Our duty to the stranger: Remembering Helen Bamber

Although Helen Bamber has been celebrated as an ‘iconic’ human rights defender, the most fitting way to honour her is to redirect our attention to the marginalised and silenced people to whom she devoted her life. We don’t have to look hard to find them.

Emily Bowerman
2 September 2014

Helen Bamber OBE


Helen Bamber OBE

Helen’s lifelong ability to always speak truth to power was a quality that is rare and has inspired so many. Always working with the most vulnerable and marginalised, in the most difficult of circumstances, with Helen it was possible to stand at the edge of the world and know how to first find, and then hold an ember of life after atrocity. Refusing to be a bystander, her lifelong ability to represent those whose voices have been taken away was a rare and inspiring quality that earned her respect at the highest levels.”  (TJ Birdi, Executive Director of the Helen Bamber Foundation).

A couple of years ago, I went to hear Helen Bamber deliver a lecture entitled ‘Torture and Civilisation’. At the time, she was 86 - not that you’d have thought it - and had spent her life as a psychotherapist working with survivors of torture. She began as a twenty year old who went to Belsen to care for Holocaust victims and moved on to work with Auschwitz orphans in the UK. She became involved in the early days of Amnesty International, and then pioneered Freedom from Torture and the Helen Bamber Foundation which stand alongside people who have been through dehumanising experiences at the hands of their fellow men and women. It was a remarkable life. Although she categorically refused the definition ‘extraordinary’, on the grounds that it risked setting her apart and let others off the hook from pursuing difficult courses of action, her experience nevertheless gave her a profound depth of credibility as she shared two lessons of enduring relevance.

Helen talked frequently of the need to bear witness. Remembering Belsen and her helplessness in the face of carnage, she spoke of a woman lying on the ground, like a scrap of material in the wind, who clung on to her and ‘threw up her story like vomit’. “I cannot bring back the dead, or change history,” said Helen as she held onto this woman whose end was soon to come, “but I will be your witness and your story will be told”. This led to a lifelong commitment to speak out in the face of denial and deaf ears, to not be a bystander or one who passes by, but to be a defender of human rights: one who testifies.

The second lesson Helen taught us was how quickly compassion is born and dies. After the war, survivors flocked to Belsen – to find family and solutions – and many stayed. By the time the camp closed in 1951, a whole six years after the war had ended, its residents had ceased to be ‘victims’ and had, instead, become ‘displaced people’. The compassion that had initially portrayed them as people to care for had been replaced by an administrative label which framed them instead as a ‘misfitting’ population; in the way and unwanted. Subtle semantics, maybe, but a lesson to bear in mind as we consider the host of bureaucratic labels we bestow today upon those who are displaced and refugees: those who ‘don’t quite fit in’ the world order we have created, not to mention the pejorative adjectives with which they are often qualified.  Helen spoke out often to audiences young and old about the lack of compassion towards today’s displaced on our doorstep, from the ‘would-be refugees’ reportedly costing the tax-payer £100,000 a day, to the asylum seekers who are allegedly “living a life of four-star luxury” at our expense “while millions of Britons are living on and below the breadline.”  At a student conference a few years ago she called on the next generation to stop the tide of hatred gaining momentum in the UK towards asylum seekers and refugees.

After I saw Helen speak, someone asked if hope really was possible, given that cruelty and torture persist today in spite of all the legislation and humanitarian interventions. For Helen Bamber it was. Our focus should not be on people’s capacity for evil, she commented, but on the remarkable fact that people don’t always give into that capacity. The required response to the persistence of cruelty and suffering was, she suggested, to save individuals and to put pressure on governments, an argument she made forcefully while also exhorting her listeners to think about what part they could play in this process. As we speak truth to power, we also need to understand our own desires for control and power; to look first of all at ourselves. 

As I listened to her speak, Helen Bamber modelled so much of what I aspire to in terms of plugging away at both the local and structural levels; a woman who had a big and strategic imagination and vision, yet who continued to see people as people and made time to listen to their silences. Her phrase about ‘listening to people’s silence’ – that simple action of being alongside someone in a place of darkness and pain – frequently comes back to me in my own work with young asylum seekers at those times when words and solutions fall short.

A lecture on torture and civilisation was, in some ways, fairly niche and attracted the expected crowd of humanitarian workers, academics, and those engaging regularly with the extremes. But, as I was reminded this week when reading an interview in the New Humanist, Helen Bamber’s legacy is not just for those experiencing the extremes of humanity. Although her words and actions have inspired me personally, especially when working with Afghan teenagers who are forcibly removed from the UK to Kabul on turning 18, they also have something to say to everyone. She writes:   

 “I’ve seen extraordinary extremes of humanity, but I also see a kind of banal cruelty of indifference. But why should people who are suffering cutbacks be concerned about somebody who has seen their husband and children killed in front of them?”

It is a good question and one that will inevitably come up again in the run-up to next year’s General Election here in Britain. In a time of general economic hardship, why should we care about others, especially those who bring complex baggage from contexts so far removed from us? Why should we bother ring-fencing our international aid budget when people are experiencing poverty closer to home? Why should we engage in the messiness of the wider world when we could make our own contexts more comfortable? She continues:

“For some religion might provide the answer, but I can only answer it in terms of myself and my family: the people that I see that are no different than I am, they just had the misfortune to be born somewhere else. It’s not easy and I’m not always successful but I want to find the language to convince that we all have a duty to the stranger, to the people that we owe nothing.”

It is to the stranger that I turn in closing.

Although Helen Bamber has been celebrated as an ‘iconic’ human rights defender, it seems that the most fitting way to honour her is to redirect our attention to the marginalised and silenced people to whom she devoted her life. From the survivors of torture with whom the Helen Bamber Foundation works, to those currently detained out of sight in Immigration Removal Centres, we don’t have to look that far to find them.

Helen Bamber’s long and fascinating life speaks loudly that self-sacrifice and compassion can infuse the world with something new and transformative.  It also poses the challenge of what it means to fulfill our duty to the stranger in our own contexts: what does it look like to speak truth to power, to engage with ‘messiness’ and, in the closing words of the archetypal story about refusing to pass by a stranger in distress, to ‘go and do likewise’? Whether it’s campaigning to end indefinite detention, countering myths and lobbying for the international aid budget to be enshrined in law, or simply considering the words we use to describe asylum seekers others in our society who are so quickly maligned, it seems like there are many ways of not letting the baton drop. After all, as Helen Bamber is quoted as saying, “Our society will be judged by how we respond to those to whom we owe nothing.”



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