TRIBUTES have flooded in from across the country following news of the death of Penny Walker, the ‘inspirational’ founder of Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre and Coventry Peace House.
Suffolk-born Penny, a tireless campaigner on homelessness, non-violence and supporting displaced migrants, died of cancer on Friday (May 21) aged 70 at her home in Highfields, Leicester after a 15-month illness.
She is survived by her two children, Mel Read and Charlie Walker, and grandchildren Brooke and Lilly Rea.
Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre (CRMC) director Toni Soni said, on behalf of all staff, volunteers and clients: “It is with a heavy heart and great sadness that we have been informed about the loss of Penny Walker. Our thoughts are with her loved ones at this difficult time.
“Penny was an inspirational, courageous and positive woman who dedicated her life to helping others and campaigning for peace.
“We at Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre – and many people in this city – would not be here today without her.
“From humble beginnings in the back of a Hillfields laundrette, it was Penny who founded the Coventry Refugee Centre in 1998 through which the present-day CRMC emerged. A place she built to help those escaping war and persecution to secure safety and rebuild their lives.
“Her compassion and welcome to those seeking sanctuary was unwavering, as was her determination and solidarity to stand up against the injustices marginalised communities in Coventry faced.
“Although Penny had moved out of Coventry in 2011, she actively continued to fight for and support vulnerable people.
“We were delighted when she attended the opening of our new home in 2018 – two decades after her act of kindness and goodwill planted the seed through which our charity grew.
“She was a true embodiment of Coventry’s spirit as a city of peace and reconciliation and her legacy is one which will live on in the countless lives of those she touched upon and improved for the better. She will be missed and never forgotten.”
On hearing the sad news Sabir Zazai, former director of Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre, now CEO of the Scottish Refugee Council in Glasgow, tweeted: “Today I mourn Penny Walker, the person who gave me shelter, clothing and she proudly stood up for rights of others seeking sanctuary in #Coventry. Penny set up Peace House and @CRMCCov. She was a courageous campaigner for justice, human rights and peace. Her legacy will live on.”
Sabir travelled to the UK as a refugee on the back of a lorry from war torn Afghanistan. He arrived in Coventry, aged 22, owning just a pair of trousers and a shirt, unable to speak English.
Penny encouraged him with his education and together in 2014 they launched a peace campaign that went global – Fly Kites Not Drones. He has since been honoured by Glasgow University for his humanitarian work.
Mehru Fitter MBE, a member of Coventry Multi-Faith Forum said: “I was saddened by the news about Penny Walker’s death.
“I had a very long association with Penny, whom I came to respect and admire a lot because of her pioneering work in Coventry. Penny was passionate about her work with refugees and asylum seekers.
“She had a very good grasp of the trials and tribulations of people who had to flee their homelands and start life in a new country.
“She did her utmost to counter the negativity experienced by new arrivals. She devised programmes which projected a positive image of people seeking sanctuary.
“Penny ensured that new arrivals participated in Positive Images Festival, a community-led festival. During one of our festivals, she arranged a litter pick. People in the area were delighted to see a litter-free area. But more importantly, they were impressed to see newly arrived people giving something back to the community.
“Penny’s legacy continues in Coventry through the sterling work of Coventry Refugee & Migrant Centre and other organisations which provide advice, support and information to refugees and asylum seekers.”
In an obituary written by David Fish, from Coventry Lord Mayor’s Peace Committee and Richard Johnson, of Leicester Campaign against nuclear weapons, Penny is described as “an 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.”