Blog Diversity

Two Voices: National Refugee Week

ACTO directors Olivia Djouadi and Adrian Rhodes reflect on their different experiences

National Refugee Week takes place the 19 – 25 June, in recognition of World Refugee Day on 20 June. The week-long events are a festival celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary.

In celebration of this event, ACTO invited two directors of the Board to write about their personal experiences. Here are their respective stories.

Olivia Djouadi

Olivia Djouadi is a qualified psychotherapist and a decade ago married a refugee from North Africa. She shares her experience of being married to a refugee including the political issues they faced around people’s attitudes towards immigrants and immigration.

Olivia: I met my partner and we fell in love straight away – indeed, four months later we were married.

Being now married to a refugee, I was a bit taken aback by the views expressed by many people about immigrants. At the time, I was a student doing an MA in British politics and I was hoping to work in Parliament. I was stunned that so many negative views existed still to this day, particularly given our experiences from history.

It was a very difficult time for me. I was studying for my master’s and during that time they sent my husband back to a war zone which Britain deemed safe. My tutors gave advice but I was also told by others why we were not accepted – I was female, I had a chronic illness, my surname was my married name, and I didn’t have full time work as a student.

We were given a meeting in Tunis as my partner’s country was in a war zone; so we both flew there. Each of us had separate and very intrusive interviews that were shocking. This upset us both and we began to realise our marriage may be over. My American friends who were married to British people in the UK never seem to have this treatment. Fortunately, the interview went in our favour and after 6 months my husband was able to return to the UK to live with me.

A change of direction – working at a refugee centre

I decided to give up  my politics degree and I went in a different direction working in refugee centres in the UK in SE London.

I also recall one particular incident. At the refugee centre where I worked the then home secretary came for a visit. I was very pregnant at that time. I saw red and went rushing over as I wanted to ask if he was going to send my babies father back to a war zone. Thankfully a colleague stopped me and led me away.

My partner found work and met all the requirements asked of him.  Many however didn’t from those I supported at the refugee centres. I enjoyed my work though; I found that I had an aptitude for helping people who had  been living in war zones who had what looked like Complex PTSD. Looking back now with my experience and training as a psychotherapist, I know now this is what they had.

Another concern at the time was after 9/11 in America anyone who looked Muslim received unwarranted comments; this continued to when our kids went to secondary school. The events of 7/7 in London was another challenging period – but pointing towards 3.7 million Muslims in the UK is not fair and is discrimination.

 Adrian Rhodes

Adrian Rhodes is the past chair of ACTO, a qualified psychotherapist since the 1980s as well as a Clergyman in the Church of England. In 2022 following the invasion of the Ukraine, his family invited a Ukrainian refugee family to stay at their home in Manchester.  


When the war broke out in February last year, a psychotherapist colleague in the Ukraine sent out an appeal asking for someone to host his family whilst he stayed behind. My wife and I had the space to share in our home – and it seemed to us to be a very small thing to do – helping other people in such a tragic situation.

Arrival: first experiences of life in the UK

Six weeks later the mother and her two children – a son who is 11 years and a daughter aged 9 arrived to stay with us in Manchester. They have now been with us for a year. Whilst their paperwork to enter the UK was being reviewed, they stayed with another psychotherapist colleague in the Netherlands. On reflection, I think that this ten week delay in arriving here helped them a bit to get over the initial shock of having to leave their husband and Dad at the Polish border – on the day of his birthday.

The UK represented a place of safety, nevertheless not surprisingly this whole experience has been a challenge for all the family. The children struggled at first, especially the son, and still talk of their experiences of the war. However they can still see their dad on a daily basis online – whilst not the same, it does keep them in contact.

Fortunately we got  the two children into school very quickly and they are now flourishing.

Language has been a problem for the mum and the son. But the daughter’s English (she could speak a little of the language when she arrived) has been very good from the start; indeed, she is now fluent.

Understanding and dealing with cultural differences

One of the other challenges for them has been to get used to the different pattern of life here in the UK, and the fact that they are missing Ukrainian customs.

Holding onto their culture and identity is clearly important to the family and they have made a number of contacts with the Ukrainian community in Manchester, which is historically strong.

For us, my wife and myself, it’s been a delight having them.

What of the future?

The future obviously remains troubling and very uncertain. I feel that their main challenge – and that of many Ukrainians living here perhaps – is how to move on. It’s not easy living in someone’s home. Culturally the UK and the Ukraine are very different in many ways; and views differ, for example, on the appropriate roles and tasks for men and women. I think it was quite surprising for the mother to see me washing up as a man!

They are enjoying their life with us, and we really enjoy spending time with them. However at some point they will face the issue that refugees all face to enable to stay in the long-term, for example getting a job, building up money to pay a deposit for renting a properly by themselves.

The schools the children currently attend are good. How do they move on though? This may mean need to move schools, further disruption to their education.

Finishing on a positive note, the response from the local community has been incredible. On Christmas Day we had the doorbell ringing several times and presents were left from people we did not even know. Also, local people are inviting them to birthday parties and the family have received donations of an iPad and the like. It has been wonderful.

