November 27, 2015 admin

An eighth of a glass

‘Our main area is West Africa, but we were also asked to work in Ethiopia,’ she said. I was in a café in town with one of the leaders of Tree Aid. Having run a half marathon to support them, I wanted to learn more about their work.
‘Ethiopia’s a mountainous country; at the turn of the century forty per cent was forest. Now that’s just two per cent.’ ‘You mean in 1900?’ I asked. ‘No’, she said, ‘2,000.’  Drought had famished the flat lands, so the government moved the population to the hills. The trees were cut down for living space; the soil was washed away and the land became stony. ‘We work with villages and local leaders. They care, because the trees bring food and income. In Ethiopia we’re planting apple and pear orchards. They thrive there; the fruit’s considered exotic and fetches a good price.’
When people realise that the trees are bringing them a living, they plant other species too, good for birds and animals. It turns out that TreeAid works with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Species migrating from Britain have been dying out, because the forests in Africa have been disappearing.  
I left the meeting inspired. It was like witnessing creation: the turning of bare land into green spaces, the return of the birds and animals, the chance for people to thrive.
I walked past Southwark Cathedral to City Hall, to hear the speakers at World Jewish Relief’s dinner. Chief Rabbi Mirvis told of his visit with WJR to Macedonia, where buses with refugees were arriving every ten minutes. We get it wrong, he said, if we translate the verse from Grace after Meals as ‘I have never seen the righteous forsaken’. That would be a downright untruth. What the words really means is ‘I’ve never just stood there and watched when people were left desperate. You get up and do something. You help’.
Fergal Keane told of his many visits to Rwanda. I met this girl, he said, who survived the massacres by hiding under the bodies of her parents. She was emaciated when they found her; she’d lost her arm. When I went back a year later I expected her to have died. But tenacity and love saw her through. Last year she sent me a letter; she’s studying law in The States.
I was in Paris last week, he continued. I was walking down the street when I saw a café full of young people dancing, dancing with all their strength. ‘We don’t yield to hatred’, he concluded: ‘We never give up on life and we never give up on love’.  
On Wednesday night I was back in town for ‘The Great European Refugees and Migrants Debate’ at Intelligence Squared. The suffering, the numbers, the fears, the perplexity over how to cope: the issues were all raised. But it was Lord Paddy Ashdown who summed the matter up: It’s complex, he acknowledged, and we have to think carefully. But if you don’t welcome refugees, if you just want to keep them out, you end up erecting fences and barbed wire. When you put up fences and barbed wire, you lose your humanity, and when you lose your humanity anything can happen’.
Yesterday I helped conduct the funeral for Raymond, the father of David Altschuler. (Our thoughts are with all the family). David spoke of his father’s quiet gift for finding and spreading contentment: ‘Imagine your glass half full’, he said, ‘Then pour it into a smaller glass’.
If we poured even a quarter or an eighth of what is in our glasses into the cups of those who face drought, or floods, or war they would be full to overflowing.
We’re not here on earth to be indifferent.

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