Teddies for Tragedies

21 Jun

Just decided I would write a quick blog to make people smile this morning, and remember that although sometimes it seems otherwise, there really are good people out there. Although some people may take the last seat on the tube, slam the door in your face, or rage at you for parking badly, there are still ‘Teddies for Tragedies’.

Some of the teddies we took to Jordan with our team T-shirt

Unknown to most, there is a worldwide network of women who knit teddies for children in need, purely out of the goodness of their hearts.

Teddies for Tragedies connects women who knit teddies, which are made to a strict pattern and regulated to ensure they are safe for children, with those who are going out into the developing world (often gap-yah students!). Groups exist in other countries, from Canada to France, and even Malaysia!

I first came across the organisation last year when I was going to work in Jordan, and one of the ladies read my friend’s advert in the local newspaper asking for donations. A couple of emails later and a parcel of brightly coloured and adorable little teddies arrived express delivery in the post. They had been knitted by a school club for grannies and their grandchildren, which I thought was particularly special. My own gran was so touched by the women’s efforts that as a pro-knitter she couldn’t resist adding her own teddy to the pile.

One of the delighted recipients of the teddies

We gave the teddies to children along the way who literally had nothing. One to a hostel owner’s son, some to the deaf and disabled children with whom we worked in a remote Bedouin community, and all those left over to the children’s cancer hospital in Amman, where they were received with delight.

I find it touching that these women (and no doubt men) put so much effort into knitting these lovely little teddies, without any expectation of knowing where they will end up, but happy in the knowledge that they may make a child somewhere smile, even for a minute. I will be taking teddies with me to India in two weeks time- and am awaiting a delivery of forty to see how many I can cram into my backpack! The rest will go with my sister to Morocco where she is volunteering next month.

I suppose the motto of ‘Teddies for Tragedies’ is: ‘Helping bring smiles all over the world’.


Ladies (and gentlemen’s) day at Royal Ascot

17 Jun

Copyright Ben Russell/ INS News Agency Ltd

Thought this photograph was worth of a blog post in itself. Men behaving badly at Royal Ascot- and chair legs and champagne bottles become weapons of mass destruction. Apparently the fight began over a blonde lady in her twenties.

Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields

16 Jun

As someone passionate about development and current affairs it would seem wrong for me not to write at least one blog on the issues exposed in Channel 4’s ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’.

A beautiful but troubled island. Photograph courtesy photobanana.

The documentary covers the final weeks of the Sri Lankan civil war and shows unprecedented violence, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Among other horrors, mobile phone recordings of the mutilated bodies of sexually abused women, children cowering from shell attacks, and hospitals deliberately targeted by government troops were shown in their pixelated grotesqueness. It follows on from Channel 4’s broadcast of footage back in August 2009 allegedly showing government troops executing Tamil prisoners, and more images last November.

The Sri Lankan government continue to insist that the footage and evidence shown is fabricated.

700,000 tuned in to watch- a startling figure, bearing in mind the late weeknight slot (11:05pm onwards). People clearly care and want to know the truth- or were they merely lured in by some of the sensationalist advertising beforehand?

I think the film raises interesting journalistic questions, particularly with the violent nature of the images broadcast. Where does the balance lie between denying civilians the right to a respectful and peaceful death, and showing images that can, and have, prompted the UK to renew calls for an independent investigation of the crimes that occured?

Channel 4’s Head of News & Current Affairs Dorothy Byrne, who commissioned the programme, says:

“The footage is probably the most horrific the channel has ever shown. The decision to show it at length was made only after serious and careful consideration. We believe this dossier of visual evidence combined with harrowing eye-witness testimony represents prima facie evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by forces of the Government of Sri Lanka. It is of the greatest possible public interest and as such we have a duty to journalistically scrutinise it.”

I am unsure where I stand in the debate. The footage was so extreme that I was frequently compelled to look away, but that is all too easy to do, and I suppose it is what the whole world has been doing in the case of Sri Lanka. In some ways it is important that we pay testimony to the horrors experienced- unlike the UN representatives who were marched away from the area despite the pleas of civilians for them to stay and watch. However I wonder whether it was necessary to show quite the extents of the brutality- I, for one, had made my mind up about the Sri Lankan government long before the worst scenes were shown.

The other interesting question which was raised was why the world has turned a blind eye to Sri Lanka, when the Arab spring and Libya have continued to capture the media imagination? Perhaps it is because the Tamils died alone and obscured, unlike the triumphant flag-wavers across the Middle East who protested their way to recognition.

