“I had a lot of money, but in a sense, there’s more in what I do now than in that”
The first question Lea Beven asks me is, “Do you want to take a caravan to Greece tomorrow?”
I have literally just met her. and this is what she asks me – if I feel like driving a campervan for 80 hours, through 11 countries, to take it to a Greek refugee camp after crossing a continent. By any chance.
I stutter – what?
“Would you take this caravan down to Idomeni tomorrow?” she repeats. Her voice is cheerful and high-pitched, but also somewhat flat. “I can assign you a co-driver,” she pauses, “if you need.” I must look appalled.
Again I falter. Then her phone rings – I’m safe.
This is Lea Beven: projects that could look unrealistic and unfeasible to some people are rather normal to her. She doesn’t understand why I’m hesitant to take that caravan to Greece.
Since September 2015, Lea collects vehicles on their last legs and donated caravans in Telford, Shropshire, spruces them up, and takes them to refugee camps, where they are set up as anything that can relieve asylum seekers’ lives – homes, infirmaries, kitchens.
Lea is well groomed, with long hair and a fringe cut just above her blue eyes. She is over six foot tall – almost imposing with her boots on – but speaks in a warm, high-pitched voice. As she talks, she welcomes customers, sorts out clothes, organises packages to send to refugee camps.
Hitting the road
Until August 2015, Lea didn’t know much about Calais or the refugee crisis. She was in a caravan with her three-year-old son Harrison when she saw clips of the Jungle on social media.
“I had bought a caravan to give Harrison the chance to travel, learn about the world,” she says.
“When I saw the photos of flooded tents and children in a muddy puddle, I thought something was wrong. That couldn’t be Calais – where I got my wine from.
“Then I thought, is it right for me and my son to play in our spare home while families are living in these conditions? I decided to take the caravan to the Jungle, and gave it to a family who needed it more.”
So Caravans for Calais began: after her own caravan, she had two more donated in the first 24 hours. Then more came, the first volunteers joined, and in six months Lea has been able to send over 150 caravans to refugee camps all over Europe, and raised over £80,000.
In March, after the Southern half of the camp was dismantled and Lea started sending caravans and other vehicles to other refugee camps in Europe. She recently went to Greece, and is looking for someone to take a caravan to Idomeni, near the Macedonian border.
The project’s name changed to Mobile Crisis Support Units, and Lea started a clothes shop, Pre-Loved Treasure, and a community interest company, Shropshire Loves, to fund it.
Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to think Lea is just a benevolent millionaire sharing her wealth with her community.
Her physical appearance gives you the same impression: in her jacket, between a phone call and a text, she looks like quite the business woman. But she isn’t a business woman – or at least, not anymore.
Hitting the ground
Lea used to be a tycoon, then lost almost £10 million.
Right after her boarding school days, she had a lightning fast career in the property business. She bought her first house at 19, straight after school. At 22 she bought the second one, then a third one at 24. Then came another, and another, and she wouldn’t stop.
“By the time I was 32 I had 44 houses with my second husband,” she says. “I managed a £9.5 million portfolio, spoke at conferences and held seminars for professionals. But in 2005 I decided I couldn’t do it anymore. I realised the stress wasn’t worth it, it wasn’t giving me anything.
“There was a lot of money, but in a sense, there’s more in what I do now than in that.”
So she gave everything away, and went bankrupt.
She went from managing £10 million to poverty, and to having to use the food bank. Meanwhile, went through depression, and also divorced from her second husband. She only recovered after the birth of Harrison, her now three-year-old son.
She says the experience of the food bank made it natural to feel for refugees, asylum seekers and other people who suffer. “After I felt it on my skin,” she says.
There is a contrast about Lea. She is calm, caring about guests and customers, and measures her words patiently when she speaks. Yet there’s an inner strength in her. She is tough and decisive, and has an ability to focus and succeed easily. No matter what she needs, she’ll find it in no time. Need a free warehouse to use as headquarters? Check. Need to raise £15,000 in a day? Check (easily). Three caravans by the end of the week? Well, check.
Around the warehouse, many admire her.
“She’s special,” a visitor tells me. “It’s amazing what she’s done, and the fact that she’s done it almost on her own.”
“Take care of yourself,” a person bringing donations tells her. “We need you, you are precious.”
Yet not everybody likes Lea, and she has to fight plenty. In January, she explains some volunteers tried to take the project in a different direction – “hijack it”, she says. She opposed it and they had to leave.
One of them, Dave King, went on to found Jungle Canopy, a project with the same targets. He doesn’t want to talk about Lea very much. When I asked him what went wrong, he said he refused to talk about it.
Lea’s projects drew other kinds of hostility, too – she says she’s fallen out with her best friend because of different political views, and had several arguments with former neighbours who protested against her caravans.
She fights back mostly alone, just as she is when she deals with parenting, the shop, the coordination.
But Lea is combative, and can handle it.
“When people try to pull me down, I keep doing what they have a problem with: only harder, faster, bigger,” she says.
“After all I’ve been through, I feel I’m invincible.”
And after all she’s been through, it’s easy to understand why suddenly deciding to pick up a caravan you’ve never driven and taking it through a continent, for 80 hours non stop, crossing a dozen borders is not actually a big deal. It’s only a few extra miles.
This article was first written in March. Present tense refers to then.