20th Jan, 2022

OBITUARY - Pair pay tribute to 'inspirational' Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre founder Penny Walker

Editorial Correspondent 26th May, 2021 Updated: 26th May, 2021

PEACE activist and campaigner Penny Walker was the ‘inspirational’ founder of Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre and Coventry Peace House.

David Fish, a member of Coventry Lord Mayor’s Peace Committee, and Richard Johnson, from Leicester CND, pay tribute to her life, non-violence activism and outstanding contribution in supporting this city’s homeless asylum seekers:

“Penny Walker, who died of cancer aged 70, after a 15-month illness on Friday May 21 in Highfields, Leicester, was a mum, grandmother and extra-ordinary campaigner for non-violence, sustainability and peace in South Warwickshire, Coventry and Leicester.

Every project Penny started was ahead of popularity, but each would be mainstream eventually.

Born on October 23 1950, Penny grew up in Lindsey, Suffolk. Her father was a conscientious objector and teacher, her mother a secretary.

As a 17-year-old, she ran away to Gretna Green and married a friend – to avoid going to university and staying at home.

Over the next 30 years Penny worked as an occupational therapist aid in mental health, a house parent at a residential school, and gained a counselling diploma. Penny was an early green party activist and adventurous – she travelled with her family overland to India for nine months.

In 1996 she  spent focused time visiting communities around England in order to understand “what community meant” – this ultimately led to the creation of Coventry Peace House.

In 1997, age 47, Penny lived for a year in a caravan outside the Alvis tank factory in Coventry to witness for non-violence and hopes for alternatives uses of the technology.

In 1998 she set up a sustainable housing co-operative from five tiny terraced houses on a main road – raising money to make the block more usable.

This was and still is Coventry Peace House.

In 2003 Coventry Peace House Education Trust began – running environmental and inclusion projects.

Coventry Cycling Centre opened in 2004 teaching bike maintenance and selling recycled bikes to local cyclists.

In 2005 she helped open a night shelter in this community space for ‘destitute refugees’ – welcoming 20 different people every night, 11 months of the year.

Coventry Peace house hosted community groups, migrant support, exhibitions, workshops, writing, films and discussions. Work here also involved statutory organisations – from the council, police and NHS – and became hugely well-known and respected for such a small organisation.

Penny also worked with her neighbours from litter picking to canal art to prevent vandalism and bring-and-share summer picnics for all in local parks.

She even brought a van and set up a vegetarian food-making and delivery service.

In the early 2000s Penny made second-hand clothes available to refugees newly arrived in Coventry from the back of a shop in Hillfields and set up Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre which in 2020 helped more than 4,000 people.

Penny truly lived her values out in her life. People noticed her compassion, positivity, energy, and commitment.

Penny led and helped Coventry to become the welcoming city for refugees and asylum seekers that it is today.

She retired from Coventry in 2011 and moved to Highfields in Leicester, where she wrote and edited a number of books.

Penny was an organiser for a national campaign against armed drones – ‘Fly Kites not Drones’ – and chaired the East Midlands regional organisation for Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

She was arrested protesting – trying to stop armed drones bombing in Afghanistan – and worked with the Afghan community in Leicester and peace activists with links in Kabul.

Penny not only had so many good ideas and was so creative in her activist thinking. She made all these events actually happen, sometimes by raising money, but always by enthusing, co-ordinating, encouraging others and leading from the front.

Penny is survived by her  children, Mel Read and Charlie Walker, and grandchildren Brooke and Lilly Read. She will be greatly missed.”

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