Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Mesopotamia Charity Director Rachel Miller Lifts the Lid on Helping Refugees and Tackling Poverty in Nottingham

30 January 22 words: Frieda Wignall
photos: Ekam Hundal

Mesopotamia charity is full of hidden depths, both literal and metaphorical. We chat with director Rachel Miller, whose story has seen her return from the front lines of the migrant crisis on the shores of Turkey and Greece to fight poverty in an unassuming corner of New Basford…

When I arrive at Mesopotamia charity, everything is in motion. They’re celebrating the opening of their community laundry. People can come in, wash and dry their clothes for free, have a meal or use the internet. This is on top of Mesopotamia running a food parcel delivery service, charity shop and on-site foodbank. In fact, the idea for the laundry came while doing doorstep food deliveries – Rachel, the director, noticed that many people had damp washing piling up in their homes. “Ideas just spill out of her, you can’t keep up,” says Van Henry of Castle Cavendish, the group that has funded the laundry. 

There’s a loveable chaos here; I’m told the restless bustle is pretty standard procedure. The site itself is like Aladdin’s cave, seemingly never-ending. It’s definitely not tidy, but it’s friendly clutter which makes the place more accessible. It’s not austere or intimidatingly institutional like a lot of support services can be. This is deliberate. With an average of 300 people fed per week, the ethos here is ‘feed someone if they’re hungry and clothe them if they’re cold’. No bureaucracy, no paperwork, no hoops to jump through. It’s no surprise, then, that the Mesopotamia set-up feels like a family and, in this instance, it’s not a cliché. The place is entirely run by a motley crew of volunteers, many of who are previous users – the elderly, refugees, homeless, those with disabilities. 

How did it all come to be? The answer is Rachel. A Brummie raised in a family of white supremacists, she left home at sixteen “the very first chance I could”. Having been failed herself, from there she became a social worker dealing with child protection and trafficking, expertise which would later accompany her across borders. Mesopotamia is named for the ancient cradle of civilisation and the region which was at the centre of the modern-day migrant ‘crisis’ – and in turn Rachel was in the eye of the storm. Plenty of us watched the news a few years back with concern and then posted ‘refugees are welcome here’ on our Facebook pages. Rachel watched with concern and then got on a plane.

There’s always going to be somewhere, there’s always going to be someone. So even if there was no need for a foodbank or a charity, I’d be wherever my heart led me

In 2014, using her Kurdish husband’s family links, she ended up being the first foreign national – getting there before even the Red Cross – to visit a refugee camp in southeast Turkey hosting Yazidis, a minority group persecuted by ISIS. She returned home and organised the collection of Moses baskets packed with items to be sent out for the babies being born in the camp. 2,500 have been sent around the world since. 

Eight months later, Rachel and her family had planned to holiday in Greece. They cancelled it. “I said to my husband, how can we sit on a beach when people are being washed up on them?” Rachel used the holiday money to travel to Kos: “That was it. That was the thing that changed my life.” She pulled bodies out of the sea and was imprisoned for freeing child refugees who were being kept in detention on the island, though Rachel reassures me that “they let me out because I wouldn’t shut up.” 

Rachel has also been known to have withdrawn thousands from her own bank account to pay for Yazidi refugees to come to the UK – another thing for which she has been arrested. The depths of Rachel’s generosity are more than extraordinary. The word that comes to mind is ‘radical’. Even more so when you consider that she’s turned down not only a Pride of Britain award, but also a job at the UN. The latter because, in her words: “I would’ve had a driver, my children would’ve had private education and healthcare, a beautiful house in a gated complex – but how could I sleep knowing there were children living on the streets just outside?”

Plenty of us watched the news a few years back with concern and then posted ‘refugees are welcome here’ on our Facebook pages. Rachel watched with concern and then got on a plane

Nowadays Rachel’s energies are committed a little closer to home. How did Mesopotamia shift from its original founding focus on refugees to addressing local poverty and food insecurity? Turns out, it was a natural evolution. “People kept giving me things for refugees – wedding dresses, shoes, random items that weren’t often very useful. I thought it was a shame we couldn’t sell it all to raise money to further the refugee cause and then I saw a shop for rent.” But seeing the issues in the surrounding community she realised that “you can’t help someone five thousand miles away and not help someone on your doorstep.” Rachel seems to cover both just fine, though. 

At the start of autumn, the Government’s £20 a week Universal Credit uplift came to an end. This bodes badly for the team at Mesopotamia. “The majority of people we help at the moment are on zero-hours contracts. Universal Credit affects them a lot. It’s going to make our job more difficult, and we don’t have endless funding.” I ask Rachel what she’d be doing in an ideal world where the Government wasn’t letting people slip through the gaps. The question doesn’t really compute. “There’s always going to be somewhere, there’s always going to be someone. So even if there was no need for a foodbank or a charity, I’d be wherever my heart led me.” 

I am floored by the woman who is currently running around in a polka dot dress and apron serving coffee. Yet, for all that her individual story is astonishing and for all that the volunteers insist that ‘there aren’t enough Rachels’, this place is a group effort and Rachel knows it: “I couldn’t do it alone; the volunteers lift me up.” My visit to Mesopotamia has done just that, too.

Mesopotamia are based on Valley Road/Nottingham Road intersection, open Monday to Saturday. If you would like to support their work, visit mesopotamia.org.uk

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now

You might like this too...

Floot

You might like this too...