Christian couple bring world of experience to Norwich
Andy and Rosie Sexton have lived and worked all over the world, seeking to give people on the edges a brighter future. Since moving to Norwich in 2010, they have translated this experience into helping refugees, asylum seekers and recovering addicts access a better life. Jenny Seal reports.
Between them, Andy and Rosie Sexton have lived in Australia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda and America. Nine years ago they settled in Norwich.
In 2011, Rosie founded English+, a charity that runs English classes in Norwich for refugees, asylum seekers and people who are isolated because they don’t speak the language.
Andy is the CEO of drug and alcohol misuse charity the Matthew Project; mentoring and running Bible studies for refugees in his spare time.
They became Christians as children and worship at Holy Trinity Church Norwich. Andy grew up in Australia. Rosie grew up in Kenya and, as a teenager, went to Norwich High School for Girls. Both of their parents served as missionaries in Africa and both saw their parents putting their faith into action by serving the poor.
Andy met Rosie in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in 1996. Rosie was supporting market traders and rural people with business training and help to access markets. Andy was volunteering on a project educating children and young people about HIV and AIDS.
It wasn’t quite love at first sight – Andy’s hair was too long and Rosie wore the wrong type of dungarees – but they overcame these setbacks, and have been on a long-distance journey together since.
The pair lived happily in Zimbabwe until 2004. Andy worked with Scripture Union and then Tear Australia developing projects for homeless children. When his visa became un-renewable, he took an international role for the Christian charity Oasis and, with their two young children, the family moved to Uganda.
From here Andy travelled the world, from Bangladesh to Brazil, supporting teams on the ground setting up projects to help vulnerable children. Rosie raised the family in Uganda and did part-time work consulting with international development organisations.
Andy said: “It was a good life. But we felt less integrated in Uganda. It was harder to get to know local Ugandans. We really liked knowing some of the language in Zimbabwe and feeling part of the community.”
In 2008, they moved to Los Angeles where Andy studied for a Master’s degree in Leadership and Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary and Marshall Business School. Rosie home-schooled their children and became a ski instructor, fulfilling a dream she had had since school.
“We lived in mission accommodation in L.A. with people from all over the world,” Rosie said. “It was fascinating, I loved it.”
In 2010, their daughter was just about to start high school and they had to decide where to live next. Andy had taken a role as Associate International Director with Oasis, which could be based anywhere. Rosie was keen that their children should have an identity in the place where they held a passport. “I thought that citizenship was a privilege,” she said, “and it was important that they have some sort of roots.”
Rosie’s parents lived in Ketteringham so the family settled in Norwich. Andy said: “I could fly from Norwich to Schiphol and from there onto anywhere. It was a good move for us. It couldn’t have been better.”
Rosie studied for a TEFL qualification (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), while she and the children settled into their new life. One fear they had moving to Norwich was that it would seem too monocultural, but Rosie soon found that wasn’t the case.
“I got to know of some of the families who were here from Africa,” she said. “For me that was great because I felt very much at home in Africa. They started talking about how isolated they were, and how difficult English was”.
She decided to set up an English class at Holy Trinity Church Norwich. Rosie said: “We just had four students from two countries. My mum helped me and a few other people came along to see what it was about.”
Now, eight years on, English+ is an independent charity that runs four free classes across the city attended by around 150 people each week. Rosie said, “Our focus is on refugees and asylum seekers, but anyone is welcome. We have people from 46 nationalities who come.”
“We have people coming who have just arrived in Norwich, who have nothing, and they’ve been here just a few days. There are also people who’ve been in England for 10 years and have no English. People come who are isolated and often lonely, due to lack of English. People don’t have a label in the lessons. You walk in the door and you’re just there to learn English. Everyone always says the atmosphere is so welcoming.”
There are language classes, a conversation class and an art and craft class plus specialist initiatives to build confidence and support integration such as driving theory support, cultural projects, volunteering initiatives and referrals to expert agencies for issues such as benefits, housing and immigration. There is a team of 40 volunteers along with a few part-time staff and Rosie.
“The challenges that people come with are quite tough,” Andy said. Rosie agrees: “There is a big emotional toll that goes with it. But you feel it’s an enormous privilege because people trust you. You can walk alongside people in difficult journeys and that’s a real honour.”
Andy worked internationally with Oasis until 2016 and then took a short-term contract with Norwich School developing a Leadership programme. In his spare-time he started meeting with refugees, mentoring them in both matters of faith and employment. Then, in 2018, he put that on the back burner and took a role as CEO of the Matthew Project where he is developing their new Next Steps Recovery Centre on Norwich’s Oak Street – a place for those in recovery from addiction to access support and training for employment.
Here in Norwich they continue to do what they have always done around the world. Andy said: “I’ve always been very justice orientated and people orientated and interested in other cultures. It’s just intrinsic to me as a person.”
Rosie said: “It’s funny to think my life’s more multi-cultural in Norwich than it was when I was living abroad. All the skills and experience I’ve picked up, I’ve found I’ve been able to use in Norwich, which I never expected. I think we are called to show Christian love. I was always interested in people and I’ve had a very cross-cultural life so, for me, this is natural.”
Find out more about English+ at www.englishplus.org.uk and the Matthew Project at www.matthewproject.org