Laura Jardine Paterson
Philip Jenks - 3rd March 2020
The stock of put-downs available to curmudgeons is rich and colourful, but I’ll tell you this – none can stand up to a 30 minute conversation with Laura Jardine Paterson. Talking to the 27 year-old Beirut charity worker yesterday, my prejudices didn’t so much fade away as die of shame because nothing she said betrayed a hint of sanctimony or narcissism.
How about snowflake, then? Beirut is a complicated city to live in, 3-7 hour power cuts are common, loo paper doesn’t flush, politics and the economy are in turmoil and the scarcest thing in a city of general scarcity is hope – so no, I don’t think we can pin that one on her either.
“I was an Operations Analyst in London at a media agency. A friend of mine was working in a refugee camp in Lebanon and said I should visit, so I did. Within days, I knew my corporate life was over”. She laughs cheerfully.
Since 2012 a million Syrians have poured into Lebanon, a country of only 4.7m before the influx, still recovering from its own civil war and with an already struggling infrastructure. Laura started teaching English and maths to young refugees, and the experience had a profound effect on her.
“Families have nothing, but they give you EVERYTHING,” she says.
Only that morning she'd complimented a shopkeeper on his gloves (yes, Beirut can be cold) and the man insisted that she have them, even though he needed them for his motorbike ride home.
She made another discovery during those first few months, a sliding-doors one: helping refugees gave her a billion times more satisfaction than she ever got - than she ever could imagine getting – in her job in London. So she did the rational thing, jacked in the media agency, and in 2019 moved to Beirut permanently.
“Yes, I love it here. I’ve never felt happier. I love my job and that I have an impact. Once you get to know the refugees, once you hear how their lives have been wrecked through no fault of their own, it becomes personal.”
For Laura, it's a matter of basic humanity – she can’t go back to chasing dolla in London after seeing what she’s seen. It would be meaningless.
I ask if she is motivated by faith. She laughs, “Oh no, I’m not very religious.” What about politics. Is she fired up with Arab zeal? “You can’t live here and not be politically aware – everyone talks about it all the time – but I’ve never been political. For me, it’s about the people.”
"FAMILIES HERE HAVE NOTHING, BUT THEY GIVE YOU EVERYTHING."
Does this, I wonder, make Laura an incredibly good person compared to those of us who do relatively little (bugger all) to help the disadvantaged?
The question keeps popping into my head but I don’t put it to her because a) it’s a bit cringe-y and b) it’s obvious what her answer would be.
Far from signalling virtue, she stresses how much she gets from Beirut, not how much she gives. She reels off its splendours - the warmth of the people, the sublime weather, the unbelievable food, the live-for-the-moment attitude. It infuriates her that the media portray the city as a basket case, and I admire the way she defends its dignity. It’s like: Yes, I’m here to help but I’m the lucky one.
“That’s exactly the point,” says Laura. “IT skills allow our students to work remotely for companies abroad while the Lebanese economy rebuilds, and if they get an exit visa, they can find work in their new country.”
Thirty students pass out of Codi every six months. It hasn’t been going long so there are only fifty alumni, but 89% of them are now employed. Considering the youth unemployment rate, that’s exceptional, but it’s also fragile, especially for the Syrians.
Her solution is to spread awareness about Codi to UK start-ups looking to outsource web development. I think of the IT requirement at Jenks&Co and wonder if I’d entrust it to a team in Beirut. Maybe for isolated tasks which are not mission-critical. It would be a case of trying them out. Laura is realistic. She knows the challenges, but also knows how much her alumni have to offer: they are super-capable, knowledgeable and hard-working.
She isn’t asking for charity. She’s making a cold, hard proposition: next time you’re outsourcing work – not just coding, but graphic design and database building too – get in touch and find out what her pool of talent can do. Judge them on their merits.
I can’t deny – I’m massively impressed by this resolute, life-loving, do-gooder. If your business has a project which Codi can help with, please contact Laura at firstname.lastname@example.org.