Robert was born on 11 February 1953, together with his twin brother, Francis John, at the British Hospital for Mothers and Babies in Woolwich. His father, the Rev. Francis Patrick Bellesme Ashe, was Vicar of Blindley Heath, Surrey. His mother is Marion Islay Johnston, the daughter of the Right Rev. Frank Johnston, Bishop in Egypt, and later Assistant Bishop of Guildford.
Robert and his parents moved to Otley, Yorkshire in 1956 together with Lois Mary, his elder sister, and John. In 1961, he and John went as boarders to Dean Close Junior School, Cheltenham, where they won scholarships to Christ’s Hospital (CH) at the age of thirteen. He left CH in 1970, and entered the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, after doing a one-year practical working experience on a farm in Warwickshire.
After gaining his agricultural diploma in the summer of 1973, he joined a small voluntary organization called Project Vietnam Orphans (PVO) in late 1973 and worked in their team in Saigon, South Vietnam, amongst orphaned and abandoned children. Medically evacuated in 1974 after a severe attack of amoebic dysentery, he went back to farming in England. Just before the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Robert returned to Viet Nam to help PVO.
After PVO was forced to leave Viet Nam, Robert went to Bangkok, Thailand, in 1975, and started working amongst Cambodian refugees. He, with his sister Lois, opened a home in Bangkok, and looked after twelve refugee children until they were adopted.
Robert then started work on the Thai-Cambodian border in refugee camps, and continued his work under PVO, which became known as Christian Outreach, directing a team of volunteers sent out from England. He was often the witness to terrible things that happened on the Thai-Cambodian border, which he sometimes wrote about.
From 1979 to 1980 he was seconded to the International Committee of the Red Cross. He was responsible for planning a cross-border operation, known as the “Landbridge“, taking food and agricultural tools into Cambodia. In mid-1980, Robert was awarded the MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his work among refugees.
Shortly after news of Robert’s award was announced, he was captured by Vietnamese troops who had invaded Cambodia. He was marched about 25 kms inside Cambodia through torrential rain and with no shelter at night. After three days he was freed, and allowed to walk over the Aranyaprathet border bridge back into Thailand. Later, he wrote the story of his experience:
While working on the border in 1979, Robert rescued a Cambodian lady, Var Hong and her two small daughters, Somaly and Panita. They were married in 1982 at the home of Dr. and Mrs. R. Merryweather in Paradise, Painswick. Robert ghost wrote Var’s story of her life under the Khmer Rouge, which was published under the title “From Phnom Penh to Paradise”.
In 1983 they returned to Thailand and Robert worked for Food for the Hungry International (FHI) as their Field Director covering Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh. While there, their son, Peter Patrick, was born on 17 April 1984. In 1984 Robert moved to Geneva, Switzerland, for FHI, and in 1986 he joined the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as their Programme Officer in the Sudan. After two years in Khartoum, he became the Head of the UNHCR Sub-Office in Showak, East Sudan. In 1989, he moved back to Geneva for UNHCR and became the Chief of their Programme Coordination & Budget Section in 1991.
Robert’s marriage broke down in 1991, and after two years of separation, the marriage was dissolved in 1993. Peter went to Aldro School, near Godalming, as a boarder, and spent most of his holidays with Robert in Geneva. In 1995, Robert moved with Peter to The Hague, Netherlands, as Head of the UNHCR Liaison Office. Peter attended the British School of the Netherlands. In 1996, Robert was recalled to the UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva to head up their change management programme.
In 1997, Robert became engaged to an Indonesian lady, Aam Zamila Dachlan. Peter, and Aam’s son, Joel, and daughter, Julia, attended the International School in Geneva. After graduating, Joel went to the University of California in Los Angeles where he gained a degree in Chemical Engineering in 2004. Joel now works for an environmental company in California. When Peter graduated, he moved to Exeter University in the UK to study Economics and Finance. Taking a year out in 2004/2005 to gain work experience in the JP Morgan bank in Geneva, Peter graduated in 2006 and then joined Barclays Bank in September 2006. Julia moved with Robert and Aam to Jakarta in July 2002, when Robert was assigned as the Regional Representative covering Indonesia, Brunei Darussalem, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Timor-Leste (where he spent four months on mission in early 2002 to phase down the operation). Julia graduated from the Jakarta International School in 2004 and then studied International Development at Chester University in the UK. After graduating, she did a number of part-time jobs, including as a volunteer for a street children’s project in Indonesia, and now works in New York.
Robert took early retirement at the end of 2009, and lives with Aam in Indonesia. Although spread out in several countries, the family are able to get together from time to time either in the retirement home on Lombok Island in Indonesia, or meeting up somewhere in the world.