Charity Is being human
“Unashamedly Occupy Space”
My name is Ije McDougall, I am a mum, a sister, a friend, a human resources professional, a family court magistrate, a motivational speaker and charity worker. Most importantly however, I unashamedly occupy space as a black woman living in the UK.
I grew up in Nigeria as the eldest of three siblings. I was lucky enough to be born into a family where both my parents had good jobs as newsreaders.
My childhood was normal up until the religious crisis in Nigeria. Nigeria is a harshly divided country and relationships between tribes and religions were fraught.
Due to my parents coming from different tribes being well known to the wider public because of their jobs in the media and living as Christians in a majority Muslim area, my family in particular were increasingly in the spotlight.
At eight years old, my family and I were forced to evacuate our town because Boko Haram were going house to house killing non-Muslims. My safety always felt threatened from this day onwards. After this my family went through life adapting, I learnt how to blend in order to keep myself safe.
I went to university and got my degree. Then, I completed national service working as a news reporter. In Nigeria, once you have completed national service there is an expectation for women to get married and start families. However, my parents wanted me to expand my horizons, and so through the church I was sent to Birkenhead, England, to do charity work. However, I was othered and treated differently because of my race.
It was through this work that I met my then partner, and got married. I thought It would be easy to build a family and be married but it did not work out that way for me. I was a victim of domestic abuse, I had no family and no job in England. There was no one to protect me. What’s more, having come from a conservative background in Nigeria, I did not know that leaving the situation through divorce was an option.
When I was finally able to leave the situation I became homeless. One day I was walking along the road crying and a man stopped me to ask if I was okay. I thought it odd and told the man that it was none of his business. He gave me a card with his number on and told me that if I didn’t feel safe then I should call the number. I was in a really tough spot so I ended up calling him. It turned out he was looking for a lodger, and I was able to stay at his house whilst I looked for a job.
I got odd jobs as a cleaner and as a data entry clerk, but I came to this country with so many hopes and dreams, but here I was, down and out and ashamed. This was not what I had planned.
I then saw an opportunity for a media studies course for unemployed people, so I applied and got in. I threw myself into the course and I did not want to waste what I had learnt. I decided to go directly to the BBC office in Liverpool and just ask the receptionist to employ me.
Obviously she looked at me very strangely, She then said “that’s not how it works, apply online”. I didn’t quit and was adamant that I wanted to speak to someone. The best she could do was give me the email address of the assistant editor. I emailed the editor and managed to get two weeks work experience. Off the back of this, I worked my way up and eventually became a BBC producer.
That journey taught me that in life you have to make your own opportunities. If you ask for something, someone might say no. But if they do say no then you have not lost anything. But if they say yes then you have gained everything. Now, there is nobody I will not send an email to or walk up to if I want something. That is not because I am confident but it is because I have got nothing to lose.
I have felt a lot of survivors’ guilt and shame in my life. This is because I escaped religious persecution in my country and my parents are still there. The town in which I grew up in is now deemed unsafe to live in because of Boko Haram. As a result, I started a charity called The Kairos Initiative and we support victims of Boko Haram, we have been up and running for three years now. We have taken over orphanages, providing food and clothes to those in the orphanage and street children. We also teach self-sufficiency by training apprentices as makeup artists, hairdressers, joiners and carpenters.
I also have two daughters, an eight year old and a five year old who are both mixed race. My daughter was four when she came to me and said; “when ‘pink’ men run out of ‘pink ‘women to marry then they have to make do with ‘brown’ women.” She said it so innocently, and it was obviously something that children at school had told her.
This was horrifying to hear; my daughters are mixed race and I vowed not to have them grow up thinking that they are a last resort. They deserve just as much space as everyone else. As a result of this, I trained to be a family court justice. I wanted to see more global majority people occupying space, and having agency within the community. Today I occupy more space and I am not ashamed.
Now, I do talks about identity and equality and diversity and share lived experience about living as a Black woman and as a survivor of domestic abuse.