Last week I had a bit of a whinge about the challenges of being the ‘new girl’.
Many years ago, I did a training placement in a refugee camp for Asian people expelled from Idi Amin’s Uganda. For those too young to know what I'm talking about, Idi Amin - the then president - got it into his head that all Uganda’s problems could be sorted if the country were not home to so many Asian people. I know, yes, he was bonkers.
Many had British passports (a throw-back to the Empire) and arrived here in their thousands. Makeshift camps were set up, and bit by bit they were helped to find somewhere to live and many established their families here. But the initial phase was chaotic.
I worked in an old army camp, where families were housed in the barracks, divided from each other by flimsy walls or curtains. Most had left behind comfortable homes and flourishing businesses - and they arrived here with nothing. Adults seemed to spend a lot of time wandering around looking lost. The children - with their parents apparently so out of control - were all over the place. I spent a lot of time playing football, trying to run off a bit of the children's energy before they went back to the few square yards allotted to each family.
But it soon became clear that many of our residents were mothers with children, their husbands apparently stateless and somewhere in Europe. And so the bulk of my work was in accumulating information about all these families - in order to show the government that it would be cheaper to allow the men in (as they would work and support their families) than to provide social assistance for the women and children.
I spent hours and hours interviewing - often with an interpreter. These women, many of whom had never had to manage alone before, were frightened - and some were ashamed of the circumstances in which they were living. I discovered disabled children who had not been registered - their mothers had assumed having a disabled child meant they would be at the back of the housing queue. I found lone children, managing as best they could - not knowing even if their parents were still alive.
I have never - before or since - worked as hard. But my efforts were a drop in the ocean, given the numbers and the need. These were families who had been forced to flee with almost nothing, arrive in a country with no idea what to expect and some with no English, and somehow they were expected to ‘make the best of it.’
And there must be thousands more refugees in similar circumstances today.
So when I complain about the challenge of walking into a new book group for the first time, you may - metaphorically of course - smack me.