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Trustee profile: Helen Brannigan

Helen is refugeeEd’s founder and Chair of the Board of Trustees. RefugeeEd emerged from her experiences working with refugees in Greece, where she came to understand the importance of trained teachers in the effort to secure better educational access for those fleeing violence and instability in their own countries.


Helen trained as a primary school in the United Kingdom, and after teaching in schools in London for three years, she decided that she wanted a fresh challenge. In August 2016, she moved to Chios, a Greek island just off the coast of Turkey which was hosting a rapidly growing refugee population, but which was ill-prepared to house, support, and educate these new arrivals. Helen volunteered with a Swiss NGO (Be Aware and Share), helping them to expand and formalise their educational programme as they tried to guarantee that every refugee child on the island had access to some schooling. Helen arrived soon after it opened its doors to 25 pupils, and saw it grow into a primary school, secondary school, and youth centre serving 350 pupils. Helen wrote the primary school curriculum and put in place a behaviour policy as their school grew quickly to try to meet the needs of the resident refugee population. After spending 9 months on Chios, and seeing the school become firmly established, Helen decided that it was time to move on, to see if her skills could help elsewhere. The project is now in the safe hands of Action for Education (https://www.actionforeducation.co.uk/).


Helen wanted to find out whether the approaches developed in Chios could be transferrable, and to learn about other education projects for refugees, so she set off for the Greek mainland. As an added bonus, this would also enable her to visit some of the students and families she knew from Chios, who had moved on to the mainland for the next stage of the asylum process! She travelled across Greece, working with organisations from Thessaloniki to Athens, Larissa to Polykastro. She interviewed coordinators about the challenges they faced, worked with them to develop education programmes, and provided mentoring and training for volunteers who were inexperienced teachers. While doing this, she built up a network of contacts and saw the same challenges cropping up everywhere. There was often a high turnover of volunteers and limited teaching experience, which was coupled with the complex and significant needs of pupils; most students had been out of school for several years and were suffering with trauma, and for many adults stuck in a difficult and prolonged asylum process which barred them from working, education was their main source of hope and opportunity. She also saw a lot of incredibly passionate and driven volunteers trying to support refugee populations in immensely trying circumstances. Helen next moved to Athens, coordinating the pre-school education programme at Project Elea until she moved back to the UK at the end of 2017.


During her time in Greece, Helen came to realise how important qualified teachers could be in providing support, training, and mentoring for grassroots organisations. And how helpful it could be for volunteers, so often overworked, to have easy access to a supply for tailor-made teaching materials and lesson plans. She decided to found refugeeEd to respond to these very specific needs.


Helen is now back in London, and works for the UK Government. She recently rollerbladed the length of the Bakerloo line while covered in marmalade, an undertaking which saw her selected as a finalist for the JustGiving Creative Fundraiser of the Year Award (one of only 24 finalists for a JustGiving Award out of 35,000 nominees). Helen has also appeared in film and television, starring as Extra 512BG in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and as herself (a member of the background waiting staff) in BBC smash-hit Michel Roux’s Service. She can turn her wrist around one full revolution, like an owl.


If you have any questions, or would like to hear further about her role in Harry Potter, you can email Helen on helen@refugeeed.com