Sarah Pybus

This tribute was written by our Chief Executive, Sandra Horley, CBE:

Sarah, our dear friend and colleague, played a huge part in Refuge’s success and her unexpected passing has left a great hole in our lives and our organisation. Sarah was passionate about women’s rights, human rights and the right to live in safety. She believed in fairness and had a strong sense of justice.

Sarah came to Refuge as a strategic consultant on a temporary basis in November 2003. She was only supposed to stay six weeks but ended up staying 16 years. When Sarah left with Neal for Vienna some years ago, she still continued to work part-time for Refuge from Vienna and later from Romania. This part-time work turned out to be pretty much full-time – we were constantly calling Sarah for advice. She was a fantastic wordsmith and we often relied upon her to help us phrase important papers.   For the past few years Sarah never even bothered to charge us. She also paid her own air-fares to meetings in the UK – such was Sarah’s generosity and devotion to the cause of Refuge.

Neal has told me that Refuge was Sarah’s life, but in reality she was also our life – she was our problem solver, one could even say fixer. This may suggest that Sarah was a rather dour individual – nothing could have been farther from the truth. Sarah was gregarious and witty – we shall all remember her infectious laugh at social gatherings and even during important meetings.

In the early days I soon spotted Sarah’s fantastic negotiation skills and asked her to take over a particularly difficult partnership negotiation. Sarah embarked on her task with great skill and charm, reducing misunderstandings, building rapport and discovering common ground. After a tough negotiation, which lasted a few years, she eventually reached agreement for which we were all extremely grateful.

Sarah could engage well with anyone from whatever background they had come and she was, to use an old-fashioned word, ‘kind’, to all those she met. She was especially kind to her three Norwegian forest cats and even a few strays from time to time, so much so that often towards the end of an over-long Skype meeting with Refuge, Sarah would start dropping hints and abruptly end the meeting saying, “I have to feed the cats”.

Sarah had a huge intellect, honed, no doubt, by her education in France and the LSE. With her wit and charm Sarah was able to use this intellect to devastating effect in deflating pompous politicians and difficult bureaucrats and we were always glad to have her on our side. Sarah was able to think on her feet and ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ never left her lost for words.

I am Canadian, but Sarah taught me ‘English’ by which I mean that my rather direct Canadian approach had to be mollified under Sarah’s tutelage. A phrase of hers that sticks in my mind is “I agree with you” – a phrase, of course, only to be used when you profoundly disagree with what is being said! It took Sarah a long time to train me, but I am not sure I will ever pass the exam. It always worked best when Sarah was by my side, sometimes kicking me under the table.

I want to say a few words about Sarah’s huge contribution to Refuge. We wouldn’t be the organisation we are without her. Sarah never sought the limelight. Rather, she steered the Refuge ship through troubled waters from her desk in Tower Hill or else from her kitchen in Vienna or Romania. Sarah was a much loved and valued colleague. She rarely missed a meeting and was a great support to me, and the senior management team, and Pauline, my PA, all of whom enjoyed her company and respected her enormously. Sarah played a key role in our business planning. In spite of funding cuts, she helped us move forward, offering invaluable ideas and innovative solutions. Sarah’s advice was often insightful and correct, although like a good general, she knew when a battle was not worth fighting. In short, she was the eminence grise behind Refuge. Thank you, Sarah.

In the written tributes I have received from Refuge colleagues, there are recurring themes such as:

“She was a friend and confidante, we shared many tears and laughs together.”

“She had human rights running through her veins.  I admired her humanity and passion for justice”.

“I will always remember Sarah’s joie de vivre”.

When I last spoke with Sarah, we had been working on Skype all day long – she was helping me prepare for a difficult meeting.  She asked me to call her to debrief when it had finished. We were speaking from the car on my way home about the meeting and the next steps. Neal kissed her goodnight, knowing we might be at it for hours, as often happened. Sarah was very much her jolly self. She said she had just been having a lovely conversation with her mother and father and was really looking forward to coming to London the next day to participate in the anti-Brexit march. We had a long, cheerful chat and that was the last time I ever spoke with my dear friend and colleague. Sarah was there for me, through thick and thin. I will always miss her.

In spite of all that I have said about her many achievements, Sarah was – above all – our friend.