Gwyneth Paltrow’s former PA is now helping refugees fleeing IS in Syria and Iraq
- Credit: Archant
Suffolk girl Gemma Cropper may have left the music industry behind, but she’s found new purpose and ‘a home’ at conflict crisis charity War Child. Elliot Furniss reports
It was a heartbreaking, eye-opening and inspiring experience – and confirmation that leaving the music industry behind and moving into charity work was the right decision.
Former Great Cornard Upper School pupil Gemma Cropper was in a refugee camp in Dohuk, Northern Iraq, meeting desperate people – many of them children – who had been captured and held by IS soldiers before escaping and fleeing to the sanctuary of refugee camps.
Families who had lost loved ones, children with no parents, some youngsters who had been fortunate enough to escape the deadly clutches of the Islamic State and its horrific regime.
Gemma, 35, was part of a team from War Child faced with tale after tale of the brutality of IS sweeping Syria and Iraq.
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“Iraq and Syria are well-off places,” Gemma said. “People had lives like us; they had TVs, houses and schools, and it’s all gone and they have no idea where it’s gone and where they will be in a month. It’s heartbreaking; they have no sense of what their lives are going to be.
“A whole group of them had all come from a small area and they had all been running out of the town and the road curved, and around the curve IS were on the other side of the bend, just rounding everyone up. It’s just devastation. It’s critical, and they need an enormous amount of support.”
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Iraqi people have suffered conflict for many years, and Syrian refugees are caught between a brutal civil war and a terrifying religious ideology.
Children are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and are in desperate need of support to help them come to terms with what they’ve experienced.
And that’s where War Child comes in. The charity works closely with young children across the world who have been affected by conflict – victims of rape, kidnapping, beatings, torture and extreme neglect, many of them orphans or separated from their families.
The effect conflict has on children is devastating and we are seeing them being targeted directly more and more in wars around the world.
War Child focuses on three key areas – emergency response, education, and livelihoods training.
The aim is to create safe spaces in emergency situations where children can seek refuge and counselling, schools to help them return to education, advocacy to help ensure their voices are heard on the worldwide stage, and opportunities to learn vocational skills and help them earn a sustainable income in the future.
“We try to help people rebuild their lives so they can support themselves. We want to make sure that they don’t rely on us once we pull out ? it’s about making a sustainable change.”
It might seem like an unexpected switch, to go from working with some of the pop world’s biggest artists to spending time with orphans in far-flung war-torn communities, but it was a move that Gemma had been planning for some time. She grew up in Suffolk but left Edwardstone for London in the late 1990s to undertake a music management degree, building on her passion for live music and plenty of invaluable work experience during the summer holidays.
After graduation she took on roles at Virgin Music as a plugger for artists – helping to get them airtime or media coverage – before working for management mogul Simon Fuller, which saw her involved in the launch of the solo careers of some of the Spice Girls and early Pop Idol runners-up Sam & Mark.
She spent several years working for more edgy acts, as a plugger for the likes of Editors, working for Rough Trade, before a spell as a PA for Hollywood star Gwyneth Paltrow.
She moved on to become a PA for Bill Roedy, chairman of MTV, working for his Staying Alive Foundation, where she got her first taste of charity work.
“It was supposed to be an eight-month maternity cover role, but eight months turned into two-and-a-half years.
“Then I was contacted by EMI, who were doing an auction for the Japanese tsunami appeal and, again, two days turned into three years.
“That was an amazing time and for the auction we had fantastic lots from all the artists – Daft Punk gave us a Ferrari, David Guetta gave us the laptop he wrote his biggest hit on, Katy Perry gave us a cupcake trampoline from her live show and Jane Birkin donated her very own Birkin bag, which went on to fetch more than £100,000.
“After that, I came to War Child and I feel like I’ve finally found my home.” Gemma has also visited War Child’s operations in Uganda and says that she’s seen first-hand the positive influence that artists can have and the impact they can make in a crowded marketplace in which charities have to operate.
“Part of my mission here is to have high-profile supporters in to help. The power they have is vital.
“We recently worked with Carey Mulligan. She went to Jordan with some of our staff. She is a person who, if she speaks, people will listen.
“I just know how powerful their voices can be if they speak in the right way.”