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Ex-hostage Sir Terry Waite on Hamas victims and how captivity shaped his empathy for homeless people

Waite was held hostage in Lebanon for five years. As he receives a knighthood, he explains why he wanted to share the experience with homeless people

Waite's captors placed him in solitary confinement for four of his five years as a hostage. Image: Emmaus

Spending half a decade in captivity gave Sir Terry Waite empathy for one group in particular: homeless people.

Having rebuilt his life after five years as a hostage, Waite turned his attention to helping one of society’s most marginalised groups, using his experience to improve life for those experiencing homelessness.

“If you’re on the streets you’re alone, you are victimised. I know what it’s like to be kicked around and treated as worthless,” said Waite, who was held hostage in Lebanon for five years during the late 1980s,  and is now president of homelessness charity Emmaus.

Waite was speaking to the Big Issue at Emmaus Greenwich after being knighted by King Charles at Buckingham Palace, an occasion and honour he said he wanted to share with homeless people.

“One of the good things about captivity, for me, I’ve always had sympathy for homeless [people], for the people on the margins of life. But that sympathy was changed to empathy, because empathy is to know what it’s like. And I know what it’s like for some of these men and women who have nothing,” Waite said.

“Most of them – the ones I’ve met – are really good people, really talented people. But circumstances have led them to despair – but we give them hope.”

Referencing comments made by home secretary Suella Braverman claiming homelessness is a “lifestyle choice”, along with plans to ban charities handing out tents, Waite added: “Where is the compassion for these people? What are they supposed to live in, a cardboard box?”

Working as a hostage negotiator in 1987, Waite was taken hostage in Lebanon while attempting to secure the release of hostages held by the Islamic Jihad Organisation. He spent a total of 1,763 days in captivity, four of those in solitary confinement, and was subjected to mock executions.

Upon his release in 1991, the Queen invited Sir Terry Waite to stay at Balmoral to recover.

His work with Emmaus has seen the charity expand from opening its first centre in Cambridge to its current portfolio of 30 communities, including the one in Greenwich, South London. Fresh from being appointed Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG), Waite gave a speech and toured new rooms which will help residents move on from homelessness.

After being knighted by King Charles, Sir Terry Waite was driven to Emmaus Greenwich to share the occasion with staff and residents. Image: Emmaus

Waite, who previously negotiated with Colonel Gaddafi for the release of British hostages, is also founder of Hostage International, an organisation supporting hostages and hostage families.

He said Hostage International is supporting people involved in the Israel hostage crisis, but would not give any details into the organisation’s confidential work. However, he did shed light into what their ordeal is likely to be like.

“They’ll be feeling hopeless,” he said of the hostages taken by Hamas. “The difference between being a hostage and being a civilian prisoner, a prisoner normally knows they’ve got a terminal date for their release, unless they’re doing life. A hostage doesn’t. A hostage lives with constant uncertainty, as do their family. One of the things you have to do is learn to live one day at a time. Not think too much about the future,” said Waite. 

“Live for now, and say to yourself I still have life, while there’s life there’s hope. And you keep that hope alive in yourself. Very difficult to do, and I say it having been through it. I wouldn’t dare say that if I hadn’t been through it myself. Don’t lose hope, keep hope alive. Live for the moment, live for the day.”

Offering a home for as long as it’s needed, Emmaus Greenwich also provides its 42 residents with work and a community. Meanwhile, its charity furniture shop sells low-cost essential furniture to local residents.

But Braverman’s “lifestyle choice” comments threaten to make life harder for both those experiencing homelessness and those who work to help, said Emmaus CEO Charlotte Talbott.

“The biggest concern for me is the damage these comments do to give an inaccurate impression to the public, and to further ‘other’ a group that often finds itself at the margins,” Talbott told The Big Issue.

“To be frank, a lot of homelessness provision relies on the generosity of the public, and if you’re stigmatising a group of people, is that going to affect their generosity?”

“Rough sleeping is dangerous and it’s life limiting. Nobody wants to see people sleeping on the streets, but the point is that we need to address the issues that lead to people staying on the streets, or experiencing difficulties in moving off the street. Not focusing on tents.”

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