't make mistakes don't make anything, so as long as you let me know of the things that go wrong, or cover them up so well that I don't know about them, then we will be fine." It was such a relief to know that he was so calm to work with.

At the moment, Nick is involved in discussions with the Home Office about the Kosovar refugee crisis and how the Government might respond. We have been asked to work on contingency plans for the arrival of Kosovar refugees to the UK, but we do not know if or when refugees may arrive or how many to expect. This makes it very difficult for us and one of my key tasks is to ensure that staff who are being drafted in to help from other refugee agencies can feel their way around here.

"Family reunion is very much on the agenda, which is why the Kosovars already over here have an important part to play. We are also putting pressure on the Government to make sure that all refugees would be offered suitable accommodation and support. Clearly the best place for people to be is at home in safety and dignity, but if that isn't possible then European governments should be responding to the crisis in a positive and generous way.

People can see from the pictures of Kosovar refugees that they are ordinary people with ordinary lives who are caught up in an extraordinary situation. I think from the huge number of calls the Refugee Council has had that people are sympathetic to their plight. Unfortunately, they are sometimes portrayed in a very negative way in the UK - one local paper even referred to asylum seekers as "dross" which should be "washed down the drain". I can't imagine how it must have felt for my refugee colleagues to read that. Actually, most refugees are educated and desperately want to rebuild their lives despite the trauma they have been through.

"Since I have arrived we've been campaigning on the new Immigration and Asylum Bill. One of its measures will leave asylum-seeking children living on 50p a day. Will this leave asylum-seekers with respect and dignity?

"I recently met a number of newly arrived refugees at one of our advice centres which was when the real horror of their situation hit me. Released from prison-like conditions within detention centres with no money, no English and often just the clothes they stood up in, they had had to find their way to us in London without help. It is, however, very encouraging to hear the stories of refugees who have managed to rebuild their lives against the odds. The Ugandan Asians are a good example, some of whom were listed last week as among the most successful of British business people.

I tried to switch off over Easter but I found that I had to turn on the television and radio to see what was happening. Since Nick is constantly at interviews as well as at meetings with refugee organisations, agencies, MPs and supporters, one of my key responsibilities is to make sure that he has time in between all his meetings to sit down and de-brief.

Anger is motivating but it's important to channel it, so all my colleagues are very level headed and diplomatic. We are all working to get the best deal for refugees. I guess I've always been politically motivated, my family have put up with a lot of rantings and ravings. I've always been very clear that profit shouldn't be my main motive for work, satisfaction is what counts. My job at the Refugee Council is a chance to do something about a cause I feel strongly about.

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