'Sad that we have to exist' - Adele Owen on the 25th anniversary of GARAS in Gloucestershire

Adele Owen, Director of GARASS (Gloucestershire Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers)
-Credit: (Image: Will Luker)

For those of you who do not know what GARAS stands for, the Gloucestershire Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers offer support to those seeking asylum in the county. They welcome them when they arrive, advocate for them in their daily struggles, support them if they face being sent back as well as helping them to adjust to their long term future if they are recognised as refugees.

Since its formation in 1999, GARAS has supported human beings who have fled persecution (such as imprisonment, torture and abuse), conflict, famine or hardship in their home country or have taken extreme risk to reach a place of safety.

Based in Gloucester, their drop-in centre involves a team of people not just doing a job but also going that extra mile to help others. Director since 2003, Adele Owen has sat down with our Community Reporter Will Luker to discuss the anniversary and some important questions to mark Refugee Week 2024.

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How do you feel about the anniversary?

I am very proud about what we have achieved but sad that we have to exist. If it wasn't for the cirumstances that force people to have to flee such as war and persecution then organisations like GARAS would not have to be here but we are. I'm proud that we have supported and helped so many people as they become part of our communities and are then able to move on with their lives.

So many conflicts over the years (for example: Ukraine, Gaza, Syria, the DRC), how do you make sense of it all?

I struggle to understand how anybody believes they have the right to take other people's lives or to narrow people into particular religions or sexuality to make them feel at risk. Given all the wars and never again speeches we have heard, I do struggle to make sense of it.

A mixture of Trustees, Staff & She Spoke poetry group participants to mark Refugee Week & 25 years of GARAS. From left to right: Sheila, Sajeda, Louise, Mick, Robert, Antonia , Zulekha, Jennie, Adele, John , Halima , Amena, Dee. Front row kneeling - Emily, Ibrahim , Kerry.
A mixture of Trustees, Staff & She Spoke poetry group participants to mark Refugee Week & 25 years of GARAS. From left to right: Sheila, Sajeda, Louise, Mick, Robert, Antonia , Zulekha, Jennie, Adele, John , Halima , Amena, Dee. Front row kneeling - Emily, Ibrahim , Kerry. -Credit:Will Luker

What is the most heartbreaking story you have encountered at GARAS?

There are so many and I've been thinking about the Syrian conflict in the last week because I've been with a Syrian family and what they left behind. They have settled well but it is heartbreaking and I recently met with a Ugandan from the LGBTQ community who has been severely persecuted because of their sexuality. Sadly there are quite a lot and in terms of the sheer level of violence I hear, it never leaves my head.

I've seen so many comments that suggest that new housing will just be taken by "illegals" here in Gloucestershire. Can you tell me why that is or is not a myth?

If someone claims asylum they are not illegal and new housing will not go to people going through the asylum process because they will be housed in specific accommodation set aside for them, which will not be council housing or new builds. There is no priority given to newly granted refugees and we do have safe routes such as the Afghan resettlement programme and Ukraine because we want to make sure they are safe. We have a housing crisis but that is not caused by newly arrived people.

Talk to me about the amount of kindness we have seen in Gloucestershire for refugees and asylum seekers and how proud does that make you feel?

When GARAS was started we had a group of people who wanted to help and as more people have become involved and interested, the reaction has been I'm not accepting any hatred. When we had the Syrian crisis we saw an outpouring of compassion and care and for Afghanistan, people asked what can we do to help. And then Ukraine, so many have helped and shared because so many have wanted to be friends and allow refugees to be part of their community and learn to love each other.

A picture in 2019. Adele Owen on the left with Michael Zorek and trustee of GARAS Sue Oppenheimer. Michael visited Gloucester from New York to talk on behalf of GARAS as part of their 20 year celebrations. He talked about his father Werner Zorek who was brought to Gloucester at the start of World War II as part of the Kindertransport

How can we stop hatred and maintain freedom of speech?

The only answer has always been love and the outpouring of practical love by showing it in action and words. It's also about having the courage to say I disagree with you and confronting hatred which takes guts. Free speech should not come at the cost of somebody else's hurt. everyone has the right to say something but if they start to hurt somebody else have we still got the right to say that?

It can be a fine line and we've all been hurt by words so we should still be reacting to words and think how can we react better. It's important we use words carefully. Any language that used to dehumanise people does not help.

What do you hope to achieve in the next 25 years?

If it is still important that we exist in 25 years time, let us go from strength to strength. We should always hold our clients at the heart of everything we do and make sure they get as much support as possible for them so they can flourish in our community and contribute to our society.