Posted: 18 December 2014

Advent: The generosity of strangers

Often, individuals' stories stay with us. Sarah Teather MP shares Gemma's story and how her life has been transformed since coming into contact with our work.

Meeting Gemma

Just before Christmas a couple of years ago The Children’s Society took me to see one of their projects for young migrants. The young people I met that day had been through a great deal. Some had made seemingly impossible journeys, alone, by sea, air and road. Many had lost touch with their families. Some had experienced homelessness and violence. Others had been detained and arrested.

But the story of one young woman particularly made its mark on me. I shall call her Gemma. She coolly and calmly recited the hardship and abuse that she had suffered at the hands of relatives, both here and abroad. Malnourishment, poverty, loneliness, homelessness, fear, indifference by others. She told it all in a matter of fact way and the facts were difficult to listen to. But she had obviously found a narrative for telling this story over the years. It was a part of her background and identity. I dare say that the counselling she had received through the project had helped her to process it and she had found a safe way of telling what was needed. 

But then she turned to her current situation and the story of how her project worker had arranged for a small charity on the other side of London to support her education. It was a Jewish charity, with no obvious connection to the project or to Gemma. They had never met, but had been moved to donate clothes and shoes when they heard her story, just to help her to dress smartly for job and university interviews. But not only that, when Gemma then won a place at university, the same charity clubbed together to raise the money for her fees – no mean feat for a student classed as from overseas, in spite of the many years she has spent in the UK. 

The generosity of strangers had turned her whole worldview upside down

Gemma told the story of her abuse with no emotion. But she told this story of support in tears – indeed in uncontrollable bouts of sobbing, gasping and bafflement. 'This is the most extraordinary thing that has ever happened to me!' she exclaimed. Gemma had assimilated the story of her pain and neglect, but it was the generosity of strangers that had turned her whole worldview upside down. This act of gratuitous, excessive, extraordinary gift - by people who shared neither her religion, nor her nationality, her skin colour, nor her locality – this is the thing that stood in defiance of the story she told herself about her worth, her potential, her lovability and her place in the world.

This episode held for me then as now a quality of the incarnation – excessive, gratuitous gift, remaking the rules on kinship, transforming, healing, world altering. I can’t recall it without feeling moved and without being infected by a little of her wonder.

Please donate today to support the continuing work of The Children's Society, which enables transformation in the lives of young people like Gemma.

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