Blog Diversity Virtual Reality

My journey from Marketing to Psychotherapy

How Lesley Simpson-Gray overcame her challenges, specialising to work with multiple-heritages and neurodiverse clients using virtual reality

Lesley Simpson-Gray’s career began working in the field of product communications, undertaking research into people’s buying behaviour. However, starting a family was the catalyst for personal change as Lesley realised she wanted to change pace as well as reduce the time she spent working with office technology.

Curiosity and interest in how and why people do things is important to Lesley. The adoption of their daughter by Lesley and her husband Rickey – a vicar in the Church of England – provided a further turning point. As a family, they would need considerable support to cope with her emotional development. This experience was the spark to encourage Lesley to pursue a complete career change by training as a psychotherapist and helping others with their emotional needs; particularly as her own family has a history of mental health problems.

The road to qualifying: realisations and overcoming challenges

Training proved to be an experience which was challenging and at times extremely tough – but also self-discovery following a diagnosis of dyslexia and ASD. Lesley is a first generation child of immigrants to the UK, with a mixture of Nigerian, British & Irish, Ghanian and Jamaican ancestry.

Lesley said:

“A lot of that is unseen because I identify as a Black woman. Because I recognise that it is hidden to others, I’m curious about how children identify themselves with diverse cultures held within their parentage and wider families.

“As a neurodiverse trainee therapist I had an awful time – dyslexia was acceptable, but ASD stirred up a sense of taboo, a lack of safety and some shocking biases held by therapists. All of the things that we try not to show with our clients. Peers and course directors were terrified by the incorrect belief that I and all people with ASD had no theory of mind, no empathy, connection or communication skills. They wondered how I had slipped through the net and got onto the training, and it certainly wasn’t safe to allow me to qualify! 

“So consequently I stayed fairly quiet, only hinting that I had ASD and that my traits were not all down to developmental trauma.  Now, several years later, I feel it’s safe to identify as a psychotherapist who is also autistic.”

“It wasn’t safe to be different”

Several years after qualifying, Lesley is happy to speak about these experiences, her fear of not being white and neurotypical and a feeling that it wasn’t safe to be different. She felt that training organisations often did not take responsibility for the impact on their trainees at a very vulnerable time; resulting in Lesley and other students distressed and crying during many training days. Furthermore, she believes that people do not take responsibility for how they see you as a person or how they behave or speak.

Lesley continued,

“ I was seen and told at various times that I was ‘angry’ and ‘aggressive’ – the stereotypical Black woman. I was described as being ‘bitter,’ ‘hostile’ and ‘ungrateful;’ even dangerous, disturbing and unsafe. Training organisations don’t always see that their practices and micro-aggressions lead to trauma in the here and now. It’s too easy to define this as developmental trauma from the past that you need to go away and fix in order to be a safe therapist.”   

Qualifying similarly proved to be a bitter-sweet moment.

On opening the email which told Lesley that she had qualified as a psychotherapist, her feeling was one of total disillusionment rather than elation. Maybe she thought, I don’t wish to be a psychotherapist at all? The training had sought to help them as professionals to create a ‘safe’ emotional space for clients. Yet, they had been repeatedly immersed in a world that was emotionally terrifying.

Diversity and psychotherapy

According to research, people of colour have a higher risk of developing a mental health problem in adulthood; but they’re less likely to receive support for their mental health[1]. One of the difficulties faced by Black people and those from other communities is finding culturally appropriate therapy.

Lesley’s personal experience is a case in point:

“I remember how unsafe it felt to say to my first therapist that I had issues to do with ethnicity that she didn’t understand. I printed out an article and asked her to read it. She skimmed it quickly and quietly passed it back to me.”

At the time, Lesley felt that even to be able to say “I would like a Black therapist” was quite challenging; indeed, to ask a therapist what training have you done to understand my needs as a Black person?

A Black Perspective: Accessible & Inclusive Online Therapeutic Spaces

Starting her own private practice in 2017 Lesley is now an experienced Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and certified Cyber-Therapist. Her lived experience as a Black, British professional has led to her special interest in raising the profile of neurodiversity, especially amongst care-experienced children and young people with a cultural connection to the African diaspora.

Later this month, Lesley will present a webinar organised jointly by Onlinevents and ACTO, encouraging other therapists and counsellors to join her on an innovative journey using virtual therapy space. The session will invite people to think about their own journey, as Lesley shares her own experiences and how it has shaped her use of technology.

“Given my background, I am aware of what this brings to my ethnicity. It is not always easy to define, so we need to ask how do children identify themselves, how can they identify? It does not always come down to being black or white.

“Children often have many different ethnicities within their family or origin and different cultures. How do they make sense of their own identity? For example, I have a lot of Jamaican culture but I was born and raised in the UK.

“In the webinar, I hope that others will be inspired by how technology and virtual reality can help us as professionals to work with clients – of all ages – to explore and create their own environments and avatars. We’ll use a 3D model which will enable us to define, for example, our skin, the dimensions, our hair colour. These are amazing tools where  we have a blank canvas and they stimulate our imagination. Critically, these modelling techniques allow you to be curious about how you define yourself; and importantly, not to be defined by others.”

Lesley Simpson-Gray was interviewed by Simon Frost.

Webinar details

Saturday 25 March 10am – 12 midday GMT

Cost: Participants can pay a self-select fee. The guide price is £20.

For further information, please click here.


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