Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Woman of Worth and Distinction

HELEN BAMBER, who has just died aged 89 in London, was a little woman who stood head and shoulders above politicians and governments. A woman of worth, who worked to help the survivors of persecution and suffering, and was not afraid to stand up to their oppressors.

Helen grew up, Helen Balmuth, in an ordinary, lower middle class Jewish family in Amhurst Park, north-east London; 'ordinary' except that her parents took an interest in ideas and the world around them, and her father, an accountant by day, worked with others at night, Jews, Quakers or whoever, finding ways to help refugees from Nazi Germany.

Helen heard their stories, and also heard the ranting voice of Hitler on the radio. She was also aware of the activities of Mosley's British fascists -an aunt was among those fighting them in London's East End. During the Second World War, she did not have to think too hard to imagine what would happen to her happy family if the Nazis won and conquered these islands. "We knew about the concentration camps", she said. Then as the war turned, she decided to do something, despite her own childhood illnesses which had necessitated a stay in a sanitarium.

Training as a nurse, she volunteered to work with a relief committee, and at the age of 19, went into the newly liberated Belsen concentration camp.

For some years after the war, survivors remained in the camp, many unfit to travel, and with nowhere to go as they recovered. Young Helen Bamber learned not only to care for people who had suffered all sorts of horrors, but to listen to their stories, as part of the healing. She carried on listening and thinking about what she saw and heard, while the rest of the world learned to turn a deaf ear as it turned to other business.

For most people, the experience of a stint like that might have been enough to satisfy conscience and recount in later life. But not for Helen Bamber. Returning to England she married a Jewish refugee, and worked with children in hospitals, as well as raising two of her own. She was one of the founers of the National Association for Children in Hospitals, which introduced the idea of letting mothers stay with a sick child.

In 1961, Helen Bamber was one of the first people to join the new Amnesty International, and became chair of the British group. In 1974, she helped establish the Medical Group within the organization and went on to do research on torture in Chile, the Soviet Union, South Africa and Northern Ireland.

In 1985 the Medical Group members left Amnesty, and set up the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. They acquired premises in Kentish Town a couple of years later, and as time went on they worked with thousands of patients, from over 90 countries. Such is the world we live in.

By 1995 the Medical Foundation had 42 staff, including a psychiatrist, a woman physician who worked mainly with women who had been sexually tortured or raped, a child psychotherapist, a family therapist, caseworkers, a lawyer and fundraisers. It also had the service of over 75 volunteer health professionals - physicians, surgeons, medical specialists, psychotherapists, osteopaths, art therapists and children's art teacher. It was able to give help and advice to people working in other countries. But as Helen Bamber told me, it also took advice and help itself, from refugees and immigrant community groups, familiar with the conditions and cultures from which people had come. .
Helen, who had qualified as a psychotherapist, was director. Sometimes she found that, as with the Belsen survivors, having someone to listen was as much part of their successful tretment as any specialist medical care. Then there were needs for after-care, and advocacy. A couple I knew from Iraq Kurdistan were delighted when they were found an alottment to work, in Alperton.  In 1995 when I visited the Medical Foundation one Saturday afternoon there were mothers arriving with toddlers, and a children's art class beginning. 

After the madness of war and state prisons, and the desperate flight, a gentle easing into 'normal' life. But governments are not so understanding.  As Helen Bamber told me when I interviewed her in 1995:
 'The Medical Foundation documents cases of torture, sometimes in support of an asylum claim. We have become increasingly concerned about the Government's restrictive measures in dealing with asylum seekers. We are concerned that people who have been tortured may be hindered in their attempts to reach safety and, once here, will face procedures which could result in their being returned to face further torture and persecution.

'We know that this has happened in some cases, with grave consequences, and we are deeply concerned for our clients. We have made our views known to the Government, the media and the public, and we will continue to do so.

'Sometimes when I read headlines I'm reminded of the 1930s. "Lock up camps for migrant cheats"; "Bogus refugees"; "Illegal immigrants". All these terms are created to confuse the public so people no longer understand that refugees are entitled under international law to seek asylum if they have a well-founded fear of persecution."
When Helen Bamber was awarded an OBE in 1997 she accepted the honour, not so much for herself as for the work she and her colleagues were doing. If nothing else such recognition might assist the Medical Foundation in fundraising.

Helen also received other awards, including honorary degrees from a dozen universities, and in 2008 she was declared Jewish Care's Woman of Distinction.  By then she had stepped down from the Medical Foundation and then, at the age of 80, in response to changing patterns of global violence and an increasingly hostile political landscape, set up the Helen Bamber Foundation, to expand from work with torture victims to helping those who had suffered other forms of human rights violations, such as human trafficking and gender-based violence. (Wikipedia)

Whatever the necessities of winning support from those with "respectability" and resources, Helen Bamber never abandoned the mission she had given herself in Belsen, of supporting all who suffered injustice and ill-treatment, against torture, by whomsoever it was inflicted. That included reporting on torture by the Israeli military and security services of Palestinians, supporting the Mordechai Vanunu campaign, and lending her name to both the Jewish Socialists' Group and Jes for Justice for Palestinians.

Truly a woman of worth and distinction.


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