My greatest mantra, and one that keeps me trying to be a journalist even in the days when I feel there are no jobs and it is useless, is:

‘Journalism shines light into corners where there would otherwise be darkness’

I feel alternately inspired by journalists who go out there and change the world, and frustrated with an audience that sometimes just doesn’t want to hear. This programme is essentially a triumph by this mantra, as it has prompted the British Government to renew calls for an independent investigation, and perhaps encouraged the UK to engage momentarily with something a little more stimulating than Eastenders. I think everyone should take the 60 minutes needed to watch ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’, as a respect to humanity.

However the long term question remains- is it enough to actually make anything change?

You can access ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ here.

More vaccinations- a developmental triumph?

14 Jun

An extra £814million will be put aside by the government to vaccinate more than 80million children against diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhoea, David Cameron announced today.

The news was unsurprisingly met with mixed reactions, with opinions veering between those who want to ‘save the world’ and others who feel that the UK has its own problems to solve right now.

The main ‘problem’ is that the UK is committed to reaching a target of giving 0.7% of our national annual income towards international aid by 2015. Despite economical problems and cutbacks elsewhere (the news that a London council was to start charging for usage of its playground springs to mind), Cameron remains determined that we shall do this.

Many point out what seems obvious to them- “charity begins at home”. We are a nation bombarded by images of starving African children, of drought ravished landscapes and mourning mothers. With a flip of a coin these are transformed into images of children laughing, holding bowls of grain, celebrating thanks to the aid of the British rich.

If only it was this simple. Although I feel proud that even in a time of economic difficulty we will not forget fellow mankind who live in absolute poverty, there remains a huge hypocrisy in the illusion of generosity. It is hard to promise money, and more vaccinations to make those postcard children smile, but there are harder things.

If we are going to see meaningful, long-term development, leaders like Cameron need to ask harder questions. They need to take into consideration the impact now and one day of climate change and the growing lack of food, and limit consumption and waste here. They need to accept fairer trade rules, and force international giants to be more socially responsible.

I can illustrate my point briefly in this case. Gavi (the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations) was in serious financial difficulties because of the high prices major pharmaceutical companies demanded. Last week some drug companies announced they were reducing the cost of vaccines. It seems ironic that we cannot reduce these prices still yet further, when the British taxpayer pays the price for the drug company barons to sit on their golden coins.

Today was a victory in some ways for the millions of children whose lives will be saved by what is in reality a minimal act of British generosity. However I, for one, would like to see fewer ‘hand-outs’ and more question asking about what real sacrifices we can make to improve the development outlook for the world’s poorest and end the cycle of poverty once and for all.

Sunday morning scribblings on bus walls…3 ways

5 Jun




I couldn’t resist taking a photograph of this modern day love letter. The print-out, complete with appalling spelling errors, was pinned to the grimy wall of a bus stop near Clapham Junction.

It may be the English Literature student in me but I think the letters have all the makings of a ‘Rom-Com’ (Romantic Comedy for those not in the know. French boy meets girl on the bus on ‘Saterdays night’; they start talking, share laughter and touch each other’s lives, however briefly. It isn’t clear how they parted but Mr Bonjour woke up and his princess had gone, and although he searched for her, he could find no trace. The next morning he printed posters and stuck them at the bus station where he last saw her, in the hope that she may remember him too, laying bare his personal details for any London stranger to contact him.

I can get more psychoanalytical if you prefer (this was my favourite technique at university). The entire experience represents a dream- a French boy on a bus, a little under the influence, drifts into a dream, meets a girl, falls in love…but he wakes up and he is alone, on the bus.

However, I suppose, this being London, it is more likely that some poor guy’s friends thought it would be funny to print his mobile number and plaster it in the most visible place possible, and watch the strange calls he receives as a consequence.

It doesn’t really matter how you interpret the sign, because the reality is we will never know what really happened. However the presence of the signs certainly caused a stir with passengers waiting at the bus stop this Sunday morning, as lovers cooed, a young mother showed her children, and a tramp spat dispassionately.

Being a romantic at heart, I think I will stick with my first interpretation…





An eye for an eye?

26 May

In a literal application of Sharia law ‘an eye for an eye’, a woman blinded in an acid attack by a jilted suitor has been granted the right to fulfil revenge- by pouring acid into his eyes.

