Gwen Burchell sits opposite me, an English Rose if ever there was one, calm and measured, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye and a dry sense of humour. She looks much younger than she is (I checked!) and I can picture her perfectly in welly boots, glamping it up in Glastonbury or, perhaps, running a beach bar in Ibiza. I could not be more mistaken. This extraordinary young woman from Dorking, a small upmarket town within London’s commuter belt, came to Azerbaijan 17 years ago, set up a ground breaking charity, UAFA, www.uafa.az, has taken it from strength to strength and in 2004, was awarded an MBE by the Queen in recognition of her tremendous work.
For those who are unfamiliar with the British honours system, let me explain: MBE stands for Member of the Order of the British Empire. It is an accolade and a medal awarded for a significant achievement, an outstanding service to the community or a local ‘hands-on’ service which stands out as an example to other people. Basically, it is a rare award for those Brits our country is especially proud of. Recipients are invited to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace, following a precise and established protocol. Gwen tells me that on the day, just months after she had given birth to her son, she was incredibly nervous that she might trip in her unfamiliar high heels or make a fool of herself in some way but in the event, she curtseyed perfectly and all went smoothly. Not only that but Her Maj was very well informed about Gwen’s work and spent some time chatting to her about it.
I, of course, am goggle eyed at this story of royal favours but Gwen dismisses it as just one of those things she has experienced. She’s pleased with the acknowledgment but focused on her work. “We’ve done so much more since then.” she says.
Her involvement with Azerbaijan started with her father. In the early 90s, Michael Burchell, an oil and gas engineer, was contracted by Steve Remp, an American entrepreneur of Ramco Oil & Gas, to investigate the potential of Azerbaijan’s oil reserves. The two of them pioneered the first commercial oil exploration and this being very successful, the big petroleum companies followed suit to take the industry where it is now. Gwen remembers coming home and finding lots of Azerbaijani men sitting on the sofa and her mother in charge of entertaining their wives, often by taking them to the local supermarkets which was met with great wonder at the huge choice of goods available.
Following her BSc in Management Science, Gwen took a temporary job at the Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity in the UK, an organization that helps families with very seriously or terminally ill children. She was impressed with the integrity and ethics with which this charity is run, so she applied for a permanent position there but, much to her chagrin, was refused due to her lack of experience at the time. To gain more, the next step for her therefore was Azerbaijan. Here, she walked straight into a massive refugee situation as a result of the war with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh which, however, thankfully was already attended by many International Aid agencies. Gwen tells some heartwrenching stories about her early beginnings in Azerbaijan, the time she visited a mental institution which was reminiscent of a medieval Bedlam, with inmates running around naked and in despair, of orphanages, where small children were tied to their beds with little human contact apart from feeding and changing, lying in their own waste, of disabled children being hidden away or abandoned, of a school that was run in a dilapidated garage. This was her starting point. With a £500 donation from two individuals, a few useful contacts to oil companies, a bag of second hand clothes and not a little idealism, this intrepid young doer set up United Aid for Azerbaijan, UAFA, in 1998, with the aim to improve the situation concerning children, health and education. Just like that.
Gwen puts her success down to being in the right place at the right time and to fortuitous coincidental meetings with people who could help her. Not once during our conversation does she imply that it was hard for her to establish this charity and get it up and running to the impactful level it has today, most especially as a single Mum and a foreign woman. She shrugs and says “I’ve always felt happy and at home here.”
So what does UAFA do exactly? In essence and to put it very simply, it has specialist trained field workers throughout Azerbaijan who look out for vulnerable children, be they disabled, abused, orphaned or abandoned, and address their individual needs through medical, social or educational intervention involving the whole family, mostly working within their own homes. Many of the problems are down to poverty or lack of knowledge and this is where UAFA steps in, providing services and nurturing parental engagement. This can mean educating parents on how to stimulate and improve a child’s development, informing them of their rights to benefits, teaching them remedial techniques, funding necessary equipment or training courses and a great many other constructive actions which will give each child a better chance in life. UAFA’s emphasis is very much on helping the affected families or communities to help themselves and to socially integrate and deinstitutionalise affected children. With the help of EU funding, it has established 17 preschools and from January 2015 there will be 34 more. “I’m going to take it to thousands” says Gwen without batting an eyelid and I believe without doubt that she will.
She has a core team here in Baku as well as around 50+ people on the payroll and many more volunteers. Her organization was the first NGO to have achieved a social contract for social services provision with the government here after initiating the process through the Ministry of Finance and developing the proposal and mechanisms based on experience and study at the London School of Economics, where, just by the by, in 2009 she also completed her MA on Social Policy, work which stood her in good stead and offered a solid scientific basis in her negotiations for funds with the Azerbaijani Finance Ministry.
The JOY Centre (www.joycenter.az) is another of her projects. It’s based in Baku and is a centre for children aged 0-7 years who have behavioural or developmental issues or who are disabled.
I ask Gwen what she likes about living in Baku. “It’s a non stop adventure’” she says “and very exciting to be part of this great emergence that Azerbaijan is experiencing. Baku is a small city and every step here is paved with memories for me. Here I can create.” She’s happy that her son is growing up trilingually, as comfortable with his English and American friends as he is with his Azeri pals.
What does she miss, I wonder. “Oh, lime cordial and finding new music on the radio”. Are there any frustrations about living here? “No more than anywhere else. People are people wherever you go.”
Tellingly, during the course of our conversation, she mentions that ethics are hugely important to her in her organization. The attitude she witnessed during her work at the Rainbow Children’s Charity in the UK has influenced her own sense of integrity “There, if you make a private call on the phone at the office, for instance, then you put the few pence it cost back into the box. We like to work on similar principles.” This remark stays with me long after our meeting has ended. It says so much about her and her attitude to her work.
As I make my way home, my head spins trying to quantify and grasp quite everything this woman has achieved. She’s set up a major charity in a foreign country from virtually nothing, she’s accomplished an impressive academic record, she’s gained a medal of honour from her home country, she’s operating on the highest levels here in Azerbaijan and, if that wasn’t quite enough, she’s raising a confident, happy and healthy child by herself. All of this without any sense of self-importance or conceit. Hats off, Ms. Burchell, you are one inspiring lady! May your path be paved with many more golden opportunities to help the weak and forgotten children of this society.