Vicky Jones has been GesherEU’s Welfare Officer since October 2022. We asked her to tell us more about herself and what she does.
Tell us about yourself and what you did before you came to GesherEU
I live in East London, with my partner, my stepson and my cat. I grew up in Bournemouth, a little seaside town, and first went to agricultural college. In my early 20s, I moved to London and started working with people with learning difficulties. From there, I went on to be a disability employment adviser and then I worked with homeless people. One of my tasks involved doing street outreach, which meant walking around Central London in the middle of the night, talking to homeless people and trying to get them indoors. I could tell you some stories about that – like the night I was pepper-sprayed by the police, by mistake, or the times I was flashed at. I’ve also worked in women-only services. For five years, I was a service manager of a project in Kings Cross for women involved in street-based prostitution and sex trafficking. And in my last job before I joined GesherEU, I was a senior worker in a homeless drop-in in Wimbledon. I’ve faced some mental health challenges of my own in the past, which is why I now work part-time.
What attracted you to the job of Welfare Officer at GesherEU? All my work has been around helping people to make changes in their lives, encouraging them to find their skills and talents, and motivating them. I’m essentially a very nosy person and I like the fact that in my job I can ask people intimate questions and really find out what makes them tick. I’ve worked with people from virtually every country in the world at some point in my career – different religions, cultures, languages. But I’ve never before worked with the Charedi community, or even anybody who described themselves as Jewish. Perhaps it’s because Jewish communities tend to have their own organisations which scoop people up when they’re in need.
What exactly does your role entail? GesherEU refers people to me, and I I help with practical things, such as court processes, benefits, housing, budgeting, how to sell your car – anything they may need to do in day-to-day life. A lot of my job involves filling out benefit forms, hooking people up with legal advice, accompanying them to appointments, going to court. Some members can’t see their children, so I help them to try to rebuild contact. I also do a lot of emotional and mental health support from helping with low mood, anxiety and depression to getting emergency mental health care. Safeguarding is a big part of my job – if, for example, someone is worried about their children’s care back in the community, I will make a safeguarding report to social services. Boundaries are a big issue for GesherEU members, because they’ve grown up in a world where all the boundaries and processes are put in place for them, and they’re very strict. But outside the community, people make their own boundaries in life – what they will tolerate and what they won’t. It can be hard for members to make decisions, to have confidence in themselves, because they’ve never had to before. They often don’t have a proper education, or even speak English fluently, and they can be very naive about life in the outside world. I always say to members, if you’ve got any question, ask me. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find out who does and I will help you access the right support. There’s no limit on how long I can work with people. For many, it’s a long-term relationship. The goal is that people become independent and don’t need me, but there’s no time limit on that. I work three days a week, but I make sure everyone knows they can always message me if they have an issue.
You’re not Jewish. Has it been a problem and has getting acquainted with Judaism been a steep learning curve for you? Not being Jewish has its advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that people can be sure I have no connection with the community, with the Jewish world, so nothing they say to me is ever going to get back to anyone. But the disadvantage is that they worry I don’t understand where they’re coming from or why they think the way they do. Sometimes, people try to work out what my motivation is. The truth is, I just like people and want to make their lives better. I don’t know many Jewish people outside of GesherEU. I have met a few – there was a girl in my class at primary school, for example – and I knew the basics, about menorahs and Friday night dinners, and Passover, the cultural stuff, but I knew nothing about the religious side. I certainly hadn’t come across any Charedi people, because they keep themselves so closed off. Since I started my role, I’ve been doing lots of reading, watching lots of documentaries about Judaism. I also have a mild obsession with North Korea, and I’m fascinated by controlled societies and how people survive. I’m learning all the time. If, for example, there’s a religious holiday, I will read up on it so I understand its significance. I’ll also ask members to explain things to me, as the best people to explain something are those who have actually experienced it. Ultimately, people are people, no matter their background or where they come from. We all need to feel love, to be valued, to have agency over our lives and hope for the future.
What have you found most interesting about your job? What’s been fascinating to me is how so many of the people I meet through GesherEU talk about feeling like a refugee. I’ve worked with refugees and asylum seekers in the past, and there are so many similarities. Like refugees, people who leave the Charedi community start from Ground Zero, with nothing. But refugees generally have knowledge and access to the outside world. Those who’ve left the Charedi community are more like people who have been plucked out of a remote Amazonian tribe. Their cultural references are so different from the rest of society. The members at GesherEU are incredible, and I’m so impressed by their bravery. They are often really young people with no experience of the outside world at all – people who have been through abuse and trauma – and yet they have taken this huge decision to leave. When, for example, someone goes to rehab because they’re a heroin addict, they know life will be better and easier afterwards, with many more opportunities. For the people who leave the Charedi community, that’s not necessarily the case. It’s a hard life out here – a massive mountain to climb, and people have no idea what’s on the other side. Not only do they have the practical difficulties of learning English, finding somewhere to live, getting a job, they also face rejection from all the people they grew up with. Leaving can be incredibly traumatic, and like all trauma, it can have a lasting impact. I’m in awe of the GesherEU members and I consider it a privilege to work with them. They’re an incredible group of people.