Ameneh Bahrami was a beautiful student with a successful career ahead of her when Majid Movahedi threw a jar of acid in her face as she walked home from work. The fellow student, who she claims she ‘barely knew’, had asked for her hand in marriage several times before threatening her over the phone. Although Ms Bahrami went to police, they were unable to act until Mr Movahedi caused reason for concern.

courtesy of Bp4

The story that follows is harrowing and can best be understood by listening to yesterday’s BBC World Service ‘Outlook’ telephone interview with Ameneh. The Iranian hospitals were unable to treat the terribly injured woman, who was transferred to Barcelona. When her money ran out, she ended up in a homeless hostel and lost the sight in her remaining eye. Having lost everything, on her return to Iran she decided to invoke Sharia law.

Although courts have granted her permission to drop acid into Movahedi’s eyes, an international outcry from human rights groups and governments has postponed the punishment. My colleague wrote an interesting blog which can be read here in opposition to the ruling.

However, not unusually for me, I would like to be controversial on this one. Ameneh expresses on the interview linked above that her reasoning is not for revenge, but as a warning for other would-be chemical attackers. She actually remembers how her attacker gloated that whilst she would have to live in pain, he would probably just be hung. Ameneh’s life has been destroyed; she will never marry, and her only fame will be for her disfigured face. Movahedi’s attack was pre-meditated, evil, designed to obliterate her life. Why should he have the right to live- or to die- without the pain she will face for every waking moment of the remainder of her life?

Ameneh’s proposed punishment has an unusual clause, of which I was at first cynical but now makes almost ingenious sense. She has promised that if 2 million Euros are laid on the table on the morning of the punishment, she will not blind Movahedi. This is not a demonstration of her greed, or her valuation of a human life however; she has included the clause to prove how easy it is for human rights groups and governments to speak up to condemn her, but to show how much harder it is for them to actually do anything. As she says “human rights groups just talk” (and on another point, someone who has destroyed another’s life in this way surely has a very questionable claim under human rights).

Ameneh knows that 2 million Euros will not be laid on the table, and is exposing the hypocrisy of those who criticise her attempt to exact revenge.

There are major moral difficulties involved in her proposed punishment, however. Movahedi will be anaesthetised whilst he has acid dripped into his eyes, but although Ameneh wishes to carry out the punishment herself, her blindness will prove too much of an obstacle. The main difficulty is that no doctor, sworn under the Hippocratic oath to protect their patients, should be asked to inflict such an act, and the Irani government have failed to find one who will do so. Although Ameneh has received many emails from people offering to do the terrible deed, the terrible Catch 22 of the blinded being unable to blind remains the final hurdle for her achieving her justice.

So my thoughts on the matter- an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We may be living in the 21st century, but Movahedi committed a prehistoric act. And in a part of the world where women are still subjected to unacceptable subjugation, to allow him to walk away unpunished has far greater implications for the future of human rights by suggesting that the instigators of such crimes should be protected.


24 May

Those who know me may be surprised to know that I come from a very sporty family. A father who was a varsity rugby player, a sister who was school sports captain, and a mother who high-jumped for Yorkshire. Oh, and a couple of horribly good racquet-playing grandparents just to top it off.

Even more surprisingly, I am not actually bad at sport myself. I was on every sports team (not a shining star, you understand, but I was always in the lineup somewhere) and even gave college rowing a pretty convincing go at University.

To be honest the reason why I haven’t quite ‘made it’ in my sporting career is largely down to a lack of motivation. I can’t entirely see the attraction of getting all hot and sweaty whilst wearing fairly unflattering sports gear. However, since I moved to London I have slowly watched my health decline with rushed snacks of crisps and ready meals whilst under work deadlines.

My classmate Miranda inspired me to go and try out Zumba, the latest craze in ‘grexercise’ (group exercise, apparently). Zumba was invented by Alberto Perez back in the early 1990s: an aerobics instructor who forgot his tapes. His only option was to use whatever music he had in his backpack, mostly traditional Latin salsa and merengue music. The class was a great success and Zumba was born.

When I arrived I was surprised to see women of all shapes, sizes, and ages crowding into the old-school gym hall, and rather smugly assumed I would be able to dance them all into oblivion. Once the music started all awkwardness evaporated, as our bouncing blonde Australian instructor got everyone hip-swinging, bumping and grinding to the Latino tunes.

As I tried to keep up to the rapid beats I looked right and saw a granny enthusiastically rumba-ing, twisting her wrists like a salsa dancer. The dance combines basic rhythms like merengue, salsa, cumbia, reggaeton, belly dance, flamenco, tango and samba into a workout that is utterly infectious- I didn’t want to stop dancing!

I would recommend Zumba to anyone looking for a fun, communal way to improve fitness- and judging by the way my muscles felt afterwards- tone up too!