Interview: Terry Waite CBE, Emmaus

At home with the underdog

Given the wealth of time and effort he donates to charities and good causes, it’s little wonder that Emmaus president Terry Waite has been called a “roving humanitarian”, but it was his time as a hostage in the Middle East that really tested his mettle . He talked to Mark Cantrell about how his experiences have moved him to promote the cause of human dignity

First published in Housing magazine 

Terry Waite CBE
TERRY Waite, president of the homelessness charity Emmaus, is no stranger to hardship and deprivation, having witnessed much over his long and varied career; he has endured it firsthand too, as a captive in the Middle East, but he has never allowed his experiences to dim his humanitarian flame.

That’s obvious from the 73-year-old’s full CV; equally so from his good humour and thoughtful manner, even while talking about his own captivity. Most of us gain little opportunity to test our mettle in the face of extreme duress, but in 1987 Waite found himself faced with the severest personal test when his efforts to negotiate the release of Western hostages ended with his own captivity in Lebanon.

At the time, Waite was working for the Archbishop of Canterbury, then Dr Robert Runcie, as part of his personal staff at Lambeth Palace. Tasked to manage the Archbishop’s diplomatic and ecclesiastical affairs, he also found himself in the media spotlight for his successes in negotiating the release of hostages in Iran and Libya in the early 1980s. Waite was under no illusions about the risks he faced.

“I went on many hostage missions and was successful on a number of occasions,” he said. “When I went I always took with me a clockwork watch because I always believed that if I was wearing a battery watch and I was captured, the battery would run down and I wouldn’t know the time. Of course, best laid plans – when I was captured they took my watch away so I was no further forward. So I never believed I was immune to captivity, but when I was captured I had to learn how to develop my own strengths from within.”

Waite was incarcerated for nearly five years – 1,763 days – and for some four years of that he was held in solitary confinement. It wasn’t until 19 November 1991 that he was finally released.

“I suppose it sounds very trite when I say it, but it was actually something that did enable me to develop a greater sense of identity, a greater sense of self, which you have to do when you are in adverse circumstances like that,” he said. “Nobody else is going to give you any positive feedback; you’re going to be kicked around and you are going to be treated as a non person, and therefore you have to generate from within yourself the ability to be yourself, in other words to stand up and recognise that you are an individual, that you are a person, and a person of worth.”

Waite’s experience of captivity has fostered a deep well of empathy and understanding for those who are less fortunate in life, he said. This “sympathy for the underdog” has its roots in his earlier career, working in Africa to deliver aid and development programmes, for instance, or his work as a consultant to the Roman Catholic Medical Order, for which he worked on a broad range of development issues, health and training programmes across the world.

“I’ve worked in many – if not all – the main trouble spots in the world during the course of my life,” he said. “It’s given me a sympathy with the underdog, a sympathy with the people who have little or nothing in this world, in particular with children who are born in poverty, who will live in poverty, and will die in poverty. Now, I’m not saying riches necessarily improve in every instance the quality of life but there does have to be a better chance for many people in the world today.

“I suppose, by having experienced this through working in different parts of the world, and also having experienced severe deprivation through my own captivity, I have an instinctive sympathy with those who find themselves in similar positions and believe that one should do what one can to at least give more and more people at least some opportunity in life.”

Having seen so much deprivation and hardship, it must surely be difficult not to be ground down by it all at times. Waite added: “Yes it is, at times, but I think what I had to learn during those years of solitary confinement when I was almost five years alone, was that one of the things you must do is find resources within yourself and be able to maintain hope. If you can somehow maintain hope, both for yourself and for situations that appear to be hopeless, it’s not an easy thing to do, it’s a battle, but it is possible.”

These days, Waite earns his living by writing and lecturing, but he donates a great deal of time to charities and good causes. Indeed, the list of organisations he is involved with – as president, vice president, chairman, trustee or patron – is so extensive you might wonder where he finds the time to write.

“There is no such thing as a purely altruistic motive, you always do it for yourself as well,” Waite said. “I find a certain personal satisfaction at seeing people who have formerly been in a deprived situation getting back into life. That in itself is its own reward.”

Homelessness is one of the many issues close to Waite’s heart. The experiences of being homeless resonate strongly with his experiences of captivity, he feels, and he is adamant that homelessness can happen to anyone.

“It’s a terrific mistake to categorise the homeless as being just drops outs, alcoholics, drug addicts and wastrels. Many of the homeless that I meet – and I meet them constantly – come from all walks of life,” he said.

Emmaus can’t help everyone – nor does it pretend otherwise – Waite explained, but it works to give homeless people back their dignity and their independence by the way the organisation works, based on a few fundamental principles.

The organisation has created 21 self-sufficient communities in towns and cities throughout the UK so far – the latest is being put together in Cornwall – where homeless people live and work together and support each other as part of the wider community.

“Emmaus provides a structure and a community life for homeless people to enable them to get back into life,” Waite said. “The basic principles are very sound. First of all, [when] a person first comes into an Emmaus community they must agree to leave behind state support. One of the reasons for that is state support, or indeed charity to put it another way, is demeaning for the individual. At times it is necessary to receive a handout but to be a constant recipient of a handout does nothing for you and for your own development, and your own dignity, as a human being, because you are being put into a subservient position to other people. So they must leave behind the dole, leave behind state support.

“Secondly, they come into a community, a community which is a supportive group of people, no larger than say 25 people, and they get a good standard of accommodation, and the reason that [important] is you are recognising people have dignity. Thirdly, they must agree to work according to their capacity and in so doing regain their dignity as a human being.”

The work can vary. Clearing houses, for example, or renovating furniture and white goods, while In Bedford the community runs a bistro that not only provides food and work for residents, it also provides subsidised meals to elderly people living in the wider neighbourhood. Being an active member of the wider community is an important factor wherever Emmaus sets itself up.

Given his extensive involvement in charities and good causes, not just Emmaus but the many others too, it is tempting to wonder if all of this hasn’t been part of his own process of rehabilitation from his experience of captivity. “I suppose it is, I don’t know, I never thought of it in terms of rehabilitation. I thought of it in terms of having some form of active involvement in some of the issues that society faces today. Something which I have done right across life but probably now do more fully than I was able to do when I was younger,” he said.

“One thing I ’m glad of: I’m 73 but I still have the same passionate commitment to some of those social issues that I had when I was a young man of 23. I haven’t lost that and I haven’t lost that campaigning spirit – thank goodness.”

This interview first appeared in the June 2012 edition of Housing magazine. It was subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 21 June 2012

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