Joseph Lichy meets Chrissie Charvill - an Oxford charity worker helping people on the periphery of society

Though I don’t think she remembers me, I first met Chrissie Charvill earlier this year at an English language school in Oxford. Chrissie had been invited to be part of a panel discussion on the Oxford Kurdish and Syrian Association (OKSA) that she co-founded. Chrissie in turn invited two members of the Syrian and Kurdish community with her to answer questions from the students.

It was late July and so just after the Chilcot report on Tony Blair’s involvement in the Iraq war and also just after the terrorist attack in Nice, so it was a sensitive time.

But then Chrissie isn’t one to shy away from difficult topics. When we spoke, she was adamant that this story not be about her but about the people she works with on a daily basis, generally people living at the periphery of society.

As well as her work with OKSA, Chrissie is also involved with a charity called New Bridge, set up to offer support to those in, or recently released from, prison – specifically those who are isolated even in prison, both from other prisoners and from friends and family.

In practice, this group is made up of sex offenders and, as Chrissie points out, 100 per cent of the people who she has supported were themselves victims of abuse in the past, either in an institution or at the hands of a family member, etc.

“It’s not a very popular charity, no one wants to look after them, just lock them up and chuck away the key.

“Prisoners approach the charity just to be treated as human beings; some open up. They have a very high reoffending rate, with no real support. Funds in the probation service are being cut back all the time. Charities and church organisations pick up the pieces.”

Chrissie stresses the need for rehabilitation and New Bridge helps this by befriending prisoners through corresponding with them.

Later, when they leave prison another charity for which Chrissie also works – Circles UK – steps in, with support networks throughout the country called “circles”. These usually comprise four support workers who try to meet with the “core member” once a week, and also offer phone support for ex-offenders.

“The idea is to not call them prisoners or sex offenders,” she says. “That’s something involved in their past. The idea is to look forward, not to bury history, but to look at how to manage impulses in a safe place.

“The circle is a safe place where we discuss with the core member how their week has been, how we can support them achieve a normal relationship, how to be safe around people and how to manage themselves.”

Chrissie explained her involvement with this charity began after she was diagnosed three years ago with cerebral vasculitis, a brain auto immune condition that is usually fatal. Fortunately her condition was recognised early and, after an induced coma, was left paralysed down one side. She had to learn how to speak again and how to move again. Her daughter Imogen suggested corresponding with prisoners as a way of rehabilitating her language and it took off from there.

In fact, speaking to Chrissie, it becomes clear that on various occasions her own history of being given second chances in life as well as a keenness for serendipity are very much tied up with the thread of her work.

Chrissie left school in Cambridgeshire with few qualifications. She got married and moved with her new husband to a military base in Germany, where they had two boys. The marriage did not work out and Chrissie returned to England, eventually settling in Oxford in 1982 where she met a new partner Kevin – studying for a DPhil in Classics - and they are still together today.

She says: “I had various jobs, and had to go through courts to get the kids back. It was a messy time. I came close to being homeless, stayed in a B&B and a bedsit, and finally a council house.”

She eventually made her way to a further education college where she was encouraged to apply for university. In 1988, she was accepted at Reading and, to her surprise, also at Wadham College, Oxford, where she studied Medieval English literature.

Although still actively supporting core circle members through New Bridge, her organisation OKSA currently takes up much of her time. Explaining how she got involved, she recalls: “About 18 months ago, I went to a restaurant on Cowley Road called The Greek Taverna. I was surprised that there was no menu, and checking online I discovered they didn’t have a website either. I got talking to owner Mustafa Barcho, who rummaged around in his pocket and produced a single business card – that’s all he had!”

Chrissie got talking to Mustafa and learnt that he was Kurdish, had grown up in Greece and was one of 11 children originally from Kobani, Syria. He had been in Oxford for 12 years. Over a glass of retsina he began talking openly about his background.

Chrissie says: “Mustafa’s mother moved all her children bar one to Greece to escape persecution. One daughter is still there running an orphanage, pretty much underground on her own, in intermittent contact with Mustafa. She refuses to leave and runs an ever-growing orphanage for war children.”

It turned out that Mustafa was a key member of the Kurdish and Syrian refugee community in Oxford and was keen on doing more for his people. Chrissie realised that if the lack of a menu or web presence for his restaurant was anything to go by, Mustafa could do with some assistance and the pair decided to set up the Oxford Kurdish and Syrian Association.

The association’s aim is continuity in the form of support for refugees and to form an umbrella network of all supporting local organisations, a key factor of which is offering English lessons and help with getting work and education that will eventually help back home in Syria.

“All of the people I’ve spoken to want to work with an aim to moving back home to rebuild what’s been destroyed there, not to stay in Oxford or in the UK,” she says.

And what is the driving factor in her work? “I have learnt so much and meet so many interesting people. It drives me – that and overcoming obstacles, sometimes you have to get a little bit assertive to get past the red tape in life.”