The news of the brutal murder of British MP Jo Cox slowly filtered through the closing ceremony of the Brussels European Development Days conference last night (16 June) – an event which, as a former head of Oxfam, she would have felt entirely at home at.
Cox, 41 and a mother of two, was brutally stabbed and shot to death after a surgery meeting in her native West Yorkshire on Thursday afternoon.
Although her life was cut short after barely a year as an MP, her years of work for Oxfam turned the close of the event into a shocked daze for many of her former colleagues.
Oxfam’s 20 or so staff had been planning a team dinner to mark the close of the conference. What had been planned as a reward and celebration of 48-hours hard work turned into an impromptu wake.
A minute’s vigil was held before Executive Director Winnie Byanyima spoke to dazed colleagues about the work Cox had done in her eight years at the NGO – including an early spell in Brussels.
This morning, stunned workers at Oxfam’s Rue de la Science offices said the mood was “quiet and deeply sombre.”
Cox had worked in Brussels after graduating for MEP Glenys Kinnock, before joining Oxfam where she worked from 2001-2009, first in Brussels and then, ultimately, New York.
In a rapid succession she went from working on trade reform, to head of policy and advocacy back in the UK, until becoming head of Oxfam’s international humanitarian campaigns in Manhattan.
Her husband, Brendan, worked until recently for Save the Children, meaning that the couple were well-known in the development world.
Jacqueline Hale, Save the Children’s head of advocacy in Brussels, knew Cox during her time at Oxfam – the pair were of the same generation, both working for major NGOs and with the added connection that both hailed from West Yorkshire.
Hale said today, “I just want to say how much I admired her. As a trailblazer, and someone destined for greater things in her political career.
“I hadn’t seen her so much since she became a MP, but at Oxfam she was so sharp, so bright and an inspiration for all of those who knew her. She was funny and focused, a dedicated professional – a group of us would go out mid-week, but she would be at her desk early or in a breakfast meeting the next day and on top of things for Oxfam.”
“A lot of us know her husband, Brendan. He put out a beautiful statement last night honouring Jo, and I would like to echo those sentiments – that ‘we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.'”
Sally Copley, who works for Oxfam and – like Cox – stood to be a Labour MP in the 2015 election. Again, like Cox, she was born in West Yorkshire.
In a Facebook post, she wrote, “I first met Jo a few years ago at Save the Children, when we were looking for someone to help us progress our work on domestic child poverty. I was completely in awe.
“Jo is exactly ten days younger than me, and we both grew up and attended grammar schools in West Yorkshire. Jo’s life and work were amazing. She held such important roles and achieved huge changes for so many people. All the wonderful things you have heard people say about her in the last 24 hours are true, she was a very rare and special person indeed.
“And Jo was also the loveliest person, she had so much to offer and no hesitation in doing so. She stood tall for what she knew was right, and in doing so she inspired many, many others to do the same. That she has been taken from us so horificaly, so abruptly and so soon is something we should never accept. The most vulnerable have lost a powerful friend and champion today.”
Those personal memories of Cox were echoed by the official statements put out by Oxfam and Save the Children, which reflected her passion and idealism.
Oxfam colleague Max Lawon called her “a diminutive pocket rocket from the north. She was as a ball of energy, always smiling, full of new ideas, of idealism, of passion. She gave so much to Oxfam.
“She was an inspiring leader, really bringing the best out of all of us, always positive, always believing we could win, and always passionate for change. She was particularly brilliant at bringing huge energy to our campaigning around the desperate humanitarian crisis in Darfur”
Oxfam GB’s Chief Executive, Mark Goldring, said:”Oxfam is proud of the role that Jo played in our work over a decade. Many of our colleagues remember her fondly. The rest of us followed her work with admiration. She never lost her passion for peace, justice and equality.
Cox also worked closely with former PM Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah on campaigns against preventable deaths in childbirth in the developing world, and the pair led the official tributes to her last night.
Brown said he and his wife’s memories “will be for ever scarred by this moment.”
“Jo Cox was the most vivacious, personable, dynamic and committed friend you could ever have. Whenever you talked to her, the compassion in her eyes and the commitment in her soul shone through. Years of public service advancing the causes she cared passionately about should have been ahead of her,” he said.
“Sarah and I were privileged to work with Jo and her husband Brendan over many years and in her tireless efforts on behalf of poor and desolate children and mothers. She she went to some of the most dangerous places in the world. The last place she should have been in danger was in her home community.”
Sarah Brown added, “I am heartbroken. Jo had a truly remarkable spirit and passion that shone through in her work with Oxfam and with me on our countless campaigns for women and children.
“Jo cared about everybody but she reserved a special place in her heart for the most vulnerable and the poorest citizens of the world.
“She was fearless, she was endlessly upbeat and she reached out to so many to join her cause. Her mission was to make the world a better place.