Pasha Coupet Michaelsen

On Purpose London April 2015 Fellow, Operations Manager at the Refugee Support Network

Pasha Coupet Michaelsen worked as a finance lawyer before joining the On Purpose Associate Programme in April 2015. Today she is Operations Manager at the Refugee Support Network, a charity that supports young refugees to settle in the UK.

What is the Refugee Support Network and what is your role in the organisation?

The Refugee Support Network was set up in 2009. We mobilize community volunteers to work with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, who are in care. Often, they’re put into a shared accommodation where there are a lot of children and there’s an adult in the house only at night; but it’s not like you sit down for a meal and you talk about what you did that day, what was tough and how was school. So that’s where educational mentors come in to help these young people progress in school.

For some children, whose needs are more complex, who have other barriers which prevent them from doing well in school, we act as a point person. They might have severe trauma, they might need counselling, they might have an unstable living situation. We do one-to-one meetings with them on a weekly basis to support them in navigating through their meetings with their lawyers, their check-ins with the Home Office, their counselling. Sometimes they’re not sleeping very well and that leads to some serious mental health issues. So we’re kind of that extra support so that they can stay in school, because a lot of times these things can become overwhelming for these young people.

For the past years, we’ve also been focusing on higher education. We run a national helpline for anybody who has refugee status or who is in the process of seeking asylum. One of their options is going to university, if that’s something that is right for them. The concerned person gets in touch with us and we’re listening to them about what their circumstances are and then advise them what institutions of higher education might be appropriate, but also about how they will finance it, what kind of tuition fees would they be looking at and then how would they pay for living expenses.

We’ve been trying to respond to Home Office policy, which has been placing young people outside of London, as it is very expensive to house and support people here. But if you looked at the survey of the Refugee Council website, at the organisations and where they are located, nearly two thirds of those are in London. So we’re trying to figure out how we can get closer to where young refugees are being placed now and expanding nationally. My role was set up in that context, to develop the processes and systems to expand well and responsibly. I oversee things from financial reporting and budgeting to working with our fundraiser to develop a fundraising strategy. After setting this up, I also look at our legal obligations. For example, are we meeting them, especially when there’s a lot of attention on refugees? What does company law and charity law require from us? What’s required from us in terms of data protection? I also look at our HR obligations, which also overlap with legal.

What made you change your career?

I have a great husband. That’s what made me change. I often tell this story: I had a conference call which had been set at a very unsocial hour. I finished off working at around 2 am and I came to bed, my husband was already there. I was setting my alarm and he was asking me what I was doing. So I replied I am setting my alarm to wake up in about 30 minutes. There’s a conference call at 3:30 that I have to prepare for. His response was to tell them to — you can guess that part — he was more upset than I was. To tell the truth, I didn’t mind having to wake up. I thought the deal was interesting and I have always been conscious of the clients’ expectations and how much they paid for my availability. At the end of the day, the job was not forced on me. I chose to do it.

But our exchange really got me thinking. Why did I choose my job? What got me up in the morning to do it? And there were a couple of things. One was that I could work on social housing deals, which I quite liked. Another reason was that it gave me access to do other things, like joining the board of a not-for-profit, thanks to having a good working relationship with a lawyer on the other side of a deal. And finally, I liked mentoring young people for work experience in the office.

In the end I concluded I had it the wrong way — I should be devoting the time that I so freely gave away to 3am conference calls, to doing something greater and better for the common good.

What role does On Purpose play and how did you go about your career change?

For me, it’s part of the journey. I see my path looking backward and through an image — a railway station is a great place to explain this [we’re in Waterloo station]. I see all these people as little balls of energy — people walk in here, in different states of mind. Sometimes people bump into each other or they have near misses and any one of these bumps, misses or rare smiles can change your perspective of the whole day. On Purpose and the community within in it and around it are balls of energy that I’m bouncing from and exchanging with.

When I decided to quit my job, I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew it would be a journey which I would kick off as a project. I was not going to wake up and think ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do’, my full-time job was this initial plan.

I started meeting people and being curious. I booked a week trip to Washington to explore international development and I cold-called people in Washington and said, ‘Hey I just happen to be in Washington, do you have time to meet me and tell me about yourself, what do you do?’ People were really really generous. They gave me their time and energy. I deepened my reflections on being a daughter-wife-mother-finance lawyer and the skills I’d developed and I felt confident that here was a reason that I’d come to this point.

My next question was ‘Do I really have to go so far to find a worthwhile project? What’s in my backyard?’ We have social issues in the midst of our London privileges. I came across Big Society Capital while roaming Google. One thing I like to do a lot when I find an organisation that is doing interesting stuff is to start reading all the staff bios. I came across Candice Motran’s bio obviously and the On Purpose Associate Programme. It was one of those ball of energy collisions.

What were your placements and what were you working on?

My first placement was at Challenge Partners, which is a social enterprise that facilitates the improvement of state schools by providing different services to its members. I worked on an HR strategy and implementation. It was interesting to explore how you motivate high performance, how can you be a generous employer, how can you make people feel loved and supported and worth more than the numbers on their pay role.

My second placement at Big Society Capital was fascinating, as I was looking at strategy in the context of repayable finance for not-for-profits who actually need surplus to repay the finance. The questions there were ‘How do you make that work across the organisation and then technically and culturally across not-for-profits?’

What made you work with refugees?

I don’t know. There is a saying that says: ‘You don’t choose your friends, your friends choose you’. I think working with people in movement and in migration is something that has chosen me. It has come to me and I have said ‘Yes’ to it.

I guess with having had parents who migrated to the US, it is certainly a theme in my life. I am first generation American, my parents came from Haiti. I moved to London to be with my Danish husband and I have two children who are Danish and American and do everything British. What is constantly on my mind is how easy it was and how many obstacles face others who need to move away from low opportunity, poverty or conflict.

What makes you get out of bed every day?

There are two things that make me get out of bed every day. The first one is that no one else in my team can slot in to do the work that I am doing. The others may be capable, but their programmatic work is so important and their time is so full, it would never make sense to divert their energy. A few months ago, we had a young person coming into the office, three days out of Calais and escorted by his uncle. He doesn’t know who to talk to, how to put him into school, so my colleague helped with that. And you should have seen his face. He is here and he is 15 years old and he’s is going to go to school and he’s excited, you catch it. We support about 100 young people in our mentoring programme and many more through our other programmes. And it’s these young people that, when they are at their best, let us radiate in their hopefulness — they give me much more than I give them at the end of the day.

The other thing that gets me out of bed is that I have to make the school run. My children are four and seven years old. I have to say they are also an important catalyst for this journey. As a parent, you can read a lot about learning and teaching styles and the things we teach as ‘children’s truths’. For instance, we teach children that they have to share, but what happens when we get to be adults? When we aren’t sharing, nobody is telling us off — so how do we get reminded to practice what we preach?

I’m really trying to be example to my children about what going to work means and how they should feel when they find work that means something to them. So I have to do work that makes me get out of bed every day. And I have to earn money. It’s not enough to work and just be happy. You have to do work that feels hard and uncomfortable sometimes. And through that you find the satisfaction of having achieved something and get inner joy from the struggle to accomplish whatever is worthwhile and meaningful to you.